For one thing, the imperative to guarantee results could be paralyzing. “That was the pressure on us,” one ex-aide told me. “‘Don’t do it if it’s not going to be perfect.’” Staff knew that every event should produce positive coverage, and that all the angles had to be exhaustively researched and gamed out (not easy with a team of less than 30). But it was never completely clear what the standard of perfection should be. “There’s no barometer: The first lady having the wrong pencil skirt on Monday is just as big of a fuck-up as someone speaking on the record when they didn’t mean to or a policy initiative that completely failed,” says another former aide. “It just made you super anxious.” Another past employee described a common feeling of “how can we be the caliber that we’re expected to be with no attention and no resources and being an afterthought? And all that can make for sparks. Friction.”

Former staffers describe a high-stress, high-stakes workplace, in which Mrs. Obama scrutinized the smallest facets of her schedule. Aides in both wings of the White House say she insists on planning every move months in advance and finalizing speeches weeks ahead of time—a rigidity nearly unheard of in today’s chaotic political environment. “For her, trust is huge, really feeling like people were protecting and thinking about her,” says one alum. “And then, also, she’s a lawyer. She’s really disciplined. She cares about the details. She’s never going to wing it.” The alum explained that staffers would often want to run an idea by Mrs. Obama casually, to get her read on it. “That kind of doesn’t work for her,” the alum said. “You have to fully think it through and be ready for questions.” It didn’t help that the West Wing, which was often absent during the long pre-planning phase, could swoop in on the day of an event to gripe about its execution. (I worked in the White House press operation until March of 2011, but rarely worked closely with the East Wing.)

All of this led to a culture of harsh internal judgment. Invitations to meetings with the first lady, in her office above the Jackie Kennedy Garden, became a vital status symbol, a way for staffers to measure their worth. “Every meeting was like an identity crisis, whether you got invited or not,” one former East Winger told me. Casual face-time with Mrs. Obama was coveted as a badge of insiderdom. “Everyone sort of stands at attention in a different way, or they try to make the joke, or they try to be the one noticed, or they try to get the smile,” says a former employee. “And that’s in part a yearning for acknowledgment that you’re part of this, something bigger, and that she knows who you are.” Another former employee put it more bluntly: “They don’t want to work for her; they want to be friends with her.”