or two years now I’ve been trying to persuade myself that I could at least pretend to have a soft spot in my iron-clad heart for Ben Rhodes, the Obama foreign-policy adviser whose new memoir, The World As It Is, has lately been making noise. My struggle began in 2016, when the New York Times Magazine ran a profile of him. It provoked a considerable commotion. Everyone agreed that the article presented Rhodes, still in his mid-thirties, as a glib, self-aggrandizing twit, but that’s not why I wanted to like him.
His observations scandalized professional Washingtonians, and that made me feel the warm glow of intellectual kinship. Rhodes, according to the author of the profile, had “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.” Rhodes called this establishment the Blob, and among its stalwarts he named Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates. Even better, Rhodes turned his attention to the Washington press corps, which he described as easily manipulated—by him. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old,” Rhodes said. “And their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
Reading this one Sunday morning with the Times scattered on the floor around me, I could barely stifle a cry: Ben! My Man! What’s not to like?Rhodes’s description of the working press in Washington, particularly those bright young things who flutter around partisan politics and the White House, is perfectly accurate. And anyone who has tried to catch 40 winks at a Brookings Institution foreign-policy panel or taken up a machete to hack through the tangled prose of Foreign Affairs will think the “Blob” is not only an accurate tag but maybe too kind.
I kept struggling to nurse a sympathy for Rhodes through the release this January of The Final Year, an HBO documentary that shadowed the deputy national-security adviser through his last months thinking up American foreign policy. The film showed him to be even glibber and more self-aggrandizing than the Times had let on; a bully, too. Nevertheless, his colleagues, such as UN Ambassador Samantha Power and his proximate boss, Susan Rice, were happy to help in the aggrandizing. Not only was Rhodes brilliant, said Rice, he had achieved a “mind meld” with Obama, as if he were a Vulcan beamed in to do a job on Captain Kirk. (Bad casting: Obama’s the one with the funny ears.)In the movie, Rhodes wears a perpetual scowl. This is perhaps a sign of stress—in his new book, he says he got nervous before his first meeting with Obama in 2007 and stayed nervous for 10 years—or he might worry that if he smiled his forehead would split open and all those brains would spill out, his and Obama’s.
The World As It Is confirms that I was right to cling to my sympathy, for Rhodes comes off, despite himself, as a woebegone character. He’s unappealing for all the familiar reasons, but as a powerful White House aide, he’s also feckless and overwhelmed, deploying his famous arrogance and bullying tactics as little floaties to keep his head above water. Sentence for sentence, he’s not much of a writer, which is to be expected from an author with an MFA in creative writing. Altogether, though, he draws a compelling picture of an entire swath of his class and generation. They are the twenty- and thirtysomethings who manned the Obama administration and expect soon to be our ruling class—well-to-do and mostly white, energetic and ambitious and entitled, with fancy degrees that left them with many poses and attitudes but little knowledge of the country that popped the silver spoon in their mouths.
His artlessness is touching, almost. He and his bride, Rhodes writes, are too busy with their careers to spare time for a honeymoon, so they throw one hell of a wedding bash. (“At the end of the night, Samantha Power was carried dramatically out of the wedding party by her husband.”) Ben grabs the mike from the DJ and belts a George Michael song. With all his peers in attendance, he sees it as the end of something but also the beginning:
It felt like the period on a stretch of time when we all hadn’t quite been promoted to positions of higher responsibility—before people took over departments of government, joined the cabinet, had kids, got divorced, succeeded in (or failed out of) government, or went off to make money.
Went off to make money. This is an apt description of one of the many options awaiting Rhodes and his friends, but it sounds like a phrase from another era—you think of old WASPs from Brown and Harriman setting up their sons on Wall Street after they got back from the war. It’s only with a jolt that you realize an entire set of cultural assumptions and behavior—in particular, the unquestioning sense of their own indispensability—has been transplanted from that long-gone generation of fogeys to the best’n’brightest of the 21st century.
Not all the assumptions and behavior, of course. George Marshall did not sing glam rock at his own wedding, for example. And Rhodes indulges in, and readily confesses to, unhealthy doses of self-pity. One year into the White House, he laments that the president has taken him to Hawaii for the holidays. “I walked through groups of people on the beach,” he writes, “away from friends and family for the first time in my life.” Dean Acheson may have felt humiliated that his terrible inaugural seats embarrassed him in front of his out-of-town family, but unlike Rhodes, he kept it to himself. After the Times profile, Ben wrestles with questions of identity: “You live your life knowing that the story out there about who you are is different from the person you think you are, and want to be.” (Don’t waste too much time on it.)
Rhodes’s oversharing is common to his generation and class, as are the self-absorption and self-regard it’s a token of. In the self-regard, if not the emotional incontinence, he resembled the president he served. Obama here is the Obama we’ve been hearing about for a decade now: even-tempered and frosty as dry ice, with a confidence in his own wisdom and destiny, packaged in high-flown statements that are either gnomic or banal. They do succeed in stoking the admiration of his easily impressed followers. He summarizes his theory of speechmaking to Rhodes, who’s wowed: “We are telling a story about who we are.” Rhodes twice repeats a favorite saying that his leader apparently once heard from Carl Sagan on TV—“There are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on the earth”—though nobody but Obama knows what it applies to. The president reflects on leadership. “The American people are idealists,” Obama tells Rhodes, “but their leaders have to be realistic and hard-headed.” Why, back at the University of Chicago, that there’s what they call a paradox.
Hard-headedness is not the quality that most distinguished the foreign policy Ben Rhodes helped shape. His book appears just as the signal attainments of Obama’s administration are being dismantled, with great clumsiness but also, as these things go, almost certain finality. This only adds to the poignancy. Rhodes continues to see the Trump ascendency as an aberration and not as the national upchuck it was, the revulsion a large part of the country felt toward the administration—to the class—he typifies. The World As It Is is a good book, an insider account of those who would be kings (and queens). I put it aside with admiration, and also with a paraphrase from Rhodes himself: They literally learned nothing.