Interview with Stacy Parker Aab, author of new memoir Government Girl
When asked if I’d be willing to review Government Girl and host its author, Stacy Parker Aab, you would’ve thought I had won the lottery. The moment was up there with the email I received almost exactly two years ago asking if I’d like to drive Chelsea Clinton in her father’s motorcade. Sometimes, when I need them most, really cool things happen to me.
I knew I was going to love Stacy’s book just from its description. A young woman working in the Clinton administration, tackling issues of sexism, scandal, and growing up? Oh hell yes, sign me up. Stacy makes writing about the difficult presidency seem effortless and even effervescent. She worked for Paul Begala? Psh, no big deal, it’s not like he’s on CNN all the time or anything.
Government Girl filled the gaping hole that “The West Wing” had left in my White House-hungry heart. It made me realize that Josh Lyman is TOTALLY the George Stephanopoulos of the Bartlet administration.
I adored every minute of Stacy’s experience working as an intern, being hired as White House staff, and paving the way for an impressive, successful life outside Pennsylvania Avenue. I adored the story so much that I’m handing over my blog to the author today for a little Q&A session.
You spent your first birthday away from home hanging out in the Roosevelt Room with George Stephanopoulos and President Clinton. Can we see the picture from that day?
I know you’re jealous of my hair and outfit… that’s George in the background.
You write: “The trouble with girls is that we don’t always know our power.” How would you suggest we harness this power?
First, recognize you have power. Too many of us think that just because we’re female and lacking in brute strength, or because we’re racial minorities or come from working-class backgrounds that this means we don’t have power. By virtue of being alive and having that God speck in your heart, you have a baseline of beauty, period. But you have to recognize this. Men and women get into trouble because they don’t recognize their strengths in a given situation.
It’s interesting how this plays out at work. Women often work hard, but they don’t go for promotions. They don’t ask for raises. They suffer from what I like to call Good Girl-itis. They sit back, silent, waiting to be recognized. The problem becomes this: if you wait for what falls in your lap, you’re waiting to fit into somebody else’s plans. You have to learn how to figure out what you want, and once you do, talk to people who have achieved similar goals, and map out a way forward.
Another “power” problem is when we push ourselves on each other in sexual ways. Sometimes we know what we’re doing, but sometimes we don’t—or we’re coyly aware of it, but feel cheated in some other part of our life so we rationalize our pushiness as OK. Every time I turn on the TV, I see pretty little vixens who use and abuse and act like this is the best way to be a power player. I can imagine some young women watch these characters and think that’s the only way to get ahead. Well, maybe that way of life works for some folks. But I advise against it. Why? Because if you live like that, you’ll be facing that karma every single day of your life. You will be used and abused as well, and probably in spectacular fashion. Why perpetuate that kind of negativity? Luckily I worked around people who showed me that you could be a good, helpful person and still get ahead in politics. You didn’t have to manipulate, or exploit your sexuality to be powerful.
Though it’s not exactly a tell-all book, did you have to go through any kinds of White House approval processes? I mean, I love our government, but I wonder how “Big Brother” it is sometimes…
No. Maybe if I’d had a higher security clearance, or exposed intelligence reports or national security decisionmaking it would have been a different case. However, I did share chapters and galleys with several people who are in the book. I did want to hear if they thought I got anything wrong, or if they had issues with how they were portrayed.
What was your most excruciating experience in Washington? We understand that when the Lewinsky scandal broke, there was a sense of “head-down-barrel-through” but aside from that, were there ever days where you just wanted to pack your bags and fly home? What made you stay?
Actually, my worst experience had nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky or any of the scandals that plagued the administration: my pain was self-inflicted. In the chapter “Truth, Lies & Background Checks” I wrote about being caught in a lie during my second FBI background check.
I went through the FBI process twice: once when I was 18, and again when I was 23. The second time, I was proud to be truthful, thinking it was the right thing to do. When asked about drug use, I provided the details of each time I had experimented in high school. I submitted my forms and thought no more of it—or at least thought, well, if I got in trouble, at least I was honest. The worst consequences are for those who lie and get caught.
But what I forgot was that when I was 18, I had not been as forthcoming. I fudged my answers. Drug use could be a deal-breaker and I was scared of losing this unbelievable new opportunity I had: a White House internship in the West Wing. So I had lied the first time around—but forgot all about it. And the FBI agents caught it. I was questioned and I was in shock, for not only did I suddenly risk both jail time and job loss, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember how I’d answered the question back in 1993. My memory shut down. It wasn’t until years later did I remember what really happened, and how I had lied to protect my internship.
The FBI and the White House Counsel’s office let me off with a stern warning. But before I knew this was would happen, I was scared to death. Would I be charged with lying to investigators? Would I lose my job, and do so in disgrace? The only reason I survived my fear was because I felt the deep support of my mother, my friends, and of my boss Paul Begala. No one made me feel that because I made this awful mistake that I would lose their love, their friendship, or their kindness. That meant the world to me, and gave me the confidence to know that even if I was in trouble, at some fundamental level, I would be OK. I would not be lost. I was able to go back to work and keep performing.
One last note: I often get asked whether or not I would go back and change anything about my White House experience. I flashback to being grilled by the FBI agent and think, yes, I would like to take my fudged answers back. But in the next moment, I think no. I can’t do that. Why? Because it was through this experience that I learned my most crucial White House lesson: that at any time in your life, you may be called to account for any of your actions. So choose your way wisely. Avoid lying. Avoid fudging. Avoid skimming off the top. It will come back to you and most likely at the worst possible time. Especially in politics.
You describe meeting one of the White House speechwriters and the fact that she, too, was a young woman close to your age. You allude to feelings of inadequacy; you’re a smart woman, too, but you hadn’t moved up the ranks quite so quickly. What advice would you give to twenty-something women who feel they’re too good and too smart in a seemingly dead-end job with so much potential to be recognized?
Man, I was such a hater in that scene! I’ll say this: it can be very hard to keep feelings of professional jealousy in check. Really hard. Especially when you feel trapped in your job.
When you feel stuck, I think the first thing you need to do is clearly assess your situation. Do the people around you see you as an assistant, period, and will never promote you, or are there avenues for advancement? I was jealous of a speechwriter back when I was Paul Begala’s assistant. In Begala’s office, there was no opportunity for promotion off the support staff track because all he needed was an assistant. But in the White House proper, there were definitely opportunities, especially the longer one stuck with the administration: there’s always turnover, and it accelerated the longer the president was in office. People who started off assistants, by administration’s end, had become spokespeople—but they did so by sticking with their work, performing well, and seizing on opportunities as they arose.
So yes, complain and moan to your friends. And don’t feel bad that you get mad when they print salaries and people your age are making more than you. You’re allowed to have your feelings. But as soon as you can, start to formulate goals. Work on an exit strategy. There is no reason for a high-performing 20-something to feel that they have no options, because that simply isn’t true.
Now what, Stacy? You have a lifetime of living already under your belt. Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 20?
Ah…well, let me begin by saying that ever since I left full-time White House work, I’ve had one major goal: to be a full-time writer. I’ve had a lot of crappy temp jobs and I’ve been scarily under-employed trying to give myself enough time and energy to become a decent storyteller. (I have also spent years teaching creative writing to kids, which has honestly been the best work I’ve ever done—not as glam, but just as rewarding as my White House work.) So I’m hoping, praying that I’m now on the cusp of my dream being possible. In ten years, twenty years, I hope you find me writing, and continuing on with my personal projects, such as my Katrina oral history project (www.thekatrinaexperience.net). I also enjoy blogging (www.huffingtonpost.com/stacy-parker-aab), and I hope to keep writing about what concerns me out in the world. As you know, too, I have always dreamed of TV & film, so if I can finally get that script for Mr. Spielberg, maybe now I have some stories worth putting on the screen.
I’d like to end by saying thank you for hosting me, Renee, and that I really enjoy your blog. Keep up the excellent work! Looking forward to seeing where your writing life takes you…
Stacy was an absolute gem to interview. Our email chains went on and on. She is genuinely interested in the stories of others. (I NEVER expected the author of a book I’m reviewing to ask me what MY dreams and goals are!) If this book isn’t right up your alley like it was mine, just know that the author of this book could be your bff any day of the week. Special thanks to TLC Book Tours for hooking my blog up with a copy of this fantastic book. I am flattered and grateful!