Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes is penning a different script for the world stage
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
In a scene from a recent HBO documentary about the Obama campaign, the candidate's chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, looks exhausted after churning out a victory address following the last Democratic primary.
Asked about the tone of the June 3 remarks, he shrugs: "Hope. Change. Y'know."
A year into the Obama presidency, the White House appears to have had enough of that speech, too.
The rhetorical crescendo upon which Obama soared into office worked wonders in the campaign. But for Obama, governing has been less a grand narrative sweep than a grueling incremental push powered by exposition and argument. And especially on the delicate world stage, Obama has turned to Ben Rhodes to make the case.
"There is a specificity you've got to have when you are actually governing and not campaigning," said Sen. Mark Warner, the Virginia Democrat for whom Rhodes briefly worked during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election. "It is very important that the president, as he takes on the thorny issues, to lay out the substance, and I think Ben is the guy to work with him on that."
Rhodes, who wears hats as a foreign policy speechwriter, deputy national security adviser and sometime administration spokesman, is not new to the Obama team. He wrote Obama's statesman-in-training address in Berlin, the nuanced speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, the call for nuclear disarmament in Prague, the Nowruz message signaling engagement with Iran, and the modest, moving eulogy to the slain soldiers of Fort Hood. More recently, he wrote the president's Afghanistan address, acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, and letter to CIA employees following a suicide bombing attack on agents in Khost by a double agent. On Tuesday, Rhodes will be blogging for the White House on national security and foreign policy. Since moving from Favreau's immediate supervision in the speechwriting group in September to become deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Rhodes has reported to national security adviser James Jones and press secretary Robert Gibbs. The 32-year-old New Yorker's ascent is not a product of any intra-administration maneuvering: Favreau is still Rhodes's pal and remains the principal channeler of Obama's voice. But Rhodes possesses a skill set well matched to the danger-fraught moment. And that moment, which requires more explanation than inspiration, isn't likely to change anytime soon.
The straight shooter
Rhodes, a compact, balding straight shooter, grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He showed early signs of single-mindedness as a grade-schooler who refused to take off his L.A. Lakers T-shirt until the team won the 1985 NBA championship. He attended the exclusive prep school Collegiate, where he excelled at baseball, ran track and chilled out to the Allman Brothers. But he had two passions pulling him in different directions: prose and politics.
He played a bit role in the drama club's production of "The Comedy of Errors," sat on the editorial board of the literary magazine Prufrock, and constantly carried a copy of "The Sun Also Rises" in his back pocket on trips to the Central Park meadow.
"I very much wanted to be a fiction writer," Rhodes said.
His interest in politics led him to a role in student government. His primary assignment: organizing the school prom.
"He appointed me to the patronage job in charge of the vending machine," said his lifelong friend Sam Schaeffer, a nonprofit executive in New York and former policy adviser to Chuck Schumer.
While his friends spoke with the ideological fervor of high school students, Rhodes developed a strong centrist streak. "Collegiate was so liberal that I was actually reactionary against it," said Rhodes. "I probably would have said I was Republican."