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'Obama's White House was a mix of Veep and The West Wing'


Pat Cunnane went from intern to the former President's senior writer and the deputy director of messaging. Now he's just penned West Winging It, a fresh - and often funny - tell-all account of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, writes Susannah Butter.

In the rash of White House confessionals out this year, Pat Cunnane's book stands out. Instead of warning about the current US President, West Winging It looks back, to the Barack Obama era.

Cunnane started working there as an intern in 2010, aged 22. He stayed until the end of Obama's administration, rising to work in the communications and press team.

"I wanted to write a reminder of what politics can be," says Cunnane, who sees his book as a counterpoint to Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury Trump expose.

"It's crucial to remember that what's happening now is hopefully an aberration."

The book is packed with anecdotes about Obama, who told his staff daily that he was committed to "doing as much good for as many people as we can while we are here". Once, Obama went missing, only to be found in Starbucks trying to get a coffee by himself like normal people do.

Every day, Obama read 10 letters from Americans. "He deliberately read ones from people who didn't agree with him. The White House is a bubble; this reminded him who he was working for, giving him a perspective you can easily lose."

On his first day, Obama burst in. "He was frustrated and started talking heatedly about a policy dispute. I didn't know what to do, so I kept typing my name to look busy. I gradually became a bit more comfortable. It was a privilege seeing him when his guard was down and he was just a guy trying to get stuff done. Still, I'd usually call him sir."

Life in Washington DC was "a mix of the shows Veep and The West Wing. Veep nails the minutiae and how things can go sideways, but it was punctuated by these grand Aaron Sorkin moments of awe where you realised it was the greatest job in the world, working with smart people who were there for the right reasons."

One Veep moment came when he went to Russia for the G20 conference and was given a goodie bag. "There was a zip drive and a teddy bear inside. I knew enough not to use the zip drive, but later on I discovered that the teddy bear was potentially bugged," he claims.

Cunnane insists that his perspective is non-partisan. "It could be a Republican there next, but I'd like them to be there for the right reasons and know they are not caught up in scandal after scandal and an erosion of trust."

Donald Trump and Jared Kushner came to look around shortly before Obama left and were "completely polite". So how did Trump get in? "A lot of people, myself included, assumed people wouldn't vote for Trump, so we let our guard down. Russia played a role, Comey's decision (to investigate Hillary Clinton's emails) played a role.

"We have a weird system where actually more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton's vision than Trump, but the Electoral College meant Trump won.

"Obama certainly thought Hillary Clinton was the most qualified person ever to run for President, and did all he could to support her."

Cunnane and Obama may no longer be in politics, but their time together inspired his mother, a professor and attorney. She and his father, who is in the bicycle industry, were always interested in politics and were so excited about their son's internship that they walked him to his first day.

Now Madeleine Dean is running for the House of Representatives to represent Pennsylvania. "She thought if her 22-year-old son could do this, why shouldn't she run. It is pathetic that 20 people currently represent Pennsylvania and not one of them is a woman. She hopes to change that." But he has no plans to follow suit: "Seeing how hard she's worked doesn't make me want to do it."

These elections are being hailed as a chance to show that America doesn't stand with Trump.

"This is the most crucial midterm election probably ever. I'm proud that my mum is a part of it, fighting for progressive policies."

Cunnane is adjusting to life after Obama - to his wife's chagrin he still checks his emails constantly as a reflex left over from having to react to live news.

For now, though, he's working on scripts for political drama Designated Survivor. "It's slightly less pressure writing for a fake president than a real one. Former staffers are fans."

West Winging It is being developed for television.

Cunnane doesn't know who will play him but "hopes they will pick someone better looking than I am".

The most vivid day in Cunnane's White House career was the morning after election night 2016. "Obama called us into the Oval Office for a pep talk. He said we were still young, hope was not lost and history moves in zigs and zags. It had just stopped raining. Obama looked out into the Rose Garden and said he wanted to tell the American people what he had just told us and he wanted to do it outside because it was more optimistic. Even at our lowest, he was the one lifting everyone up."

Cunnane is positive about the future: "We can't let Trump put the next generation off politics."

West Winging It (535, £16.99)

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