David Samuels’s lengthy profile of Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, is meant to be a puff piece. In some ways it is: Rhodes comes across in the New York Times magazine story as very effective and powerful, but also as morally dubious. Even more dubious, in Samuels’s presentation, is the state of American journalism in the Obama era.
Consider this passage:
Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies.
To put it less flatteringly, Rhodes is a masterful propagandist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—an administration, like any large organization, needs people to speak to the public on its behalf, and to engage in such advocacy is not, in itself, dishonorable.
But lying to the public is. The describes what Samuels calls the “innovative campaign to sell” Obama’s Iran nuclear deal:
The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented . . . was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal. Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false. . . .
In the narrative that Rhodes shaped, the “story” of the Iran deal began in 2013, when a “moderate” faction inside the Iranian regime led by Hassan Rouhani beat regime “hard-liners” in an election and then began to pursue a policy of “openness,” which included a newfound willingness to negotiate the dismantling of its illicit nuclear-weapons program. The president set out the timeline himself in his speech announcing the nuclear deal on July 14, 2015. . . . While the president’s statement was technically accurate . . . it was also actively misleading, because the most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012, many months before Rouhani and the “moderate” camp were chosen in an election among candidates handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This is the section of Samuel’s profile that has received the most attention, and understandably so. “Congratulations, liberals of the Washington press corps and elite organizations: You’re a bunch of suckers,” writes John Podhoretz in the New York Post. “We all know this because the Obama White House just told us so.” Make that the Obama White House and the New York Times!
The campaign for the Iran nuclear deal will likely draw comparisons with the Bush administration’s effort to promote military action in Iraq. There are similarities, but also key differences. Before joining the Obama campaign in 2007, Rhodes had worked as “chief note-taker” for the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, where, Samuels writes, he “developed 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, who at first applauded the Iraq war and then sought to pin all the blame on Bush and his merry band of neocons when it quickly turned sour.”
The Iraq effort was promoted using false information, but even Rhodes does not claim the deception was deliberate. As Samuels writes: “For Rhodes . . . the Iraq war was proof, in black and white, not of the complexity of international affairs or the many perils attendant on political decision-making but of the fact that the decision-makers were morons.” The Obama administration decision-makers aren’t morons, just con artists.
Not that the public fell for the con. Most polls found the public skeptical of the deal, and the administration succeeded in attracting only the bare minimum of support (all from Democrats) necessary to avoid rejection by Congress. In those respects it is similar to ObamaCare, passed with only Democratic votes and over strong public opposition—and sold, as we now know, though a campaign of deliberate deception that implicated the president himself.
Another similarity with ObamaCare is that the administration can count on its allies in the press to relay its propaganda uncritically. The Samuels piece describes this in especially stark terms:
Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them—”
“I can name them,” I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging.
The fault here lies not with the ventriloquist but with journalists who decide to be dummies.
Samuels observes that we no longer live “in a world where . . . carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power.” That last qualification is telling: It suggests that the Washington press corps is partisan as well as (selectively) servile, and leaves open the possibility that the journalists would some of their adversary spirit in the event of a Trump administration.
That seems likely to us, though the effect might be surprisingly similar. Candidate Trump has proved rather effective at using the press’s hostility to advance his “narrative” and “messaging.”
John Podhoretz is more scathing:
Congratulations, liberals of the Washington press corps and elite organizations: You’re a bunch of suckers. We all know this because the Obama White House just told us so. …
The mastermind of the Obama machine is Ben Rhodes, a New Yorker who joined the Obama campaign as a speechwriter in 2007 and has risen to become the most influential foreign-policy hand in the White House.
Rhodes drips with contempt for almost everyone but his boss. He consigns all those who do not share every particular of the Obama-Rhodes foreign-policy perspective to a gelatinous mass called “The Blob” — including, Samuels writes, Hillary Clinton.
He thinks as little of them as he does of the journalists he and his team must spoon-feed. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” Rhodes says. “They literally know nothing.”
Then there are others his assistant Ned Price refers to as “force multipliers,” more senior reporters and pundits who parrot what they’re told. “I’ll give them some color,” Price says, using the journalistic term for juicy bits of inside-baseball detail, “and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they’ll be putting this message out on their own.” …
Why on Earth was such conduct remotely acceptable? Because, Samuels makes clear, Rhodes and Obama believe they’re the only sensible thinkers in America and that there’s no way to get the right things done other than to spin them. “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he tells Samuels. “But that’s impossible.”
Impossible? There was a sober, reasoned public debate over the Iran deal. Its opponents were deadly serious. In the end, 58 senators voted against it on sober, reasoned grounds.
What the Samuels piece shows is that the Obama administration chose to attempt to get its way not by winning an argument but by bringing an almost fathomless cynicism to bear in manipulating its own clueless liberal fan club.
The headline says it all in Foreign Policy’s piece, which is not written by a conservative:
The profile of one Ben Rhodes running in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is not unsympathetic, which makes it all the more devastating.
Perhaps the key sentence is this: “His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.”
Rhodes comes off like a real asshole. This is not a matter of politics — I have voted for Obama twice. Nor do I mind Rhodes’s contempt for many political reporters: “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.”
But, as that quote indicates, he comes off like an overweening little schmuck. This quotation seems to capture his worldview: “He referred to the American foreign policy establishment as the Blob. According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.” Blowing off Robert Gates takes nerve.
I expect cynicism in Washington. But it usually is combined with a lot of knowledge — as with, say, Henry Kissinger. To be cynical and ignorant and to spin those two things into a virtue? That’s industrial-strength hubris. Kind of like what got us into Iraq, in fact.
Rhodes and others around Obama keep on talking about doing all this novel thinking, playing from a new playbook, bucking the establishment thinking. But if that is the case, why have they given so much foreign policy power to two career hacks who never have had an original thought? I mean, of course, Joe Biden and John Kerry. I guess the answer can only be that those two are puppets, and (as in Biden’s case) are given losing propositions like Iraq to handle.
Fact check: Obama’s hasn’t been an original foreign policy as much as it has been a politicized foreign policy. And this Rhodes guy reminds me of the Kennedy smart guys who helped get us into the Vietnam War. Does he know how awful he sounds? Kind of like McGeorge Bundy meets Lee Atwater.