I tell stories...

Stacy Parker Le Melle

Stacy Parker Le Melle was a former political aide who served for five years in the Clinton White House. She shares her experience of being a young woman in the White House in her book, 'Government Girl. Young and Female in the White House’. She is a blogger for the Huffington Post and she chronicles the stories for the Katrina Experience, An Oral History Project. She is also a director of social media and communications for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. She devotes her time to her writing and to make sure everyone has a chance to share their own stories.

To start with, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Stacy Parker Le Melle. I was born in the city in Detroit, Michigan. My father died young, and we left the city and kept moving north up I75, which is the major freeway in Michigan. Most of my childhood was spent in the suburbs of Detroit. I felt like I had this split identity; I was someone from the city but also from the suburbs. And it matches how I felt racially because I am black and German. So even though I identify myself as a black woman, I had one foot in my mother’s German heritage and one foot in my father’s black heritage. When I was in the high school, a part of that moving back and forth helped me see inequality in the area, helped me know that there are a lot of things that the kids in the suburbs have that the kids in the city didn’t have. It pushed me to question things and it pushed me to get involved with politics. It pushed me so much that I worked on the campaigns when I went to DC for the college. That is how I ended up working in the White House. Ever since then, I have been involved in the politics and activism. But I also loved writing so again I straddled both worlds – writing and politics. 

You joined the White House at a very young age; you became an intern when you were 18. Was becoming a politician your aspiration then?
When I joined, I didn’t know if I wanted to run for an office later in my life. But through my working in the White House, I realised that I really didn’t want to be a politician or an elected leader per se. I feel I am stronger on the outside and I also feel that in America and probably all over the world, it is very hard to be an elected leader. It is hard to live a full life; you are being constantly judged and then you have to be constantly raising money. It is a very difficult life. We need good people to do it. But I just decided that I want to live as an artist; I want to be able to write and create. Also if I make mistakes, I don’t take down the whole group as an artist. There is that fear that if you make mistake, you can take down the whole party. So working in the government at early age let me know quickly that this is an important work but there are other ways that I can serve. 

How did you join the White House? Could you tell us your work at the White House?
I began college at The George Washington (GW) University in the fall of 1992. And that is exactly when we were running up towards the culmination of the presidential election cycle. President Clinton was running for an office. And from the minute I got to the school, I was able to volunteer for the college Democrats and I was doing the campaign work. What was great was when the President Clinton won he set up inaugural offices in our student center. So I volunteered during the inaugural preparations. People I worked for needed help in the communications office in the White House so they asked me if I wanted to come in and volunteer. I said yes!

Stacy Parker Le Melle
I was an 18-year-old freshman at the college volunteering in the communications office. My boss there was a very good friend with George Stephanopoulos’ assistant. And at the time, George was the Director of the Communications. George had become very popular. He became this pop culture figure. The assistant, Heather Beckle she wanted to bring in someone to help because they had a huge correspondence backlog. So my boss recommended me to her as a person who could supervise that. So that began my first summer internship. And because I was going to school and I lived within the blocks, I was able to stay there as an intern during my whole time at GW.  It was a very good situation because I had a good relationship with both George and his assistant.

My White House internship life really was a wonderland. I studied political communications. So by day I was studying the political theory and the communications theory and what it meant for the political world. And after that, I'd go see it in practice. For the most of time, I worked in the West wing office. It was a very exciting feeling. There was a feeling that we could do anything, that we finally had a strong, democratic administration and that we were making changes. I felt, for most part, very good as a young woman, a young woman of colour. I never felt any discrimination. I felt very supported. After three years, it was time for the next campaign cycle and I wanted to do something different. That was when I was able to do some advanced work. I started the summer in 1996. I wrote about a lot about it in the book (Government Girl: Young and Female in the White House). It was some of the most exciting, crazy, amazing, and terrible experiences that happened on the road.

Let me explain what an advance work. Whenever the President or the First Lady travel, there is a team of people that go a few or several days before them and make all the preparations. Then they run the trip when the President and the First lady come there. So that is the advanced team. I was able to do that. I began and had as a specialised job called RON (remain overnight) and I was a person in charge of the hotels to make sure that everyone had all the right rooms, and their rooms were in the right places in the hotel. It was always a different jigsaw puzzle for each trip.

Later in 1996 I studied at Oxford. But I came back afterwards because I didn't get to the programme that I wanted in. But Paul Begala whom I have known because he was very close to George, it turns out that he needed an assistant and he asked me if I would take the job. And I was like 'yes!'. It was so exciting because it was something you wanted as intern if you liked the place you're working. I was like 'I am now staff' after all this time of not being the staff. I was very excited.

This was the Fall of 1997. It all started up great. Then the Monica Lewinsky story broke.

You wrote a book called ‘Government Girl. Young and Female in the White House’. What was your motivation behind this publication?
For a long time I had stories that were in my mind and in my heart. I was working on the screenplays that involve some of the stories; not really the stories that involve me. But I think I was well trained as staff person in Washington DC in a sense that you are not supposed to talk about things unless someone tells you to talk about them. In that very real DC sense of hierarchy that people who are at the top of the hierarchy, people who give you the information, people who are very powerful; they are the ones who are supposed to talk and you have to be quiet until someone asks you to speak.

For a long time I would have never dreamed of writing a book about anything that I have gone through. I lived in Houston for a bit and I was there during the Hurricane Katrina. And it was during that time I began an oral history project, interviewing the survivors and people who came to the aid and taking in a lot of their personal stories and personal narratives. And I was sharing those. I was asking these people to share their most intimate and often traumatic experiences involving their lives. And that kind of nudged me to think 'Well, I am asking these people to talk and it has to be a two-way street’. You can't keep taking from people. You have to share too.

During this time there was an agent I was telling him some of my work, and he was like 'You should write your own book’. And at first I was like 'no', then I thought about it. I started to be working on some stories that I had on my head. Then I had encouragement. What was really beautiful was that a lot of people who helped me with the Katrina work, they also encouraged me to help with my own stories.

When I left the White House, I would've never thought writing a memoir was something I should do or that anyone would care. But as I got older, I felt like I reached a spot where it was long enough that I had some perspective but I wasn't so much older that I was a new phase in my life. Sometimes you look back at the different parts of your life and you change so much that you consider everything differently. I felt that it was ok to take a woman's story seriously; a young woman's story. Often we are the people who are considered powerless, or not worthy of much consideration.

It was scary because I worried about my relationships from before and how it would be taken. You are worried that no one will talk to you and you will become persona non grata. In some ways if you write a book like that you have to be pretty committed to the fact that you might work in government again. For the most part I think I am very positive about the President Clinton and the story. What I tried to do was to tell stories about a full human being.

We continue to be enthralled by the President Clinton because he is such a complex person and he has this amazing power. He is very smart, and he is very empathetic but then he has these weaknesses like other human beings. I tried to be as cognizant of the fact that he is a full human being. We showed that it is a chance to tell our stories.

After the Monica Lewinsky scandals, you wrote in the book The White House in 1998 was no place for me’. How did the scandal change your work and your life in the White House? Is the scandal one of the reasons why you left the White House?
It was very hard to be a young staff woman or intern during the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal at the White House because basically you were looked as a suspect until proven innocent. If you told someone that you were a White House intern it was a cause for the laughter or a side eye at a party. There were a lot of presumptions that you were somehow willing to have affairs with the President. It was very traumatic. Before if you told someone that you were a White House intern, it meant it was all this prestige. But when this happened, all of the sudden, it was almost the mirror opposite. People made a lot of assumptions. They made lots of jokes. And in a way, that was the easiest stuff to deal with.
What was scarier was legal jeopardy. A lot of people who worked for the Clintons, they didn’t come from a rich background. You were scared that you might have to get a lawyer, you might owe all this money and it might be more than you make in a year – despite not being caught up in the scandal. In the end, I had to have a lawyer for interviews with the independent counsel. But I was able to get a pro-bono assistance.

I think the hardest part was the disillusionment. When I first came to DC I was seeing the capital all in light. You have all this true love for the country and the love of what we are supposed to represent as a people. And no matter what the history is, there is still patriotism and real love. And then just think about what everyone was doing inside the capital taking down the president. All the hypocrisy because so many of the leaders in the House, they had their affairs and there was all these sexual hypocrisies. Is this how we are going to spend a year, trying to tear down this administration and this presidency?

We had to be so careful. You couldn't talk freely. You had to know that you could be called anytime to testify and be asked if you spoke about the scandal or the impeachment. So, unless you wanted to perjure yourself, you had to know you have to be honest about it. So you all had to have a very strict legal mind and be very controlled about what you say. And I am opposite of that. I love to communicate. And I love the freedom and exchange of information. I don't like to control the information and I resist people who too tightly control the facts. So it was just a very difficult time.

It was traumatic. It was a very scary time because Washington was full-on the scandal mode. It was like a bright glare on the White House. There was the independent counsel Ken Starr who had his investigation but also there were congressional investigations. You just didn't know how this was going to end. So it was a very difficult time.

I left in August 1998. I needed to break free. I needed to be able to do what I need to do. I was a young person. I wasn't ready to just tow the line and be scared. I felt like we were steeped in fear and I was probably mostly afraid of disappointing people. I didn't want to become a problem for my bosses. I never wanted to be someone messing up the message as staff person.

The line between safety and doom was so thin when the president stared you in the eyes’. Do you think the culture of the White House and the dynamics between the powerful superiors and staffs/interns make young people somehow susceptible to a non-platonic relationship with the superiors or vulnerable abuse?
I think as long as we are human beings interacting with each other, there is going to be power-abuse. Some people will just not understand how their actions constitute abuse, or they will think they have a right to be selfish, or even cruel. That said, honest mistakes are made, but even if they’re honest, people get hurt.

I always felt very sympathetic to Monica Lewinsky because how could she have possibly guessed what the consequences would have been of what happened between her and the president? There was no precedent for that. Not like what happened to her. Given how she was savaged in the press, and by society in general, she is right to claim herself the first real victim of the cyber bullying on such a grand scale. I always felt badly for her for that because it was a very terrible price to pay.

Are people more cautious now? I don’t know. I think now people now know what could happen. We live in a world where you do make a big mistake and it is all over twitter. It could be known all over the world very quickly. Women, not just women, but young people, anyone a vulnerable person has more leverage. I think fewer people can act like there will be no consequences they hurt somebody—if that somebody has access to the media, including social media. Clearly it still happens. But the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal fallout set a precedent that should scare people.

Did you have any other difficulties you experienced as young women in the White House?
I write about a few troubling experiences in the book, including the Okinawa balcony scene with the President.  Nothing happened besides a long hug, but I was mortified.  We were barely out of the impeachment experience. All of us knew what happened to Monica. It was scary to be put in a situation where my professional reputation could be destroyed so quickly.  However, I had the power to leave the balcony and I did.  And eventually, I had the power to tell my story.

There are many girls and young women who have aspiration to go into politics or public service for their career. Would you have any advices for them from your experience?
Don’t let anyone stand in your way! Even if you have a bad experience, do your best to heal, and keep moving forward.

Keep up with politics. You will find a cause, or a leader, that inspires you.  You have to be ready to dive in. Volunteer some of your time and be ready to work hard to make an exception of yourself.

Never forget for a moment that no matter who you are, you have power. Some power.  Even if it’s the power to quit.  I think sometimes it is easy to think that because you don't have all the power you don't have any power. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel taken advantage of or you feel like someone is being abusive you have to try your best not to let this stand. Sometimes you may just have to leave. There may be superiors who won't stand up for you. I think you will always find that battle. There is always going to be dynamics in the work place where you will be supported or you won't be supported. Can I make this work or do I just need to cut my losses and go somewhere else?

We need good women in politics, good as in working hard, smart, loving, caring, because our perspectives our vital and we need to help one another.  Also, I’m reminded of one of my first lessons back in Detroit. It was clear that a lot of people making political decisions about Detroit were neither people of colour nor women. Those people having decisions made about them, they weren't at the table. They couldn't express themselves or express their concerns. So you never want a situation where people are making decisions about your life and you don't have a voice or at that table. You can't even blame these decision-makers sometimes, they just don't know, they can't know everything. Best-hearted people can't know everything about all people, all your problems.

You now moved away from the political world and you became a writer. What inspired you to be a writer?
I've never given up on the idea that we can shift people's hearts and thinking with the written word. Not always but it is possible. We constantly evolve and expand our consciousness and change. I look at how I have changed over the last 20 years and I have developed ideas on different topics. I just believe in the written word like that. And the other thing is that I find I am at my best when I write. I’m cribbing Joan Didion here, but you’re smartest in writing because you have time to go over it and over it. It's never just that first draft. I think I am the most open hearted when I am writing.  Lastly, I always wanted to be understood. You struggle through writing to make sure you are understood.

Some of your well-known works are related to the Hurricane Katrina. For example, you chronicle stories for The Katrina Experience, An Oral History Project. What was your motivation behind these projects?
I lived in Houston when Hurricane Katrina hit and the levees failed. It was such a traumatic time for people all over the Gulf coast, all over America. But it was really bad in Houston because we had all these evacuees who came through. I was very proud of Houston because of the leadership.  The mayor said that we are taking in the evacuees; they were welcome here and the different church groups and business communities there all banded together. We were an awesome city. We really worked hard to bring people in. The general ethos was you are welcome and we are going to help you.

For years I was in this huge political funk because of the Bush administration. I saw how they operated and to me it seemed they were orchestrating this big lie to justify the invasion of Iraq. Just to see that lie work so powerfully, I really wanted to stick my head in the sand. So I was in this huge depression and did not want to keep up with politics. And then when Katrina happened, I just nose-dived. I didn't understand how the federal response could be so slow and inept.

But then when I heard that they were going to open the Astrodome in Houston to the evacuees and they were going to need the volunteers, I was like ok, that is something I can do. I started volunteering at the Red Cross. Presidential advisor Sid Blumenthal, who was always a mentor and supportive of my work said that I should go talk to people. And I was like no, I shouldn't. I am not a journalist. Am I supposed to put a mic in their face and say 'how do you feel'?  No.

After watching how things went communications-wise in the Bush administrations for the previous four years, I thought they were going to start victim-blaming any minute. You never knew how this whole story was going to turn out; why Katrina happened, why people weren’t rescued, etc. I thought it was important to get some people's stories down because they could get lost or distorted. I had no experience in doing this but I started doing interviews of evacuees in Houston.

People talked. I talked to the survivors but I also talked to people who came to their need. I just wanted to show how the Katrina affected our whole universe down there. I wanted to show people how they could help other people. I have this dream of the project finally becoming a big book like a Studs Terkel oral history collection that you can open up so you can find someone who is like you and somebody who is not like you and you can read about these people and their experiences and see them as full human beings. If you see yourself in an endangered person, you are more likely to help. As you can see, I have all of this faith in writing and in words.

You are also a director of social media and communications and mentor for the project called Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP). Could you tell us a little bit about the project?
We were founded in 2009 by journalist and novelist Masha Hamilton. She founded AWWP because as a journalist she viewed a smuggled tape of a woman stoned to death in a stadium, and she was unable to find out much about the victim’s true story. She felt that she needed to do something to help more women be able to speak for themselves.  So she started online workshop for some Afghan women, it is now growing to 10 workshops. We have in-country operation where we run workshops there. But we also have this online operation where we bring in women who are professional writers and teachers or novelists who mentor via email. Women write what they want to write about but we also give them prompts. Then their work is revised and edited. We publish their finished works on the website. (awwproject.org)

How did you become involved? Could you describe your work there?
I knew Masha Hamilton. I actually knew her through the Katrina work.  She asked me in 2010 if I wanted to come mentor. And I said yes. A few years ago, I was brought in as this workshop director and now I moved to director of social media and communications. Basically I am committed to broadening the reach of the Afghan women and their voices. That is why the social media is such a prominent part of my job in the title. That is one of the main ways to draw people to the website and getting people to read their work.

I was always impressed by their strength. Their strength and beauty. They are very beautiful women. I feel that no one is powerless. I think Afghan women I work with; sometimes they are portrayed as this powerless victim in the world. They go up against so much but they are not powerless. So many women I work with, they have such strong voices and they are very elegant writers. And they just inspire me so much. I have always been awed. I respect for what they do. I wouldn't bet against them. They are up against a lot but they are just very ... awesome women.

How do you think writing helps Afghan women? Do you think the presence of AWWP changed their life in a more positive way? Do you have any example?
We ask that.  We hear yes. I will tell you one story that I think is meaningful. We have one woman; her name is Mahnaz she started off as a writer. And she is now a Dari mentor but she is also a graduate student now in US. But she started off in Afghanistan. She told us that she felt free when she wrote for AWWP because she was writing in English. And people who would give her trouble about what she was writing about didn't read English. So it was kind of a free space, where she can say what she wanted and didn't feel that it was too risky for her. But then what she found is that when she started reading what other people wrote, there was a real consciousness raising that was happening because she saw that things that she thought she was alone in experiencing she saw that other women were experiencing and it was very powerful for her. She felt that writing and reading what other women wrote really expanded her sense of possibility. It made her feel less alone.

Do you have any plan for next project? Perhaps a new book?

I am working on a collection of essays right now. I am almost finished with it. I think I have two more essays to go. It is called ‘Dancing Girls of America’. I like to write mainly non-fiction; they are essays but they are stories. I tell stories about the things that happened in my life and reflect on them. And it is about race and gender being in America. I focus on the life of woman of colour. I am excited because I feel like it is almost done. Soon I will have a full collection and it will be a book.
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