BOOK REVIEW: Government Girl, by Stacy Parker Aab

The Washington memoir, in which leading members of the political establishment dish on their experiences in political campaigns or presidential administrations past, is a staple of the D.C. scene. Former presidents, cabinet members, and senior administration members, architects of controversial policies, and highly public survivors of political scandals, are almost expected to write books about their adventures, and publishers eagerly compete to sign them to six-figure contracts, knowing they are all but guaranteed to be instant bestsellers. Think Condi Rice, Sarah Palin, Scott McClellan, Henry Paulson, Alan Greenspan — not to mention Elizabeth Edwards and Jenny Sanford.

Certainly, some of these star names are sympathetic figures and have important and instructive stories to tell that go beyond soap opera melodrama. But I’m betting that most of us ordinary joes and josephines will not feel much of a kinship with folks like these, or learn anything deep and lasting that can help us in navigating our own lives and careers.

This is the invaluable asset that Stacy Parker Aab brings to the table in her memoir, out this month, about her experiences as an intern in the Clinton administration, working in the office of George Stephanopoulos, and later as an assistant to Paul Begala, and as one of the “advance people” who plan and staff presidential trips.

If you’re wondering, “Who is Stacy Parker Aab?” that is precisely the point. You may not be familiar with her name (I wasn’t, before I read this book), but she was one of the many unknown and unsung staffers who talk to constituents on the phone, read and answer correspondence, and do all the behind-the-scenes grunt work that needs to be done for the people whose names are known to everyone — and for the aides and assistants to those household names.

At its heart, Government Girl is about power relationships. As a young woman (very young — just 18 when she began interning in the White House), Parker had to learn how to negotiate the minefield of relationships with much older, very powerful, mostly male figures who had so much influence and control over her career and her professional and personal reputation.

Parker was working for Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist and adviser to Pres. Clinton, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. She saw firsthand, up close and in your face, how incredibly easy it is to travel from rising star to slut if you are a young, attractive, relatively powerless female working with powerful men. Lewinsky made serious mistakes — objectively and unequivocally. Parker makes no attempt to deny this truth. But although Parker in no way condones or excuses the choices Lewinsky made (faced with similar choices during her time in the Clinton administration, Parker chose differently), she also refuses to make the easy judgments so many others have made about Monica Lewinsky. “There but for the grace of God go I,” seems to be Parker’s conclusion about what happened to Lewinsky — not because Lewinsky lacked a choice, but because the line that Lewinsky chose to cross is so easy to cross even when you think you’ve done nothing wrong — and even, in fact, when you haven’t.

Consider this: If you are the advance person on a presidential trip and you’re sitting in the hotel lobby chatting with a Secret Service agent while you both pass the time between official events, does that mean you want the agent to phone you up in your room later and invite you to come up and sleep with him? Does it mean you want him to do that repeatedly even after you’ve said no? If, on the last day of the trip, the agent stops you as you’re walking down the hall, pins you against the wall, and tries to force your lips open with his mouth, is he justified in telling you, “I’ve been wanting to do that since the first time I saw you, and I know you wanted me to do it, too,” even though you have refused all his advances, because in that one moment in the hotel lobby while you were idly chatting, you asked his age and told him he looked much younger?

Or, consider this: If you are told by a staffer that the President wants to see you in his hotel room, and you know that’s highly unusual but what are you going to do? refuse a direct request from the President of the United States? and when you get there he invites you out on the balcony and gives you a hug, even though you have done nothing to encourage him and in fact successfully extricate yourself (tactfully and gently) from his embrace and leave the room with no rancor on either side, are you justified in hoping no one saw you going to or from his room and praying he doesn’t tell anyone or decide to take offense at your rejection even though you know you did nothing wrong? If someone did see you, or if the President decides to retaliate, who is everyone going to believe? You or him?

See how easy it is for a young, attractive woman’s reputation and/or career to be damaged or even destroyed no matter how careful she is?

Both of these incidents — and more — happened to Parker. Yet, Government Girl is not a gossipy tell-all, despite the impression that anecdotes like these mentioned in a book review might tend to give.  You never get the sense that her purpose in sharing these experiences is to titillate or shock her audience, or to discourage young women from public service. Indeed, her purpose seems to be the opposite of this. Throughout this book, Parker conveys her gratitude for the opportunities she was given to meet and work with some of the smartest, most talented and interesting people in the country. Among many other tangible gifts, the career path that began with an unpaid internship when she was 18 gave her the man she later met and married.

But as most of us know, love deepens when you’ve seen and experienced the warts. What Parker is after here is to tell about the warts with as much honesty and openness as she can. She says it better than I can:

If I have one wish for America, it is my hope that when our leaders stumble, as they will, when they hurt others and themselves, which is inevitable, that we will be as compassionate to them as we sense they would be with us if the faults were our own. Our leaders are not gods, and they are not our fathers. But they can be our best hope for peace among nations. They can lead by personal example at home and abroad. I tell these stories of my past experiences with President Clinton, his staff, his agents, and the village of folks who indeed raised me because I think it’s important to be honest about human behavior, that it’s important to forgive, that it’s important not to hold one another to unreasonable standards. That first and foremost we must strive to understand one another. If we do, our hearts can expand enough to truly accept others for the people they are, not for the flat icons we may wish them to be.

That’s the best reason for writing a Washington memoir I’ve heard in a long time.

One Response to “BOOK REVIEW: Government Girl, by Stacy Parker Aab”

  1. trish says:

    Such a fantastic review! Stacy’s right, that we shouldn’t hold people to unreasonable standards. And yet we do that all the time! How many times do we make a mistake when we’re driving, and we’re like, Oops! Sorry! but then when someone else cuts us off, we let off a slew of curse words and the person’s an idiot, a moron, etc? I don’t know who it was who said something to the effect of, “I’ll get off my pedestal but others need to get off their knees.”

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