Former White House social secretaries discuss ‘Treating People Well’

WASHINGTON — It’s not exactly a news flash, but our general discourse is coarsening.

And in a new book, two former White House social secretaries share their insights on bringing integrity and respect back into social interactions.

Lea Berman, who worked under George W. and Laura Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, who worked for Barack and Michelle Obama, recently discussed their book “Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility and Work in Life” with WTOP’s Dimitri Sotis.

It’s a book that Bernard said “we wish we had before we started the jobs.”

For starters, the book challenges the idea that being tough means being rude.

“It takes strength and it takes strength of character for someone to be one that treats others with respect,” Bernard said. “Just putting other people down and being rude — that’s not powerful to me. That’s weak.”

The book highlights some “universal precepts”: treating others with respect and dignity, giving one the benefit of the doubt and the like. “This almost always makes people respond in the same way, and it makes life easier for everybody,” Berman said.

In other words, if you’re dealing with a grump, it’s important to remember that it’s probably not about you. “They may have problems,” Berman said. “It’s not personal.”

The job of social secretary, they said, meant more than “party planning;” it meant coordinating statements, news conferences and more.

“Our days were filled with events that really weren’t parties,” Bernard said. “Every day was different.”

“The social secretary has to understand the policies of the president so that the events reflect their interests and not just their style,” Berman added.

The job also means keeping things pleasant in awkward situations when a guest might get sick from too much eggnog — or when a sister did something naughty on St. Patrick’s Day.

“I remember once watching this lovely, elderly, sweet-looking nun clothesline one of the military officers who was one of the president’s honor guard in her zeal to go shake the president’s hand,” Berman recounted. “And the audience gasped and everything stopped, and I hurried over and helped the aide up who was a very healthy strapping aide and offered to get her something to drink.

“And we moved the nun off into the reception area and pretended as if nothing had ever happened, and people forgot about it quickly, which was one of our ways of dealing with an awkward problem — was to make it go away.”

Maintaining that patience in the face of some ridiculous circumstances isn’t the easiest thing in the world, Bernard said, but it pays off.

“Treating people well and going out of your way — whether holding the door open or tipping the … Lyft driver extra really goes a long way for them and in return for you,” he said.

Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard chat with WTOP's Dimitri Sotis

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