I just don’t know anymore where David Samuels begins and Ben Rhodes ends.
Samuels’s massive New York Times magazine profile of Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, is already prompting debates over the administration’s truthfulness in promoting the Iran nuclear deal, as well as over the disdain with which Rhodes regards the Washington press corps, the U.S. foreign policy establishment — basically anyone who is not himself, President Obama, or fellow West Wing narrative pushers.
So the piece, posted Thursday and titled “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru,” is, in straightforward terms, a real talker, a success. Even if it is, as a piece of nonfiction writing, kind of gross.
The grossness emerges on several levels and on multiple occasions.
It is the knowing chumminess of a journalist finishing sentences for a White House official who is mocking other prominent Washington journalists for getting so easily spun – and then quoting himself as he finishes the sentence, even letting us know that he did so with a chuckle. (It takes a special kind of journalist to quote his own chuckle.) It is the blindness of a writer who declares that Rhodes is “not an egotist” while offering countless examples of that subject’s gargantuan self-regard, and not bothering to note the contradiction. It is letting a speechwriter colleague praise Rhodes for giving “zero [expletive] about what most people in Washington think,” when the entire exercise in which the writer, subject and source are engaged – a lengthy and access-heavy profile portraying Rhodes as the “Boy Wonder” of the Obama White House and revealing Rhodes’s contempt for the Washington foreign-policy establishment – proclaims precisely the contrary.
The grossness is also evident in the profile’s literary pretentiousness. Don DeLillo is a frequent reference point, from the first paragraph of the story, in which the horror of 9/11 becomes a convenient inflection point in the arc of Rhodes’s professional aspirations (from wannabe fiction writer to guy who wants to “try to write about international affairs”), to the bizarre exchange later when Samuels and Rhodes wonder who would best write the novel of Rhodes’s experiences. “I don’t know how you feel about Don DeLillo,” Rhodes suggests. “I love Don DeLillo,” Samuels responds.
Also, we are told not once but twice that Ben Rhodes is something like Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye.” Once it is Samuels who thinks so (Rhodes is “an only slightly updated version of what Holden Caulfield might have been like if he grew up to work in the West Wing”), and next it is Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who “volunteers” the comparison, Samuels emphasizes. “He hates the idea of being phony,” she says to Samuels, “and he’s impetuous, and he has very strong views.” Never mind that Caulfield is one of the most overused literary references for every brooding, self-involved young man. It’s that the work of spin and manipulation that Rhodes performs every day – and that Samuels appears so enthralled by – takes phoniness to an art form.
It is one thing for a journalist to let his subject reveal himself, in his own words and terms, and let readers make up their minds. But there is plenty of room between that and an uncritical, almost credulous approach to a story. You don’t even have to fight over whether the communications strategy surrounding the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal deserves pride of place over the, you know, actual diplomacy. Just look, for instance, at Rhodes’s critique of the press covering foreign policy. “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.” This from someone who has been writing speeches for Obama since he was in his late 20s, and surely understands that age and insight can have a nonlinear relationship. Yet, the only word that Samuels is able to summon to describe Rhodes’s own lack of the usual credentials for his lofty position? “Startling.”
The absurdity and self-absorption of some of the quotes and anecdotes are a lot to take. Like when Rhodes describes himself as an “individual who finds himself negotiating both vast currents of history and a very specific kind of power dynamics.” As Obama once said to Richard Holbrooke when the diplomat spoke in overly dramatic tones about Obama’s policy decisions in Afghanistan: “Do people really talk like that?” (Apparently they do. Even “the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives.”)
Or, in my favorite moment in the profile, when Samuels reports on Rhodes’s daily commute to work. “When his wife takes the car,” the journalist writes, “he rides the bus, which offers him a touch of the anonymity he craves.” What? First, Rhodes is not exactly monopolizing the cover of US Weekly; I doubt he is getting mobbed walking around the District or around what Samuels describes without a trace of irony as Rhodes’s “unpretentious Washington neighborhood.” Second, wouldn’t taking your car render you more anonymous than taking the bus, where other people might actually see you? No, the bus is a metaphor for the common touch – that of a man who can take a break from navigating history’s vast currents to avail himself of public transportation.
The essay makes much of the “mind meld” between Rhodes and Obama. “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,” Samuels reports. But the journalistic trope of the master wordsmith channeling his political boss is an old one – almost as old as that of the journalist profiling a subject with such admiration that he loses perspective.
There was more than one mind meld in this story.
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