I’m late to the much-discussed New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, the 38-year-old White House staffer who is President Obama’s “foreign policy guru.” This paragraph early in the piece lets you know (you might think) what an arrogant piece of work is Ben Rhodes. Emphasis mine:
Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”
Ben! Ben Rhodes! You’re a literary guy. You must at once read about the life and fate of Pietro della Vigna, immortalized by Dante in the Inferno‘s Circle Of The Suicides.
But it turns out that quote is deceptive. Ben Rhodes does not put himself out in front of the president. He lives modestly, and has a modest office in the White House. Then again, there is nothing modest — nothing remotely modest — about telling a New York Times reporter that you have mind-melded with POTUS.
From the sound of things, he is utterly devoted to serving Obama — a good quality to have in a senior adviser. And he has the number of a lot of powerful people, based on his work as a Democratic staffer on the bipartisan Congressional Iraq Study Group, which analyzed the debacle of the Bush Administration’s war. From the article:
One result of this experience was that when Rhodes joined the Obama campaign in 2007, he arguably knew more about the Iraq war than the candidate himself, or any of his advisers. He had also developed a healthy contempt for the American foreign-policy establishment, including editors and reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker and elsewhere, who at first applauded the Iraq war and then sought to pin all the blame on Bush and his merry band of neocons when it quickly turned sour. If anything, that anger has grown fiercer during Rhodes’s time in the White House. He referred to the American foreign-policy establishment as the Blob. According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.
Hard to blame him for that. Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau quickly took to his White House colleague:
“He truly gives zero [expletive] about what most people in Washington think,” Favreau says admiringly of Rhodes. “I think he’s always seen his time there as temporary and won’t care if he’s never again invited to a cocktail party, or asked to appear on ‘Morning Joe,’ or inducted into the Council on Foreign Relations hall of fame or whatever the hell they do there.”
By this point, I’m liking this guy more than I expected to. He has what sounds like a healthy contempt for the Establishment. And he understands communications. Which leads us to the most infamous passage from the story:
It is hard for many to absorb the true magnitude of the change in the news business — 40 percent of newspaper-industry professionals have lost their jobs over the past decade — in part because readers can absorb all the news they want from social-media platforms like Facebook, which are valued in the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars and pay nothing for the “content” they provide to their readers. You have to have skin in the game — to be in the news business, or depend in a life-or-death way on its products — to understand the radical and qualitative ways in which words that appear in familiar typefaces have changed. Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
They literally know nothing. This is what the Internet has wrought: vastly more amounts of information, but much less knowledge.
I won’t spoil for you the description of how Rhodes and his White House colleagues describe manipulating a willing media for the sake of selling Obama policies. David Samuels, the piece’s writer, says that this is something “very different from old-fashioned spin.” It’s about how a smart storyteller learned how to get media figures to tell the story he wants told by having mastered the art of social media.
It is almost breathtaking to read Rhodes describing how his White House war room orchestrated media coverage of the Iran deal to sell a story that was not true. He and his team deceived people for what he believes is the higher good. They just flat-out lied. From Samuels’ piece:
Rather, it derived from his own sense of the urgency of radically reorienting American policy in the Middle East in order to make the prospect of American involvement in the region’s future wars a lot less likely. When I asked whether the prospect of this same kind of far-reaching spin campaign being run by a different administration is something that scares him, he admitted that it does. “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he said, shrugging. “But that’s impossible.”
And that made an opening for a very cynical young man like Ben Rhodes, who is very good at shaping narratives. He’s proud of lying successfully for his boss, and proud that he, a writer in his 30s with no training in foreign policy, is one of the main figures directing America’s foreign policy. Now, I no like him so much.
Read the whole thing, especially the details about how the White House spin machine advances its preferred narrative through the media, and think about what the fact of social media, and the gullibility and inexperience of today’s reporters, says about the future of our democracy.
UPDATE: You really must read Jeffrey Goldberg’s powerful response to the story. The piece slimes him as a shill for the administration. Turns out that the reporter, David Samuels, is a personal enemy of Goldberg’s, and never called him to get him to respond to the allegation. More insight into how the sausage gets made in DC…