I worked as a political aide for 6 years and here's what 'POTUS' gets right
Selina Fillinger's play follows madcap antics behind closed doors at the White House.
I recently saw POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive for what I can only imagine will be the first of many times. I have never had a more hilarious, unhinged, cathartic night in a theatre. At the Shubert Theatre through August 14, Selina Fillinger’s farce tells the story of seven women from different parts of a president’s inner circle trying to clean up a public relations disaster that soon becomes the least of their worries.
In college, the majority of my mornings looked the same. I’d roll out of bed, read POLITICO Playbook, put on a full face of makeup, mobile-order a Starbucks iced latte with five espresso shots, and rush to get to the campaign office of the politician I worked for by 9 a.m. The rest of my day never looked the same. Some days, I’d speechwrite for a celebrity who was endorsing the campaign. Or I’d send emails to supporters pretending to be said politician. Or I’d research anything from the top Democratic donors in Orlando to the best private dining rooms in suburban Massachusetts.
I worked in campaigns for about six years, doing everything from fundraising to speechwriting. POTUS absolutely nails what it is like to work in politics, from the absurd tasks to the crusty men. So many moments in the play are extreme and absurd, but what makes POTUS so remarkable is that no moment is unrealistic. Each of the seven women in POTUS on Broadway reflects a part of my experience — here’s what each one gets right.
Let’s start with Rachel Dratch, who plays the president’s secretary Stephanie. At one point, she has to buy an inner tube for the president and does so without question because she is terrified of being fired and replaced. I have a couple of “inner tube stories.” My favorite is the time I had to find Senate logo-printed wrapping paper and wrap 100 ornaments for each individual senator as a holiday present.
To be clear, my job was in fundraising, not as a personal Paper Source. But I did wrap the gifts, and like Stephanie, I did other equally absurd tasks because I was constantly terrified of being replaced. I was never told that my work was unique or special; instead, I was taught that if I did not do whatever was asked of me, whenever it was asked of me, someone else could do my job for me.
I wish I could have stood up and screamed like I was at a rally during Lilli Cooper’s incredible outbursts at the First Lady and President for not fulfilling their campaign promises. Like many people who work in politics will tell you, it becomes easy to sacrifice your sense of self in exchange for a “greater good.” I’d spend nights on end not going to bed until 2 or 3 a.m. because a briefing needed edits or because the morning schedule may have changed.
I reminded myself that my stress was temporary, and if I did my work, stronger Title IX laws would be passed, climate legislation would progress, and more people would have safer, happier, and healthier lives. And then, you either lose a campaign or you win. And often, those wins don’t mean much. Her rage is absolutely perfect and made me literally want to get on stage with her.
Lea DeLaria’s character, Bernadette, is not only the president’s sister, but also a convicted felon who finds herself in constant chaos and doesn’t take the workings of politics seriously. While I am neither a convict nor the sister of a president, I do know what it is like to find myself in chaotic scenarios — often ones that, were they not related to politics, would be totally fine.
My favorite was from the 2018 election cycle, when I worked for a congressman. After one event, I got a text from an unknown number thanking me for what I had done, signed with the congressman’s first name. However, I interpreted his name as an exclamation of support for his campaign rather than a signature, and sent back “thanks so much, so sorry to be this person but I got a new phone, who is this?” Immediately, I got the most insane text of my life, which read “this is [name].” I was absolutely mortified. Thankfully, he took it perfectly well and still jokes about how I was the first, and only, person to “new phone who dis” him.
Much like Former Secretary Hillary Clinton or Former First Lady Michelle Obama (and now, First Lady Jill Biden), Vanessa Williams’s character is constantly asked why she is not running for office, because she’d do a better job than her husband. All I have to say here is that 90 percent of the time, any staff member (or wife) of a politician would be better in office than said politician, but stop asking this question. Not everyone wants to be in office — many of us have realized the route to real change is not in political leadership.
Nakamura plays the president’s press secretary, Jean. While I never worked with the press, Nakamura’s constant rage at all the inane tasks she had to do on behalf of the president hit close to home. There were so many times in my political career when I would look in the mirror and ask myself, “What am I doing?!”
Ultimately, that was the final question I asked myself before I quit the industry last summer. The first time I asked myself this was when I had to use my personal debit card to buy SoulCycle classes for a politician. The last was when I was asked to not go on my first vacation in three years because “something could come up.”
Julianne Hough’s character, Dusty, is invited to the White House to apply for a “position” there. While she originally thinks highly of the president, by the end of the play, she and the First Lady realize he’s nothing more than a crusty sleazebag. I wish I could say I hadn’t had experiences like this, but I have. When I was 19, a congressman in his 70s gave me his personal cell phone number and told me to call him if I ever wore the jean shorts I had on again.
What makes POTUS so good is that despite the constant humor, a lot of parts also made me tear up — most specifically, when Dusty encourages Julie White’s character, Harriet, the chief of staff, to deliver the speech she wrote for the president herself. I found writing for politicians to be both heartbreaking and rewarding. There were many times when my words would be spoken aloud by someone who did not know my name or anything about me. My words were personal, yet not mine. I was helping get messages across that I cared about, but often by leaders who truly couldn’t care less about that topic. I cried my mascara off in her final few moments on stage.
If you have ever worked in politics, found yourself disgusted by leaders that you voted for (or would never vote for), or just love to laugh, POTUS is for you. I can’t emphasize enough how much I adored this play. It was like watching every conversation I’ve ever had in therapy about my former career played out in front of me, and I could not be more grateful that this play exists. From the silliest parts to the heartbreaking parts, I saw myself in every woman on stage. I am so excited to see this again, but not quite as excited as I am to never touch politics again in my life.
Photo credit: Paul Kolnik