All political parties and world leaders have at least one spin doctor.
Many have writing qualifications and professional experience in that field.
Over the past week the name Ben Rhodes has been popping up in the news. An online search reveals that he is the spin doctor behind Obama’s Iran deal.
On May 5, the New York Times Magazine published David Samuels’ investigative article and interview with this heretofore anonymous man. Yes, American media know him, but the public did not. Now they do. ‘The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru’ is an eye-opener.
Ben Rhodes was born in 1977 to a Jewish mother from New York and an Episcopalian father from Texas. He never felt very comfortable with either Judaism or Christianity.
After graduating from Collegiate School in 1996, he worked on Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral campaign in New York. He then went to Rice University in Houston, where he majored in English and political science, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 2000. He returned to New York and, in 2001, worked on Diana Reyna’s city council campaign.
He attended New York University and earned an MFA in creative writing in 2002. That same year, he launched his career as a speechwriter. He also worked on the Iraq Study Group Report and the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission.
He began working for Obama in 2007 when the Illinois senator launched his first presidential campaign. For the past few years, Rhodes has created, shaped and disseminated the ‘narrative’ of the Iran deal to the media, who then sell it to the American public.
Rhodes is married to Ann Norris and has a daughter. Norris works in the State Department and used to be chief foreign policy adviser to California senator Barbara Boxer. Rhodes’s brother David, incidentally, is the president of CBS News.
David Samuels’s article for the NYT Magazine is lengthy and disturbing; it reveals Rhodes’s work. It begins with 9/11 as Rhodes watched it happen in New York. That event led to the aforementioned speechwriting and 9/11 assignments. He had originally intended to write fiction, then got interested in foreign policy.
When Rhodes began working for Obama in 2007 he was barely 30 years old. His youth earned him the moniker The Boy Wonder.
He is the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and, as such, not only manages it and writes speeches but also arranges Obama’s trips overseas. However, Samuels says that this barely begins to describe Rhodes’s importance (emphases mine):
He is, according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself. The president and Rhodes communicate “regularly, several times a day,” according to Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, who is known for captaining a tight ship. “I see it throughout the day in person,” he says, adding that he is sure that in addition to the two to three hours that Rhodes might spend with Obama daily, the two men communicate remotely throughout the day via email and phone calls.
On the largest and smallest questions alike, the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.
Although his work is political, his writing talent helps him 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.
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.
It’s also startling that a community organiser turned junior senator has occupied the Oval Office for eight years. And he has the nerve to take a verbal shot at Donald Trump, saying that job is not ‘reality television’? However, I digress.
Rhodes’s White House colleagues repeatedly told Samuels that he has a ‘mind meld’ with Obama, meaning that he knows what the leader of the free world is thinking. Rhodes admitted:
I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.
Rhodes and his assistants have CNN on in their basement office all the time. Rhodes will watch the news coverage and work out an angle when the optics look bad. He has an entire network of water carriers in the media who will tweet and write articles based on what he says. Rhodes and his staff have been the ‘senior White House officials’ and ‘spokespeople’ quoted.
This is worrying, because Rhodes is purposely playing the media and, through them, the American public:
“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. 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.”
In this environment, Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once.
Jon Favreau, who was Obama’s chief speechwriter when Rhodes came on board in 2007, found himself in sync with him. He told Samuels:
The idea of someone with a masters in fiction who had also co-authored the Iraq Study Group and 9/11 Commission reports seemed perfect for a candidate who put so much emphasis on storytelling.
As for the way the public understands the Iran deal, Samuels warns:
The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — 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.
He adds that the media are to blame because so many reporters lack seasoned experience:
I was struck by how naïve the assumption of a “state of nature” must seem in an information environment that is mediated less and less by experienced editors and reporters with any real prior knowledge of the subjects they write about.
Samuels explains at length how the Iran deal unfolded and Rhodes’s role in disseminating a particular perspective. Rhodes said that he had different ways of presenting it to the average American, to special interest groups and more. Samuels explains:
In the spring of last year, legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters. “We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Rhodes told Samuels that he and the Obama administration doubt whether Iran can reform.
In closing, some of Samuels’s readers thought he was fawning over Rhodes. While the two seemed to have a good rapport, I did not walk away with the impression that he approved of Rhodes’s pulling the wool over the eyes of doe-eyed reporters — and the American public.
Finally, one of Samuels’s readers posted this on the many media connections within the Obama administration:
You cannot have a free and objective press when the media is in bed with the government.
People like Rhodes were not hired for what they know, but WHO they know. The corruption runs deep.
CBS President David Rhodes is the brother of Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications.
ABC President Ben Sherwood is the brother of Obama’s Special Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood.
CNN President Virginia Moseley is married to former Hillary Clinton’s Deputy Secretary Tom Nides.
ABC News executive producer Ian Cameron is married to Susan Rice, National Security Adviser.
ABC News correspondent Claire Shipman is married to former White house Press Secretary Jay Carney.
ABC News and Univision reporter Matthew Jaffe is married to Katie Hogan, Obama’s Deputy Press Secretary.
The list is is deeper than most would ever dream.
NBC General Counsel Kimberley D. Harris served as White House Deputy Counsel and Deputy Assistant to the President.
It is no doubt the same around the world, but it is still mind-boggling.
Tomorrow: Molly Button, ex-spin doctor