Historians so inclined will have a blast when their turn comes to dissect the Obama administration and its people. I do not mean the old-line “presidential historians,” story-telling hagiographers such as Stephen Ambrose or the insufferable David McCullough. Obama will have to wait a while for somebody of this set to embalm him to take what place he might among our mythologized tenants of the White House.
Nor do I think we will get much of interest out of those writing of the more immediate past, the journalists who purport to cross over into history. Lou Cannon, Jon Meacham—no. These guys are into painting impastoed pictures of Reagan and George H.W. respectively to make them look as if they were actually as large as the job. This is not what we want.
We want educated judgment—admittedly hard to find when our commanders-in-chief are tucked in between hard covers. We are finishing up eight years of a very complex presidency—a truth one can sign on for regardless of one’s judgment of the man and his two terms. A good historian will need training in semiotics, the science of signifiers, to understand what has occurred during this presidency. To get Obama down right, he or she will have to explore the amazing extent to which spectacle is supposed to supplant political reality, the “narrative” of events called upon to matter more than events.
Prompting these thoughts is a remarkable piece published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s May 8 edition. It is a profile, months in the making, of Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser and the man in charge of representing—key term—Obama’s foreign policy. Rhodes is an interesting figure, as I will explain for the sake of those who do not already know this. The whole of this long, weirdly jaunty article is here.
Wade through, and do not let the bag-of-tricks prose distract you. You might be as astonished as I to find the Times lifting the lid so unguardedly on just how our foreign policies are packaged and then sold to us—the Times and other front-rank media being the Fuller Brush men of the story. I sometimes refer to the paper that published this piece as “the government-supervised New York Times.” Doubt it no longer if ever you did: You can read all about it now in said newspaper.
Rhodes has had a curious presence since he crept quietly into the news reports a few years ago. He was next to Secretary of State Kerry all through the negotiations with Tehran to limit its nuclear program to peaceful purposes. When the White House suddenly announced that 15 months of secret talks with Havana had produced an agreement to reopen relations, Rhodes turned out to be a key participant in the proceedings. We now learn he is some kind of doppelganger who “has achieved a ‘mind meld’ with President Obama” such that he knows his boss’s thoughts even while the president is not finished thinking them.
Rhodes’s story is even stranger when you start at the beginning. It turns out he was an aspiring writer of fiction—keep this thought at your elbow—who tumbled (with a nudge of nepotism) into Washington’s foreign policy cliques. Rhodes had no background or experience in international relations—a blank slate—but he held a pretty handy pen. So he got into speechwriting, and then into the Obama campaign in 2007, and then into a basement office at the White House after the 2008 election, from which he exerts an almost inconceivable measure of influence. Walter Mitty could not have told a less likely tale.
Rhodes’s full title is deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, and you need to know this to understand just who he is and what his unusual ascent toward the pinnacle of power signifies. While he writes Obama’s speeches and fashions the administration’s spin on any given policy, he also sits at summit tables a few chairs down from Obama and runs on the inside track when Kerry is out executing a policy. David Samuels, who wrote the profile, cites two dozen White House sources when he asserts, “He is the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself.”
Journalists often hype their subject as the most important thing since Saran Wrap, and I suspect Samuels has succumbed to the temptation in writing such things. But there is a lot of it in this piece, suggesting the incaution of the eager freelancer out to make a mark with editors. “On the largest and smallest questions alike,” we read, “the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.” Further down, we read that Rhodes and his colleagues see “some larger restructuring of the American narrative” as “our entire job.” And later we find that the mind-melding Rhodes “used his skills to help execute a radical shift in American foreign policy.”
I do not live in Washington and would rather report the Siberian tundra, but I imagine these assertions are sticking in a lot of craws down there this week. Before taking on the thought of some radical policy shift during the Obama years, however, I need to note something else, something that seems to have thrown some of the Washington press crowd instantly into a dither.
A good part of Samuels’ story is intended to show us just how Rhodes operates—“His days at the White House start with the president’s briefing,” etc.—and the point on which he gets fully granular is how Rhodes and his colleagues “shape the narrative.”
Do they ever.
These guys are social media acrobats. Ned Price, Rhodes’s deputy and chief distributor of the designated spin, is entirely out of the closet as to how he feeds White House correspondents, columnists and others in positions to influence public opinion like a fois gras farmer feeding his geese. He starts with a barrage of Twitter messages and then works the telephone to those he calls variously “our compadres and “force multipliers.” These are journalists and pundits who listen to the line and then—it is absolutely clear in Price’s account—“put this message out as their own.”
Readers of this column will understand, maybe, why a certain sense of vindication overtook me last weekend. When you read routine Washington reports in the Times or any of the other major dailies, you are looking at what the clerks we still call reporters post on government bulletin boards (which we still call newspapers).
Rhodes provides a more structural analysis of the phenom, which I appreciated. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t,” he told Samuels. “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.”
Pithy, Ben. And pathetic.
Conclusions and questions.
In Ben Rhodes we seem to see the blurring of the line between the substance of policy and the narrative of the policy—its “story.” The flack and spinmaster sitting at the summit table tells us something fundamental about the Obama presidency and why it has been so hard a read in the foreign policy space. This is what I hope the historians do not miss.
I do not doubt that Rhodes and Obama shared the ambition to effect “a radical shift in American foreign policy.” But they have misread the task top to bottom. Their project has been all about style, in a word. This president and his great communicator set out to change the way America does things abroad but not the intentions of what we do. Samantha Power wears trendy sneakers, Samuels says in making the same point, and this is supposed to be enough to give the purposely provoking U.N. ambassador a pass in the Williams-Sonoma set.
There can be no radical shift in American conduct abroad, of course, until goals and purposes are addressed very forthrightly. This means taking on, in explicit fashion, our inherited tropes—our claims to exceptionalism and universalism—as well as the hegemonic ambitions the Pentagon shares with American corporations. It is a question, as noted in a previous column, of techne and telos, two words from ancient Greek. You can change the former—your method, your means—all you like, but it will matter little until you alter your telos, your aims, the ideal you strive for.
There is a telling point to make on this score with regards to Samuels’ piece. “A larger restructuring of the American narrative” is implicitly advanced as Rhodes’s chief distinction. He entertains “a healthy contempt for the American foreign policy establishment,” we read, and this includes Hillary Clinton, Robert M. Gates, the Times and so on. He cares not what anyone thinks of him, can live without cocktail parties and gives it to them all straight no chaser, brave man.
What is the new narrative, then? May we know, please? I address the question to Ben Rhodes, David Samuels and Samuels’ editors at the Times Magazine. All this palaver about a brilliant foreign policy innovator and not one word about his masterstroke innovation, a reimagined frame for American conduct abroad?
The lapse is a symptom of the above-noted problem: style without substance, form without content. We cannot count even the openings to Iran and Cuba as any great departures, given Washington’s behavior since. There is no new narrative, only a new way of telling the old narrative.
Here is the puzzle I was left with when I put the Samuels profile down: Why did the Times assign and run this? Why Samuels, who is more accustomed to covering Britney Spears and rap music—a journalist of styles, let’s say. Maybe it intended to get a puff piece back. But he gave his editors an unsubstantiated thesis on the policy side, and in the matter of how Washington works he managed to say a good bit of what I classify as “the unsayable.” Read the piece: Did the Times not pee on its own sofa?
Why? And why did the paper’s editors want us to know these things now? Samuels has big names such as Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic correspondent and a friend indeed to this administration, scrambling this week to blurt that no, they were not among the ones who took the hook and swallowed the line. (Debatable at the very least, I would say.)
Benjamin R. Rhodes, 38. I have written favorably of him in this column from time to time, chiefly with regard to the Iran accord, which came after many at-the-brink rounds of negotiations. He deserved those compliments. He is plainly a bright man. But he ought not be in the White House, and the White House should not be so preoccupied with telling stories.