That Ben Rhodes Profile

By now most peo­ple who care will have read this fawn­ing pro­file in the New York Times Mag­a­zine of Ben Rhodes, the Pres­i­den­t’s deputy nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er for strate­gic com­mu­ni­ca­tions. And there are a lot of odi­ous things in that pro­file, from Rhodes’ smarmy com­bi­na­tion of cyn­i­cism and know-noth­ing­ness, to his rich moth­er giv­ing him a hand out to skip over the years of school­ing and dif­fi­cult low-lev­el work most peo­ple must endure to climb up the ranks of pol­i­cy in Wash­ing­ton, DC. There’s even an aside about UN Ambas­sador Saman­tha Pow­er’s clothes, which was made dou­bly unnec­es­sary by the com­plete lack of com­men­tary about Rhodes’ sar­to­r­i­al choic­es:

The odi­ous­ness of the piece, and by design of Rhodes him­self, is inescapable: despite sashay­ing his way into a pol­i­cy job at 24 with no expe­ri­ence and no school­ing due to his rich moth­er’s con­nec­tions, he snipes that polit­i­cal reporters are young and stu­pid; he acts as if rou­tine activ­i­ty for a White House com­mu­ni­ca­tions team — you know, sell­ing poli­cies? — is some­how ground­break­ing (made dou­bly so by the jour­nal­ist who wrote the pro­file seem­ing to share Rhodes’ igno­rance and cyn­i­cism about for­eign pol­i­cy). The whole thing is suf­fused with such wide-eyed gee-whizism, that they don’t seem to get that basic tropes of speech­writ­ing (like claim­ing you have a “mind meld” with your prin­ci­ple) are just nor­mal aspects to the job — some­thing both Rhodes and the jour­nal­ist in ques­tion would have known had they ever both­ered to treat their jobs with a mod­icum of respect.

So there is a lot about this pro­file that makes me not only ques­tion why Rhodes con­sent­ed to it, but also pon­der once again the bizarre staffing choic­es Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has made. I’ve men­tioned before the pow­er­ful role staff have on a Pres­i­den­cy, and how vital­ly impor­tant it is to pick strong advis­ers, and how Oba­ma has been real­ly bad at keep­ing good advis­ers and dis­card­ing bad ones. I can­not fath­om keep­ing on staff a senior offi­cial who brags about gas light­ing the entire White House cor­re­spon­dent corps and a pool of friend­ly experts while issu­ing con­tempt for the peo­ple who have devot­ed their lives to work­ing on sub­jects he lucked into doing because of his rich fam­i­ly.

But beyond all of that, there is an aspect to this pro­file that has received rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle atten­tion: lit­er­a­ture. On Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, Ben Rhodes was your typ­i­cal rich white kid in Williams­burg, Brook­lyn, liv­ing the Girls lifestyle and try­ing to become a Writer Of Nov­els. Then the attacks hap­pened, he saw some­one cry, and sud­den­ly he’s like “oh heyyyy I should do this; MOM HELP ME DO THIS.” And it is this frame that his pro­file is hung by — Ben Rhodes want­ed to write nov­els, I guess as a liv­ing? Do peo­ple even do that any­more? But Ter­ror­ism Changed His Life, as they say, and so there­fore he gave up a life of books but is still defined by them any­way. Rhodes makes sure that there are repeat­ed ref­er­ences to Lit­er­a­ture (all of these cap­i­tal­iza­tions are inten­tion­al, by the way), both of him­self and of his job. So there­fore let us con­sid­er this para­graph:

The books on his shelves are a mix of DeLil­lo nov­els, his­to­ry books, recon­dite tomes on Cuba and Bur­ma and adven­ture-wonk stuff like Mark Mazzetti’s “The Way of the Knife.” C. S. Lewis makes an appear­ance here, along­side a vol­ume of Lin­coln speech­es (Oba­ma tells all his speech­writ­ers to read Lin­coln) and George Orwell’s “All Art Is Pro­pa­gan­da.” I have seen the same books on the shelves of plen­ty of Brook­lyn apart­ments. Yet some large part of the recent his­to­ry of Amer­i­ca and its role in the world turns on the fact that the entire­ly famil­iar per­son sit­ting at the desk in front of me, who seems not unlike oth­er weed-smok­ers I know who write Fred­er­ick Barthelme-type short sto­ries, has achieved a “mind meld” with Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and used his skills to help exe­cute a rad­i­cal shift in Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy.

What leaps out at me from this is how com­plete­ly bor­ing Rhodes’ taste in books is (as Michael Kors always said on Project Run­way: you just can­not teach good taste). In the pro­file there are repeat­ed Salinger ref­er­ences, includ­ing Ambas­sador Pow­ers direct­ly com­par­ing Rhodes to Hold­en Caulfield in a total­ly-not-at-all-pre-planned way. It is some­thing Car­los Loza­da, the only oth­er jour­nal­ist I’ve seen actu­al­ly com­ment on Rhodes’ book tastes, men­tioned as well: a 38-year old man should not read books like this. It is the book­shelf of a 19-year old lit major (not that there’s any­thing wrong with being a 19-year old lit major!).

For starters, most peo­ple who read Catch­er in the Rye in high school get a kick out of the sto­ry, tuh-hotal­ly relate to Hold­en, and then grow the hell up and real­ize Hold­en is an enti­tled prick while still appre­ci­at­ing the craft of Salinger’s prose and sto­ry con­struc­tion. This is like watch­ing Rebel With­out a Cause and not just appre­ci­at­ing it as a por­trait of sub­ur­ban angst in the 1950s but active­ly iden­ti­fy­ing with James Dean’s teenaged char­ac­ter while you have a pow­er­ful job and a wife and kids and a BMW. It is inher­ent­ly douchey to call out to a cliché in this man­ner, but Rhodes seems proud of it.

Think about it: when Rhodes talks about how much he relates to Hold­en Caulfield because Hold­en did­n’t like phonies, but then brags of his sig­na­ture accom­plish­ment as a gigan­tic act of douchebag phoni­ness, he is demon­strat­ing he has­n’t got the first clue what actu­al­ly ani­mat­ed Caulfield as a char­ac­ter. He ref­er­ences Salinger, but he did­n’t inter­nal­ize a thing Salinger wrote or cared about.

But there’s more. It is telling to me that Don DeLil­lo and Orwell and a friend­ly jour­nal­ist and C.S. Lewis get call-outs in this piece (which C.S. Lewis? Some­thing inter­est­ing like The Screw­tape Let­ters or Til We Have Faces, or some­thing dis­pos­able and over­writ­ten like That Hideous Strength?), but we have no idea which his­to­ry books he reads. Is Rhodes a fan of Robert Kaplan’s dread­ful neo­colo­nial­ist yearn­ing for empire? Does he enjoy Vic­tor Davis Han­son’s weird fetishiza­tion of ancient Greek mil­i­tan­cy? We don’t know. Who wrote those “recon­dite” tomes on the not-at-all-recon­dite coun­tries of Cuba and Bur­ma? We don’t know.

What we do get is that Ben Rhodes loves Don DeLil­lo — to the point of com­par­ing Sep­tem­ber 11 to Under­world. Now, obvi­ous­ly opin­ions of him vary, but to me DeLil­lo is one of the shin­ing exam­ples of what nor­mal humans find so objec­tion­able about mod­ern MFA pro­fes­sors. They write not to elu­ci­date any­thing, or to con­vey mean­ing or emo­tion, but to fluff their own col­leagues at oth­er MFA pro­grams who will lav­ish them with praise for being so florid. Nabokov could string togeth­er vicious, cut­ting claus­es in his sen­tences that would make you re-read them sev­er­al times just to mar­vel at their vir­tu­os­i­ty. But where Nabokov was joy­ous with his use of lan­guage, DeLil­lo is dull — stul­ti­fy­ing­ly so.

DeLil­lo is a writer who thinks writ­ing in baby talk while obses­sive­ly list­ing brands at a gro­cery sto­ry is a good sub­sti­tute for hav­ing char­ac­ters and actu­al­ly telling a sto­ry (he lit­er­al­ly did this in White Noise, which was itself about how hard it must be to have tenure at a uni­ver­si­ty in a small town with a fam­i­ly and a nice house), whose char­ac­ters all speak in the flat­test monot­o­ne, and whose solil­o­quies are exact­ly what you lat­er laugh about when they’re repost­ed to social jus­tice Tum­blrs as if they’re insight­ful or like no one has ever read and moved on from them years in the past. He was very fash­ion­able for a while in the 90s, and that’s the point: DeLil­lo is the Williams­burg hip­ster’s writer, he is the muse of that guy who wears leg­gings and brings his USB-enabled type­writer to sketch out short sto­ries on his iPad Air at the Peru­vian cof­fee com­poster.

But not to harp too much: this is all of a genre. So Rhodes has poor taste in books, so what? Well… this is some­thing of a hob­by­horse of mine: DC is a town where most peo­ple don’t read fic­tion, at least not that reg­u­lar­ly. It is a place where cre­ativ­i­ty is active­ly and swift­ly pun­ished, where in-groups zeal­ous­ly guard their bub­bles of same-think and not just dis­agree with but active­ly seek to destroy their rivals, and where basic human empa­thy is basi­cal­ly a cock­tail par­ty debate top­ic, rather than any­thing a human being might want to con­sult while craft­ing life-or-death deci­sions. This is some­thing I am try­ing to work on with Viewscreen (see Brett Jiro Fujikoa on why tak­ing fic­tion seri­ous­ly mat­ters), and it is a prob­lem I think is get­ting worse over time.

So here’s where this mat­ters: in the pro­file, one gets a pow­er­ful sense that Ben Rhodes has read all of these books you read in your under­grad lit­er­a­ture class­es, but he nev­er grew from them, nev­er went on to read oth­er works and dif­fer­ent works, and actu­al­ly devel­op him­self beyond the cur­ricu­lum of his turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry MFA pro­gram. And worse: he seems to want to make life imi­tate his favorite art. The Iran Deal was his Babette, and even if she wears a sweat suit in pub­lic he still wants to be with his Babette, and the deal the Repub­li­cans keep crit­i­ciz­ing is not his Babette. While most White House pol­i­cy shops spin/lie (hon­est­ly what is the dif­fer­ence!) to get their ideas out into the world, it is rare to see one do it in such a hap­haz­ard fash­ion. If any­thing, it reads like a movie vil­lain con­fess­ing his entire plan right before the final show­down.

If that does­n’t leave a sour taste in your mouth… well. It seems to have done that amongst most of the com­men­tari­at. Being flat out told that you were lied to, manip­u­lat­ed, con­de­scend­ed to, patron­ized, and boxed in by a 38-year old who nev­er stud­ied your work and who ignored and dis­count­ed the decades you put into a top­ic would make any­one angry. And it should! So I am left, once again, won­der­ing why such an alleged media mas­ter­mind would cap him­self in the knees when he still has 10 months left in his job. It cer­tain­ly does­n’t speak to his being a “boy won­der” (he’s a 38-year old man!), but rather to a cal­lous­ness and dis­re­gard for his own adopt­ed craft.

And the reac­tion to this piece is evi­dent: Rhodes has man­aged to make him­self into one of the most active­ly dis­liked peo­ple in Wash­ing­ton, DC. This is a feat not even Karl Rove could pull off — though also an auto­di­dact, Rove could force Democ­rats to respect his dri­ve, his intel­li­gence, and his mer­ci­less­ness. Many peo­ple loathed Rove, but they could all respect his skill. In con­trast, Rhodes comes off like a petu­lant brat who has float­ed by on his abil­i­ty to fluff the ego of his patrons —  a recipe for suc­cess in DC, to be sure, but it cer­tain­ly isn’t some­thing I would want to brag about in a promi­nent mag­a­zine pro­file.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.