Beck Dorey-Stein, who grew up in Narberth, worked as a White House stenographer from 2012 to 2017. Her book about her experience, “From the Corner of the Oval: A Memoir,” will be published by Spiegel & Grau on July 10. Dorey-Stein will appear at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Tuesday. Below is an essay that she wrote that does not appear in the book.
On February 13th, 2014, 11 inches of snow shut down the nation’s capital and, like most federal employees, President Barack Obama’s workload lightened substantially. Meetings were delayed and announcements postponed, but curiously, a short interview in the afternoon remained on the schedule. This was odd, so I scrolled through my ancient Blackberry for more details. Much to my surprise, the interview wasn’t about a breaking news story, but it was time-sensitive and, in some circles, of the utmost urgency.
At 2:35 p.m., President Obama would sit down in the East Wing Library to talk about the NBA All-Star Game with TNT Sports commentator Charles Barkley, a.k.a. Sir Charles, a.k.a. the Round Mound of Rebound.
As a White House stenographer, I was more or less a cockroach in a skirt suit — ever present, but invisible when the lights came on and the tape was rolling. I was responsible for recording every Barack Obama interview for the presidential archive, which meant I needed to get to work pronto.
Even Uber on triple surge couldn’t dampen my mood — having grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia while Charles Barkley led the 76ers, I’d spent the better part of my childhood worshipping #34, and today I would get to see him in person.
Draped in winter camouflage, the iconic White House lantern glowed a hazy yellow through the falling snow. The daily bustle of Pennsylvania Avenue — tourists posing, reporters rushing, staffers Blackberrying — had vanished under a blanket of white. Except for the steady grunt of plows in the distance, the world echoed in decibels of silence. Barely afternoon, and the day already seemed like a buried secret.
Then, suddenly, movement. A tall man in a long coat carrying a yellow legal pad appeared out of nowhere, the loose change in his pocket jangling like jingle bells. He fought against the wind, a slight limp in his right leg.
“Hi, how you doing?”
Hustling to keep up with his stride, I introduced myself — explaining that I was the White House stenographer and I would be covering his interview — and asked if he was traveling alone. “Yes,” he replied without hesitation. “I like to explore on my own.”
I nodded. During the 1992 Olympics in Spain, the Dream Team received so many death threats that they didn’t stay in the Olympic Village. Barkley acted as informal U.S. ambassador by strolling through the streets of Barcelona. When asked about his security detail, he famously held up his fists.
As we neared the North Gate of the White House, I explained that I’d be covering his interview with President Obama. “More important,” I add, “I grew up watching my big brother practice his Barkley dunks down at the basketball court.” Charles smiles, asks where we grew up, and smiles again when I tell him.
“I know Narberth,” he said. “I have a house in Penn Valley.”
We were truly neighbors — the two communities are separated only by Montgomery Avenue. We even share a post office.
I told him my dad grew up in Penn Valley, and when I described his childhood house, he threw back his head — he lived just a few streets over. A smile played on my lips. I’d always considered Penn Valley a place for old people because that’s where my grandparents lived. He agreed. “It’s true, most of my neighbors are old Jewish couples. When they see me on their morning walks, they wave and call me ‘Gentle.’ They reach up and pat me on my arm and say, ‘Good morning, Gentle.’”
I stifled a laugh. I guess they’d never seen him crash the boards. Swept away by the unreality of the situation, I neglected to notice that Barkley was following me away from the White House and toward my office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I asked.
“No,” he replied.
Rerouting, I walked Charles to the West Wing.
Because of the snow, the West Wing was empty except for Secret Service. Charles greeted every agent by extending his hand and saying with deep, mossy softness, “Hello, I’m Charles.” He sounded like a slow-jazz radio host, not a leader in offensive rebounds.
I pointed out the Oval Office, then the Rose Garden. He asked me how often I got to come here, and I told him every day. His eyes doubled in size. “Wow,” he said. “That’s so cool.”
We walked into the East Wing and down the long red carpet toward the Library. Angella Reid, the chief usher, appeared and asked Charles if he’d like anything to drink. As I left to grab my gear, I heard Charles reply, “Do you have any Diet Coke?” like he was a kid visiting a friend’s house for the first time.
When I returned with my recorders, a man half Barkley’s size and twice his age was threading a mic wire through the back of the famous commentator’s blazer. Charles looked up from the interview questions he’d scrawled on his yellow legal pad and announced to the room, “Beck’s back!” as if we were in a high school cafeteria and he was popular and I was not, but he liked me because I helped him find the library.
I waved awkwardly while the TNT producer asked Charles to sit still in his chair — no pre-game warm-up to loosen the muscles, calm the nerves. Looking for a distraction, he asked loudly, “Hey, Beck, what’s your brother do?”
“He wanted to be an NBA player but it didn’t work out,” I responded. Charles liked this. I told him he’d prayed for height because my parents were short.
“How tall is your brother?” Charles asked. I told him 6’4. Sir Charles furrowed his brow. “So your parents are short, and you’re short, and your brother is 6’4?” He leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees like he was riding the bench. “You think your mom was creepin’?”
The room erupted in laughter, the musty East Wing Library was suddenly awake, alive, eager for such comedic relief.
“I’m just saying,” Charles said slowly, baiting me outside the zone defense. “How tall is the milkman?” As the room erupted again, Barkley told me he knew I could take it because I was from Philly. Still chuckling, he explained he’d never been so nervous in his life.
“I get anxious when I have to talk to important people, which is why I like talking to you,” he said. The room held its breath. “You know, because you’re not important.”
As the room burst out with “Ohhh!” like Barkley just hit a three-pointer in my face, I leaned in and jabbed him in the shoulder. “I’m important enough to get you here, literally.”
“That’s true, Beck. I would not be where I am today had I not met you, literally.”
We got a head’s up that the president would arrive in five, which is when Charles got last-minute jitters. He fidgeted with his papers, readjusted his weight in the chair, stretched his fingers. And then, Barkley grinned beatifically, his face glowing with the confidence of a two-time Olympic gold medalist, because this was it: game time.
“Chuck! Good to see you!” President Obama boomed as he entered the library.
For the next 20 minutes, I went to work with my recorders and mic. The President granted Charles — “Chuck” — several extra minutes to ask questions about basketball, the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, and their daughters’ athletic careers. “I think you and I have different standards,” the president laughed after Barkley asked if he had a hard time not pushing his girls to be good ballplayers. When they wrapped, the president told Barkley it was a good interview as he gave him a hand-shake-hug.
After the men said goodbye, Charles asked me how to get back to Pennsylvania Avenue. But just then, Obama rematerialized. “Hey, Chuck, you ever seen the Oval Office?”
Barkley mumbled something entirely incoherent, which the president took as a no, and beckoned for Barkley to come walk with him.
As I exited the West Wing several minutes later, I was disappointed I didn’t get to say goodbye to Charles and miffed at the president for having pulled him away. But then a Secret Service agent pointed out the window to Pennsylvania Avenue. “Look! That’s Charles Barkley!”
Past the white North Lawn, the Round Mound of Rebound was still in view, but he already seemed like something I’d made up, a daydream on a snow day. Walking alone in the empty street, Charles Barkley kept his head down as he clutched his yellow legal pad in a one-on-one with the wind. From here, his limp was more visible. He moved slower. He looked gentle.
Beck Dorey Stein: From the Corner of the Oval
- 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Free Library of Philadelphia Central Branch, 1901 Vine St., free, 215-686-5322, freelibrary.org.