Outside the Oval Office is a small rectangular room with two side-by-side, nondescript wooden desks. In one sits President Obama’s personal secretary. In the other is Brian Mosteller, the man who sweats the small stuff so that the president doesn’t have to.
Few have even heard of Mosteller, but if you look closely at photographs taken inside the White House, you can often glimpse him at the edge of the frame, omnipresent. From his chair, he is the only person in the White House with a direct view of the president at his desk. No one gets in the Oval Office without going past him.
Mosteller’s official title is director of Oval Office operations, although a more apt name might be anticipator in chief. When Obama is in Washington, every move the president makes, every person he meets and every meeting he attends has been carefully orchestrated by Mosteller.
He knows where Obama likes his water glass placed on the table at meetings and whom he’d want to sit beside. He knows how he prefers the height of a lectern. He researches a head of state’s favorite drink so that the president can offer it. He readies Obama’s remarks and sets them, open to the first page, wherever the president will be speaking. He tells Obama when a sock is bunched at his ankle or his shirt is wrinkled, before an interview.
The president returned to Illinois last week to commemorate nine years since he announced his long-shot bid for the White House, a history-making moment of proportions few could have known then. There remain just a few people who were there in those early days.
Unlike some staffers close to the president who have enjoyed their own moments in the limelight, Mosteller, who first met Obama in Chicago after his famous speech in Springfield, Ill., to start his campaign, has intentionally stayed in the background. Until now, he had ever given only one interview, in 2009.
Admiring colleagues refer to him as an unsung hero of the administration — the man behind the man, without whom Obama arguably would not have such a universal reputation for cool — but Mosteller likes a low profile.
For one thing, he needs to stay focused. The entire West Wing relies on him, and no one more than the president.
Mosteller “knows the president very well. He pays attention to everything,” said Valerie Jarrett, the president’s longtime senior adviser. “The president knows how much Brian cares about him and that it isn’t ‘I care about you from afar,’ it’s ‘I’m going to ensure the nitty-gritty details of your life from large to small are attended to.’ The president trusts him completely.”
Fascination with logistics
Disarmingly humble, Mosteller, 40, never had much interest in politics as a blood sport. Instead, as a little boy, he would watch, captivated, as President Ronald Reagan would stride up the red carpet to the podium in the East Hall to address the nation. Who is cuing the president as he speaks, he recalls wondering. What work happened behind the scenes to prepare for such an important event?
“It was something that transcended Akron, Ohio, or my small neighborhood,” he said of his fascination with protocol. The possibility of playing a behind-the-scenes role like that “was bigger than me and had the ability to affect something bigger than me.”
In college, Mosteller applied for a summer internship in the Clinton White House. He got a slot working with the advance team and ended up staying for the final two years of the administration.
He completed his last college credits remotely as he staffed the president and the first lady for domestic and international trips. He loved the exposure to the world, but he didn’t want a career in politics. He turned down a job working on Al Gore’s campaign and moved west to help prepare Salt Lake City for the 2002 Olympics.
After several years of doing logistical planning around the world for the Olympics, Mosteller settled down in Chicago in 2007. He bought a home. He was ready to put down roots.
Then he received a phone call that his state’s junior U.S. senator was going to announce his run for president. Obama planned to do two kickoff events. First, he’d speak in Springfield, Ill., where Abraham Lincoln 149 years earlier announced his candidacy. Then he’d come to Chicago.
Could Mosteller help plan the second event?
He accepted the temporary job, but he made it clear that he had little interest in ever leaving Chicago.
Then he met Obama.
It wasn’t the young politician’s oratory skills that drew Mosteller in, though he was as impressed with those as most of America was back then. It was something intangible that Mosteller now has trouble describing. There was a kindness, an authenticity, he said, that made him want to give up everything to join the shoestring campaign.
By the 2008 convention, Mosteller had transitioned to the job he has pretty much had ever since: To be Obama’s eyes and ears. To see every event from Obama’s perspective. To be the president’s fiercest advocate.
On election night 2008, Mosteller waited in the loading dock of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Chicago for the president-elect. He escorted the Obamas to the hotel room where their core campaign team had just watched his decisive victory. And he escorted them back down the elevator to go to Grant Park, where the man just elected would greet more than 200,000 cheering fans.
Obama was quiet and reflective that night. Mosteller knew to give him space. He knew when to ask the Time magazine photographer to stop flashing the camera. He helped decide when it was appropriate to put him on the phone with the man he had just beat, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).