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:
This description of an American cabinet official does not belong in the NYTimes. pic.twitter.com/K4i25Lz1y9
— Ilan Goldenberg (@ilangoldenberg) May 6, 2016
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.