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Dignity

President Obama’s stenographer on what she learned in his presence.

two hands grasping each other against a background of clouds Air Force One in the sky
Illustration by Alex Campbell

On Air Force One, there is an unspoken rule that, from your assigned seat, you can go back but you can’t go forward. My seat is in the staff cabin, just north of center. From here, I can go to the guest cabin, the Secret Service cabin, the Air Force Raven cabin, and the press cabin, but I can’t go up to the front of the plane. The conference room, the senior staff cabin, the main kitchen, the President’s office, the medical-unit cabin, and the President’s personal quarters, complete with a bed, a shower, and a dusty PlayStation for Sasha and Malia, are off limits to me. There is, however, a loophole to this unspoken rule. As the stenographer responsible for recording and transcribing the President’s words, I get to go forward to cover interviews in the President’s office.

On the sixth day of an international swing through Southeast Asia, Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic is interviewing President Obama as we fly from the Philippines to Malaysia. And so when I see the press secretary, Josh Earnest, walk through the staff cabin, followed by the deputy national-security spokesman, Ben Rhodes, followed by Jeff Goldberg, I follow them.

“Come on in, guys,” President Obama says, ushering us into his office — to the left of the room is his desk with a bucket seat on either side, to the right is a long cushioned bench. I wait for POTUS to show Jeff to his spot on the far end of the bench. I’ll sit next to Jeff, who will sit across from the President, in the bucket seat on this side of his desk, so I can hold my microphone between them. Rhodes will sit next to me, and Josh next to him, and they will lean in and tense their ear muscles like cats to try to hear Jeff’s questions and the President’s responses over the plane’s roaring engine.

But this is not what happens.

I watch, horror-stricken, as the President does not take his normal place in the bucket seat across from the bench but instead walks behind his desk and gestures to Jeff to take the bucket seat across from him. Jeff places his recorder on the President’s desk because he doesn’t know what I know — that the plane is so loud that the audio from his interview will sound like a twenty-minute pocket dial. Sweat rolls down the front of my blouse as I fight to think over the engine: I need to do something, or I’m totally screwed.

“Where do you want to sit?” Rhodes whispers to me, aware of my plight. If I don’t speak up, the interview might be lost forever, but if I do interrupt, well, then, I’m interrupting. Even Pete Souza glances over his camera lens at me in what could be construed as mild concern.

And then, of all people, POTUS asks, “Is this going to pick up the sound?” He looks at me, and so does everyone else. Even though POTUS is exhausted, and even though audio is not his problem, he’s just realized that he chose a different seat. Every move the President makes has consequences, even if it’s just three feet to the left.

With all eyes on me, I say, “Um, well, actually, do you mind if I just —” And with that, I kneel on the ground next to the President’s desk and hold up my microphone. I could have asked the President to move to his usual seat, but I don’t think of it, because my job is to be invisible, and suddenly I am very visible, and even a little vocal, and I can’t go back because I’m wasting time that isn’t mine to waste. As I kneel in my skirt, I realize today would have been a great day for pants.

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With my bare skin pressing into the pristine but not especially plush tan carpet, we get to business. Goldberg directs the conversation from the Middle East to the Hobbesian idea of tribes, and my feet begin to tingle the way they do before they go numb. This is seriously uncomfortable, but I can do this. I can kneel for twenty minutes without sustaining any permanent injuries, except maybe to my ego.

But the interview isn’t 20 minutes, or 30, or 40. It’s 70 minutes — or, more accurately, it is 70 goddamn fucking minutes. I stop listening to the questions when my lower back starts to spasm. Then my left hamstring seizes up in a charley horse. There is no dignified way to kneel in a skirt, and I have never felt less dignified than I do now.

I coach myself through the discomfort, kneeling the way I did as a kid in church taking Holy Communion with all my weight on my knees — except instead of receiving the blood of Christ, I am recording the words of Barack Obama. You can sit back on your heels when POTUS finishes answering this question, I tell myself at the start of every question, but I never actually dare to reposition. It would be rude to move, distracting and attention-seeking — everything a stenographer isn’t supposed to be. So instead I daydream about standing up. I imagine straightening my legs with the focused desire of a marathoner envisioning the finish line. Why the hell didn’t I wear pants today? Four years into the job and I still rookied out when it mattered most, and now I look like an idiot with her bare knees on the carpet.

As we descend, the men keep talking. I bend my knees and grip the side of the President’s desk because, after this 70-minute one-woman calisthenics show, there’s no way I’m botching the landing. We touch ground and I ride the momentum like a surfer in a rumpled skirt-suit. We taxi. We come to a complete stop. The captain shuts off the plane, which means we’re now parked without air conditioning on a black tarmac in 100-degree heat. Finally, Goldberg says, “I think Malaysia is outside the window.”

The rest of the day is a blur as I try to type up the interview between events — the President’s hour-long YSEALI town hall with young leaders, the pool spray with government officials, the long motorcade back to the hotel through an endless thunderstorm, the roundtable meeting in a sterile conference room with members of civil society. As soon as I find a pocket of Wi-Fi, I send the audio from the day’s events to my fellow stenographers back in Washington to type up while I chase the President into the next pool spray. When we are ushered back out of the room, I transcribe what I’ve just recorded but don’t have time to proofread it before I’m ushered into yet another meeting. All the while, I know I still have to type the Goldberg interview. That night, when everyone else goes to the hotel bar for a late dinner and a nightcap, I fall asleep typing the 70-minute interview — but not before setting my alarm for 4:30 a.m. local time, so I can wake up early and finish the job.

By the time we’re on the road, at 8 the next morning, I am in a terrible mood — it’s so hot out, and I just want to go home already and talk to people other than this handful of colleagues I’ve been traveling with for almost a week.

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“This place is called Dignity?” a reporter asks as we’re ushered up a narrow stairwell in a two-story building with mediocre air conditioning. Everyone is so sweaty, and if one more person bangs me with their tripod, I might scream, or cry, or both. On day seven of an international trip, it’s hard to stay rational.

I flip through my mini schedule and learn that we’re inside the Dignity for Children Foundation, which helps resettle children from war-torn countries, gives them an education, and offers them guidance on how to get a secondary education. We’re escorted into a classroom where we expect to see shell-shocked victims of unspeakable loss and atrocity, but instead we see kids. Little kids, four and five years old, playing together on a floor, uninterested in the photojournalists who are lined up behind the blue tape like sprinters at the ready before the President enters.

Two boys play with blocks. A little girl sits over a coloring book, her doughy legs splayed into an M. They’re unaffected by the reporters whispering, “This is definitely called Dignity, right?” “Are these kids orphans?” “Do we know where they’re from?”

POTUS walks in, and the shutters go click, click, click. The kids couldn’t care less. The President crouches next to each of them, speaking quietly and asking their names, and while they’re polite, they let out these big sighs, like, Ugh, why is this adult trying to talk to me? This castle isn’t going to color itself in. He shakes their little-kid hands, pats them on their little-kid backs, and tells them they’re doing a great job at whatever they’re doing — “That’s a great drawing right there.” “Check out those blocks!”

Soon we’re ushered into another room, where President Obama addresses members of the press. I get as close to POTUS as possible, sticking out my microphone as far as I can so my audio is clear when I type up his remarks later. He begins: “One of the reasons that I wanted to come visit here is because, globally, we’re seeing an unprecedented number of refugees … And anybody who had a chance to see those kids, hopefully you understood the degree to which they’re just like our kids, and they deserve love and protection and stability and an education.”

A young woman sitting to his right smiles. She is poised despite the bright lights, despite all the camera clicks, despite all the hungry faces of journalists searching for color for their write-ups of this moment.

“This young lady here is sixteen years old, fled Myanmar on her own when she was eight, and was subject to human trafficking until the United Nations was able to help her resettle.”

Suddenly, there’s a suspension of time, as if everyone has forgotten to take the next breath of air. An orphan by eight, trafficked before she’d lost all her baby teeth. The terror she has seen — and yet here she is, sitting beside the most powerful man on Earth, who is celebrating her, patting her arm, giving her the attention of a grownup who truly cares.

A few hours later, we motorcade through the rain. We load the plane. How many times have we been the subjects of this scene, living in these moments of leaving? My BlackBerry pings before takeoff — someone in the press office is looking for the Goldberg interview, and I think back to yesterday, when I’d been so annoyed and embarrassed at having to kneel on the ground to do my job. But today I know that dignity has nothing to do with sitting silently in a skirt.

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Today I know better, because today I saw President Obama kneel alongside refugee children. He took his time to speak with each of them, and he wasn’t worried about his back hurting or his legs cramping. Leading by example, Obama had bent his knees and crouched uncomfortably so he was eye level with the world’s greatest promise: our kids. The President didn’t travel to sight-see; he traveled to shed light and to demonstrate that being President wasn’t about his power — it was about using his influence to protect and empower the most vulnerable. Even if I’d been embarrassed at the time, I now understood how foolish I was to think that sitting silently in a skirt determined my dignity.

As we flew toward home, I realized what the President already knew: our humanity determines our dignity, and only when all children can grow up feeling safe can we ever be truly dignified.

Beck Dorey-Stein is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir From the Corner of the Oval.