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Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes is penning a different script for the world stage

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 12, 2010; C01

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."

He went off to Rice University in Texas, following in the footsteps of his father, an attorney, and his brother, David, 36, a conservative who left his position as Fox News vice president after 12 years to head U.S. television operations for Bloomberg last November. Rhodes's literature professor, Terrence Doody, recalled him as a serious student who once demanded the class read 200 more pages of Jaroslav Hasek's "The Good Soldier Svejk" than the teacher required. In 1997, Rhodes spent a summer back home volunteering for Republican mayor Rudy Giuliani's reelection campaign.

"I like to think I discovered him," said Sunny Mindel, Giuliani's longtime spokeswoman. "He was brilliant."

Mindel made him a "tracker," someone who goes on missions to the rival's events and reports back every word. He proved so competent that Mindel promoted him to the paid position of opposition researcher, digging up dirt on the Democratic candidate, Ruth Messinger.

Rhodes said the experience was a crash course in ethnic and union politics, not to mention cutthroat media. But not enough to make him commit to a life in politics. After graduation from Rice in 2000, he pursued an MFA in creative writing at New York University, where he worked on -- and ultimately abandoned -- a novel called "Oasis of Love," in which "a woman breaks the guy's heart because she becomes a member of a megachurch," by Rhodes's description.

Foreign policy often flavored his writing. The one piece he published, in the Beloit Fiction Journal, referenced the Taliban. And Humera Afridi, a classmate of his at the time, recalled his interest in a story she wrote that included a character who was martyred in Afghanistan.

In the summer of 2001, a childhood friend, Karl Camillucci, offered Rhodes a summer gig on a New York City Council campaign. The candidate, Diana Reyna was a former aide to Vito Lopez, the boss of the local Democratic machine.

"He put together, you know, some data for us," Lopez said of Rhodes. "He just sort of assisted."

Lopez's legendary ability to micro-target voters from housing project to housing project was a revelation to Rhodes, who saw similar skills in Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "It's the same thing as our primary," Rhodes said. "Understanding where the votes are."

On Sept. 11, election day, Rhodes was poll-watching on the Williamsburg waterfront in Brooklyn when the planes hit the twin towers. He had an unobstructed view.

"I remember walking around with him on September 12 on the Upper West Side, and you just sort of noted this transformation for him of wanting to become much more engaged in the world," said Schaeffer. "By the time he graduated he really knew he wanted to do something in Washington."

"A 24-year-old's coming-of-age story seemed a little trite then," Rhodes said of his literary aspirations. He visited an Army recruiter before settling on engaging through policy work. He called on a family friend in Washington, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and she put him in touch with James Gibney, then the editor of Foreign Policy.

"He said, 'Why don't you be a speechwriter?' " recalled Rhodes, who considered it a rejection at the time. But a short time later, Gibney rang him up and said Lee Hamilton was looking for a speechwriter.

"I confessed to not even knowing who he was," said Rhodes. Hamilton, the former ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Rhodes made an unlikely job candidate.

"I said to myself, 'Well, what I don't need is a fiction writer,' " said Hamilton. "And he had written some poetry. So I questioned him about that. But I quickly learned he has very strong policy interest."

At the time, Rhodes, then living in Queens, had another job offer from literary agent Maria Campbell to start a life in publishing.

"That was the fork in the road," he said. Rhodes chose Hamilton and went on to write much of the 9/11 Commission Report and Iraq Study Group Report.

As the presidential election ramped up in 2008, Rhodes wanted in because "Bush did make me a little more partisan," he said. Hamilton placed Rhodes, a like-minded realist in the foreign-policy realm, with Warner, the former Virginia governor and then-presidential candidate.

"We hit it off," said Warner.

But Warner's romance with the presidency was short-lived, as Hillary Clinton sucked up much of the centrist Democratic oxygen and dollars. His withdrawal left Rhodes jobless during the most important election of his life.

"When Warner dropped out, Ben came back to me and said, 'Well, now what do I do?' " Hamilton said. "We discussed it, and I had been supporting Obama, and I recommended him to Obama, and [Rhodes] seemed to be quite receptive to that."

Rhodes recalled having specifically asked Hamilton to connect him with Obama.

"I drank the Kool-Aid hard after the '04 convention speech," said Rhodes. After a six-month trial period in which he drafted floor statements, Favreau asked him to help craft the candidate's first foreign-policy speech, in April 2007. In June the campaign offered him the job.

According to the Obama campaign brass, Rhodes made an immediate impact.

"Gibbs has said that we look at the campaign in two eras, one is pre-Ben Rhodes and the other is post-Ben Rhodes," Hamilton said. Asked what Gibbs meant by that, Hamilton added, "The articulation of the campaign themes became clear, more precise, more reflective of the candidate's views."

"I don't remember saying quite that," said Gibbs, who suggested that Hamilton was referring specifically to "the foreign-policy side. Ben is of a foreign-policy mind-set that is in tune and in step with the president."

On election night 2008, after Obama won the presidency, Rhodes was one of the core staffers celebrating in Chicago at a club called Underground. Donors and aides, including spokesman Bill Burton, snaked through the bar in an uproarious conga line. Favreau and posse joked around in the club's corner. Rhodes and his now wife, Ann Norris, an aide to California Sen. Barbara Boxer, chatted quietly with one another by the bar.

'A great team'

The story line of Obama swooping in to his own rhetorical rescue is well established. Often, those rah-rah barnburners were written with Favreau. Undeniably talented, strong-jawed and buzz-cut, Favreau became a pinup for Washington power chasers. And in the White House, his role as minter of Obama's most valuable coin has made him as critical an administration player as any recent speechwriter.

But this has been a year in the legislative trenches, and the most discerning consumers of Obama's words -- the battle-hardened political people in Congress and the media -- got impatient with the oratorical lift. On the complicated international stage, the president had steadily moved away from the "Yes we can" and "Fired up" narratives that sent a thrill up the leg of Chris Matthews and made Favreau famous, and has worked Rhodes's metronomic beats into domestic speeches as well.

Rhodes said that it was "a false dichotomy" to parse the president's speech into Favreau's flourish and his own all-business bluntness. "We complement each other," he said. "I was able to pick up the rhythms of political campaign speechwriting. I had basically been focused on articulating policy."

"If you have technocrat without some lift, or you have lift without some technocrat, none of it would match the time," said Gibbs. "That's what makes them a great team."

Rhodes said all the speechwriters were aware of the critical role they shared in an administration that depends so much on Obama's speeches to move the agenda forward.

"We refer to them as high wires," Rhodes said. "You get to the point where there is a lot riding on these speeches. We have used speeches to respond to deadlocks and to respond to awkward situations and to push the agenda."

Not everyone thinks that's the best way to govern.

"Obama's instinct to save himself with a big speech is not a good instinct," said David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. "People get a sense of you and they stop hearing you. People do tune you out."

'A profoundly serious document'

Less substantive complaints about the president's speeches also began to appear in the first year.

In October, the Associated Press registered annoyance with Obama's rhetorical crutches, focusing on his dependence on the phrase "Let me be clear" in speeches about everything from al-Qaeda to climate change to the introduction of the first family's new dog.

His mannerisms also became familiar. The way he whispered to emphasize emotion, usually somewhere around the word "we." The way he hunched over the microphone and extended a straight right arm, like some sort of applause-o-meter, to communicate passion. The imperious way he peered over teleprompters at the crowd. His tendency toward verbosity.

"Some of those sentences get a little long and complicated," said Ted Sorensen, chief speechwriter and a policy adviser to John F. Kennedy.

Sorensen is a staunch supporter of Obama, and even helped install his own protege, Adam Frankel, on the Favreau team. But he has said the president has appeared stuck in campaign mode for much of his first year in office and was in need of, as he put it, more "clarity and directness."

When it came to Obama's escalation of the war in Afghanistan -- a policy Sorensen said he prayed against -- he said the president required "a combination of very specific facts and plans with the kind of inspiration and appeal that has worked for him in the past" to convince the skeptical nation.

Obama assigned the speech to Rhodes.

"He and Ben are in the same place about how to conduct a foreign policy," Gibbs said of the president. "That makes Ben able to explain a theory of the case that the president wants the American people to understand."

"He explicitly did not want to be chest-pounding or to be unmoored from a serious set of policy choices he had made," said Rhodes, who presented several drafts of the speech to the president over the course of a week.

Obama delivered his Afghanistan speech in front of the West Point cadets whom he was deploying into combat, and it sounded different. "The least rousing, most skeptical call to arms I've ever heard," George Packer, the veteran war correspondent for the New Yorker, wrote, not unhappily, of the speech. The purposely flat, sober and explanatory sections are those most likely to be remembered.

"There is a language of governing that is different from campaigning and different from spinning," said Michael Waldman, President Bill Clinton's director of speechwriting, who called the Afghanistan speech a profoundly serious document. " . . . He announced he was sending troops. People don't want that done with applause lines."

In the speech, Rhodes helped Obama carefully articulate his decision in language mindful of audiences both domestic and international. Afghanistan wasn't a quagmire, the president argued, because the Taliban wasn't a "broad-based popular insurgency." Staying at the current troop levels would be ineffective; staying indefinitely "sets goals that are beyond what we can achieve at a reasonable cost."

The speech was not entirely without the vestiges of Obama's campaign oratory, and the final passages about "the strength of our values" sounded ancillary, compared with the tight argument of the 33-minute address.

But Rhodes insisted that the "values" coda of the West Point speech "very much leads into the Oslo speech," making clear that America is bearing much of the international burden in Afghanistan. "It was a starting point," Rhodes said.

The day after the address in West Point, Rhodes and Favreau met in the Oval Office to start the Nobel speech. As with the Philadelphia speech on race and the inaugural address, Obama wrote much of the remarks himself, this time on a yellow legal pad. Obama and his speechwriters saw the awkwardness in the president receiving the peace prize as he waged two wars, and together they saw an opportunity to describe the messiness of the world and indicate that progress would be painstaking and incremental. It was a speech devoid of rousing chants and memorable turns of phrase. It was a well-structured argument, arguably better when read than heard, of a man whose words now bear the weight of governing.

"Campaign speech is all part of one narrative, but now you are making a series of arguments," said Rhodes, who gamely deconstructed his boss's texts as if he were back in the writing workshop. "An argument is a lot clearer to a listener if there is a structure that they can follow. Structure is what allows you to build a case."

In a recent White House video, filmed against the whir of Air Force One as it flew from Singapore to China, Rhodes tells the camera, "I was just working on the president's remarks on the flight right now." He doesn't look tired.

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