“West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House” catalogs the experiences of 18 political staffers during the Obama presidency. Its powerful anecdotes are testaments to the positive impact governmental leadership can make. The stories written by Gautam Raghavan, Leah Katz-Hernandez, Cecilia Muñoz and Michael Strautmanis stood out to me as particularly inspirational.
Gautam Raghavan’s decision to come out as gay during the 2004 presidential election, in which Jeb Bush and Karl Rove used their positions on marriage equality to divide the country, was “as political as it was personal.” Not unlike today, the simple opportunities that should be guaranteed to everyone were hotly debated and consistently denied to members of the LGBTQ+ community. When unrest comes to a boil, problems stuck on the back-burner demand attention and action from change makers like Raghavan, and his part of the story is a necessary addition to “West Wingers.”
When Raghavan first heard Barack Obama speak on TV in 2004, the senatorial candidate’s perspective on America’s political divide stuck with him: “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states.” Although Obama was opposed to gay marriage at the time, to Raghavan, these words attested to his clear-eyed vision and love for the country he dedicated his life to serving.
After working on Obama’s 2008 campaign, Raghavan became the associate director of public engagement and liaison to the LGBTQ+, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Raghavan’s faith in the administration was often clouded, but never overshadowed by the setbacks they faced in the following years, such as the passages of Proposition Eight in California and Amendment One in North Carolina, which prohibited same-sex marriage in each state, respectively.
Slow progress, but progress nonetheless, is a common thread in “West Wingers.” During his career as a liaison, Raghavan witnessed Obama’s and Biden’s support of the LGBTQ+ community gradually shift to outspoken allyship, a change that developed through conversations with loved ones and getting to know queer couples and individuals. Nationwide marriage equality is a perfect example of how the government can uproot generational injustice when people in power and ordinary citizens demand change.
Obama gave the country a necessary reminder when he said, “attitudes evolve, including mine.” Patterns of prejudice can be broken over time through the power of exposure, education and conversation.
Exposure is also essential to understanding and destigmatizing disabilities. In her “West Wingers” anecdote, “Imagine Joey Lucas,” Leah Katz-Hernandez — a former White House intern, receptionist and member of Michelle Obama’s communications team — is often compared to Joey Lucas, a deaf campaign manager and pollster in Aaron Sorkin’s political drama series, “The West Wing.” After personally thanking Marlee Matlin, the hard-of-hearing accessibility advocate who plays Lucas, Katz-Hernandez recognizes that Joey Lucas is no longer a work of fiction, but a reality — a result of imagination, which precedes change because it realizes hope and opportunity through challenging the status quo.
In her time at the White House, she had not been treated any differently than a hearing person because proper representation had readied the world for a real Joey Lucas. Something as simple as imagination can lead to representations of disabilities and, consequently, to the placement of people with disabilities in the government, where they can ensure that their community is never left out of the conversation.
Like in science and technology, imagination in politics redefines what is possible. Cecilia Muñoz, an immigration expert, was one of the “West Wingers” who worked on legislation to protect undocumented young people from deportation amidst widespread xenophobia. The disheartening opposition she faced every day seemed impossible to overcome.
Although the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) proposal never passed, and DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) hangs by a thread in the Trump administration, Muñoz concludes that the time, effort and risks required to reform immigration in Obama’s White House was more than worthwhile. She, the president and their team, who all shared the same passion to help undocumented youth, were closer to true reform than any other. Further, each victory counted because, as Obama often said, they “moved the ball down the field” and replaced old solutions with better ones.
Clearly, the new administration has no interest in progress. But all administrations end, and poor ones can give way to good ones that do not neglect or oppress the vulnerable, but empower them. This is what “West Wingers” co-author Michael Strautmanis set out to do, guided by his friends, colleagues and mentors, the Obamas.
Even though he still had to prove himself as a Black man from Chicago, moving from the South Side to the North Side allowed Strautmanis the opportunity to use talents that might have been overlooked if he had stayed put. Keenly aware that “not everyone has the ability to take their talents and gifts and pursue their hopes and dreams,” Strautmanis studied law and ended up back in Chicago to lead a White House mentorship program to reduce youth violence and interaction with the police.
The prevalence of violence-related deaths among Black youth struck a chord with him and Obama, also a Chicago native, as they had both seen people who look like them struggle to define manhood in turbulent environments without custodial fathers. After 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton was killed by a gang, Obama met with some of the mentees. Strautmanis recalled being surprised by the president’s openness about his experiences with drugs and alcohol. By being honest and vulnerable, he shrunk the space between himself and the young men, enabling them to be comfortable with him and bond over common ground.
To Obama and Strautmanis, leadership in government is more akin to fatherhood than a “1984”-esque Big Brother; it is about using positions of influence to support others. Next time you are outraged or discouraged when politicians are motivated by self-interest rather than empathy, remember that attitudes evolve with representation, education, exposure and time; good leaders effect change, even if it is slow, and every victory counts. Gen Z is coming of age, and I have no doubt in my mind about what we can accomplish together if we consistently show up at the polls, stand up for what is right and step up when leadership opportunities present themselves. And if you forget, give “West Wingers” a read for that needed inspiration.