In the Trump era, Obama nostalgia is a booming industry
Pat Cunnane spent six years in the White House helping to promote Barack Obama’s message. From the outside, he still does: On Tuesday, Cunnane became the latest Obama alumnus to land a contract for a book on his experiences.
While much of the world obsesses about the more impetuous musings of President Trump — or perhaps in reaction to that obsession — a new market for Obama nostalgia is manifest in the growing number of books, podcasts and TV and film treatments by or involving young veterans from the Obama stable.
Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, has signed on to publish Cunnane’s recollections of his coming of age, starting at 22 years old, in the White House press office, a book tentatively called “West Winging It: An Unpresidential Memoir.”
“For six years, working in the Obama White House was all I knew. When that came to an end a few months ago, let’s just say I didn’t take it well,” Cunnane said.
Writing proved cathartic. Retelling stories — of the historic moments as well as the mundane and absurd ones — “helped stave off the sadness that I felt,” Cunnane said.
Humor helped, too. Even before the news of Cunnane’s Obama book, he gained a bit of fame for his Trump tweets, or, rather, his unique retweet. To make a serious and widely shared point — that the current president’s tweets, however unpresidential, should be treated as official White House statements — Cunnane did just that, putting his old White House skills to work in a tweet that took off.
“All of Trump’s Tweets should be mocked up in the correct Presidential statement format,” he posted. “It’s telling.”
To illustrate, Cunnane provided a mock-up of an official White House statement based on one of Trump’s more undiplomatic tweets, about a London terrorist attack.
The Internet being the social medium it is, Cunnane’s idea was quickly realized. A Web developer, Russel Neiss, created an automated feed, @realPressSecBot, that immediately tweets out Trump’s 140-character posts as if they were formal White House statements. The account attracted more than 100,000 followers within a week.
Trump’s remarks — like those against the federal investigation he calls a “witch hunt” — look all the more out of place when showcased in the official-looking way long reserved, through Republican and Democratic administrations, for sober presidential statements carefully scrutinized before publication by aides such as Cunnane.
Cunnane is now living in Los Angeles where he is part of the writing team for ABC’s “Designated Survivor,” featuring Keifer Sutherland as another unexpected occupant of the Oval Office. The Mark Gordon Company, which produces “Designated Survivor,” also has plans to produce the book for television.
The deals reflect the burgeoning market for Obama-related works, beyond the Obamas’ own lucrative book contracts.
A memoir by Alyssa Mastromonaco, a close aide to Obama on his 2008 campaign and in the White House, was an unexpected bestseller this year and has been optioned for TV. David Litt, a former Obama speechwriter, began working on a book about his time in the administration last year, but, he said, it came into clearer focus after the election.
“Once Trump won, it felt suddenly more urgent to document what happened, not because we did things perfectly — we certainly didn’t do things perfectly — but because this idea that government could be animated by a sense of fundamental goodness and decency suddenly seemed like a relic from some ancient history,” Litt said.
“It became a lot easier to figure out what to write about and what to think about some of the experiences that we went through.”
His book’s title, “Thanks, Obama,” borrows from the wry aside that Obama expropriated from critics and often used when describing positive developments for which he seemed to get no credit, at least as he and his supporters saw it.
“People are approaching the book as escapist literature in a way I appreciate, but didn’t expect,” said Litt, who now leads the Washington office of Funny or Die, the comedy video website and production company.
There’s some precedent for the left finding solace in the arts. “The West Wing” debuted on television at the end of the Clinton administration, written in part by veterans of his tenure, but it flourished as a parallel reality during George W. Bush’s administration.
The NBC drama has gotten something of a second life as liberals rediscover it on streaming platforms such as Netflix. When Hrishikesh Hirway launched a podcast in early 2016 reliving the series episode-by-episode, he expected each one might attract 25,000 downloads. The first episode was downloaded more than 600,000 times.
Hirway said the size of the audience hasn’t changed since Trump’s election, though some listeners told him they had to take a break from watching the show because the contrast between the portrayal of an idealistically liberal Bartlet administration and Trump’s is too jarring. To the extent the show changed, it was in how the podcasters discussed events and issues depicted in the series to compare them to real life.
“Suddenly those questions took on a greater urgency,” Hirway said.
Cunnane views his book as something of “West Wing” meets “Veep.” It will draw on the range of experiences he had in the White House, from the less glamorous duties — corralling reporters shadowing Obama’s events — to the heady ones, like helping the president prepare for interviews and public appearances. He claims that he debated Jerry Seinfeld about closing punchlines for Obama’s appearance on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” He lost, of course.
“I had no idea what I was doing when I first started at the White House,” Cunnane freely admits. He made an early poor impression by asking a co-worker: “What’s a POTUS?” Now, of course, that once insider-y shorthand for “President of the United States” is common knowledge — certainly, at least, to any Twitter user.
For more White House coverage, follow @mikememoli on Twitter.
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