The Impermanence of Importance
- The World as It Is: Inside the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes
Bodley Head, 450 pp, £20.00, June 2018, ISBN 978 1 84792 517 6
One of the minor disappointments about Obama was that he played golf. It’s true that most modern American presidents have liked to play golf – just about everyone from Taft to Trump can be seen with a club in his hand – but Obama was not most presidents. His immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, loved the game but felt he ought to give it up after 9/11, in case it seemed frivolous to be on the golf course when he was sending soldiers into battle. Obama was not so self-denying. Ben Rhodes describes what happened when news came through in August 2014 that the journalist Jim Foley had been beheaded by Isis. Video footage of this ghastly event arrived while Obama was holidaying on Martha’s Vineyard. He wrestled with how to respond, reluctant to elevate the outrage but also under mounting pressure to condemn it. In the end he offered a forceful denunciation at a hastily arranged press conference at a school on the island, despite his misgivings that he would be delivering Isis just what it wanted: more publicity. But that wasn’t the story. His message was overshadowed by his decision to play golf the same afternoon. That’s what provoked the outrage.
Obama also played basketball, which made him different from his predecessors. Rhodes is a 5’ 7” balding white man, a worrier and a workaholic who tries to unwind with a drink and a cigarette – a natural fit for golf, in other words. But he was drawn to the basketball player. For eight years Rhodes worked as Obama’s deputy national security adviser and his chief foreign policy speechwriter, one of the very few aides who stayed the course for the entire administration. Early on he describes the president as a man who ‘always moved with ease, like an athlete playing a basketball game at slightly less than a hundred per cent, holding some energy in reserve for the key moments in the fourth quarter’. Rhodes stuck it out in part because he wanted to see what might happen when the elegant athlete finally goes all in. Obama played on this idea too. After losing seats to the Republicans in the midterm elections of 2014, he rallied his team by declaring: ‘My presidency is entering the fourth quarter; interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter.’ One of his staffers was so taken with this line that he had stickers made. ‘This elicited some eye-rolling,’ Rhodes writes, ‘but also a sense that perhaps we were going to spend the last two years of the presidency doing big things, unencumbered by the caution and exhaustion that had crept in.’
As Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out, basketball is the team sport which most depends on the outstanding individual, someone whose outsize talent can carry the weaker players. When LeBron James moves from city to city, the teams he plays for rise and fall with him. Obama was so much more talented than anyone else around – so smart, so eloquent, so cool under pressure – that his teammates must have hoped he could do the same for them. Golf is different. It’s an individualistic game of relentless routine and fine adjustments. The best basketball players win much more often than they lose. Even the very best golfers – Tiger Woods in his prime – lose more often than they win. Golf is a solitary business, and often a lonely one. A basketball team can dominate its opponents and its skilful play will take away from theirs. In golf you are powerless to control what your opponents do. You can only do your best and play the ball where it lies.
Golfer or basketballer? It is striking that when the calamity arrives that threatens to undo everything he has achieved Obama can’t decide which way to describe what went wrong. At one point in the dark days that followed Trump’s election victory in 2016, he falls back on basketball to explain Hillary Clinton’s failure to convert. Rhodes writes: ‘He talked about what it took to win the presidency. To win, he told us, you have to have a core reason why you’re running, and you need to make it clear to everyone how much you want to win. “You have to want it,” he said, like Michael Jordan demanding the ball in the final moments of a game.’ But when provoked, he reaches for a different analogy. On his last overseas trip as president, Obama complains to Rhodes about how he was let down. ‘He couldn’t believe the election was lost, rattling off the indicators – “Five per cent unemployment. Twenty million covered. Gas at two bucks a gallon. We had it all teed up.”’ This brings to mind an image drawn from another sport: Lucy endlessly lining up the football for Charlie Brown to kick, only to pull it away at the last moment and send him flying. Obama did the opposite of that. He went out of his way to ensure the ball was where it needed to be. All she had to do was swing. And she whiffed.
The tug-of-war between the two sides of Obama’s sporting personality – the team leader and the loner, the dreamer and the realist, the man who thinks anything is still possible and the man who has done his best, then shrugs his shoulders and walks away – is emblematic of the fundamental tension running through this fascinating book. Rhodes is an instinctive team player and a fervent believer in a better world than the one we currently inhabit. He desperately wants to believe in that side of Obama too. Rhodes went to work for him in the early days of his presidential run in 2007 because he hoped Obama might redeem him from his own original sin, which was to have supported the Iraq War in 2003. Being with Obama gave him the confidence, as he puts it, ‘that I was a part of something that was right in some intangible way’. He never lost that sense of being on the right side of history, but at many points over the years that followed he came up against Obama’s reluctance to embrace the redemptive role in which Rhodes had cast him. Too often Obama was more cautious, more pragmatic, more measured than Rhodes would have liked. Was that just the inevitable deliberation of the person who bore the ultimate responsibility, or was it the essence of the man? ‘I wrestled with the constant concern that I was losing myself inside the experience, transformed into a cipher for the needs of this other person who, after all, was a politician, playing the role of US president.’ The person, the politician, the president – who was Obama anyway?
Part of the charm of Rhodes’s story is that he doesn’t try to hide the extent to which this was largely about his own crisis of identity. The book is engagingly honest in its self-centredness. He refers throughout to his own anxieties and doubts, his feeling that he is not getting the recognition he deserves and his worry that he might have sold himself cheap. His wife complains that he is away from home too much and making himself too available – ‘Why does it always have to be you?’ – and though Rhodes does always answer the call from his boss, he sometimes senses she is right. Yet he can’t break free from the idea that he and Obama have a special bond, something that transcends their personal circumstances. He persuades himself early on that, notwithstanding their very different backgrounds, he and the president are similar people.
We both have large groups of friends but maintain a sense of privacy that can lead people to see us as aloof. We’re both trying to prove something to our fathers and were nurtured and encouraged by our mothers. We both think of ourselves as outsiders, even when we were in the White House. We’re both stubborn – a trait that allows us to take risks that can tip into arrogance. We both act as if we don’t care what other people think about us, but we do.
There is something touching about this degree of solipsism. In another life, Rhodes might have made a living as an astrologer. Is there anyone working in Washington politics who couldn’t see something of themselves in that description?
As their working relationship evolves, Rhodes comes to appreciate that Obama does not in fact see things the way he does. How could he, given where he has come from?
As an African American he had an ingrained scepticism about powerful structural forces that I lacked … He had priced in the shortcomings of the world as it is, picking the issues and moments when he could press for the world that ought to be. This illuminated for me his almost monkish, and at time frustrating, discipline in trying to avoid overreach in a roiling world.
Equally, the moments when Obama delivers everything Rhodes could ask are often when the gulf between them is most apparent. One happened in June 2015, after a white supremacist called Dylann Roof walked into a black church in Charleston and shot dead nine members of a Bible study group. The following week Obama spoke at their funeral. After reading from his prepared text, Obama paused.
It felt as though he’d reached the end of one kind of speech, a particularly good one, but something was not yet fully expressed. Then something changed in his face – a face I had stared at and studied across a thousand meetings, a face I had learned to read so I could understand what he was thinking, or what he wanted me to do. I saw the faintest hint of a smile and a slight shake of the head as he looked down at the lectern, a letting go, a man who looked unburdened. He’s going to sing, I thought.
‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound …’
As Obama continues to sing, Rhodes has a kind of epiphany:
I started to feel everything at once – the hurt and anger at the murder of those nine people, another thing that I’d kept pressed down in the constant compartmentalisation of emotions that allowed me to do my job; the stress that comes from doing a job that had steadily swallowed who I thought I was over the last eight years; the more pure motivations, to do something that felt right, buried deep within me.
Here at last is the redeemer, the man who can do things of which Rhodes, who is terrified of public speaking, can only dream. ‘It was always hard to explain what it was that I most admired about this complicated man. Watching him, I felt that I would never have to explain it to anyone again.’
For a speechwriter, there is a particular poignancy in realising that being tasked with finding things for Obama to say – with preparing the text – is part of what creates the barrier between them. How can Obama be true to himself as Rhodes wants him to be when Rhodes is the person making Obama who he is? Sometimes this contrast is so stark it is almost comic, and Rhodes appreciates the irony. When Mandela dies in late 2013 the two men travel together to South Africa as part of a large American entourage for his funeral, at which Obama is due to give an address. It is a richly symbolic moment: the first African-American president paying tribute to Africa’s greatest statesman. Rhodes recalls how it felt: ‘I was one of those well-meaning white people looking forward to seeing Barack Obama eulogise Nelson Mandela so that I could feel better about the world, only I was the person tasked with writing the eulogy.’ In the end, unsatisfied with Rhodes’s draft, Obama writes the speech himself. It is much better, but now it is Rhodes’s turn to be dissatisfied. He tells the president it is too impersonal: ‘You need to put more in here about what Mandela meant to you personally.’ Obama has to make his own story part of Mandela’s. The president doesn’t want to do it – ‘I don’t want to claim him or put myself in his company’ – but in the end he accedes to his speechwriter’s advice. ‘Over thirty years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela … It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man.’
Because Rhodes worked as the speechwriter for foreign affairs, there was more latitude for these kinds of drama to play out. When not actually going to war, speechmaking is one of the few ways a US president gets to project his vision overseas. In a domestic context, much of Obama’s attention during his first term was taken up with technical fixes for the American economy and the messy legislative process of trying to reform the healthcare system. When looking outwards, he could pay more attention to the power of words. ‘He turned to speeches as a vehicle to reorient American foreign policy, to communicate a new direction not just to the American people and audiences abroad but to his own government.’ Yet because he had his own priorities, his speechwriter often cared more about the impact of these words than the president did. He definitely minded more about preserving the integrity of the brand. When Rhodes organised a trip that took in India, home of Obama’s hero Gandhi, and Indonesia, his home as a boy, the symbolic pay-off should have been a slam dunk for the president. But, coming shortly after his brutal treatment at the hands of the voters in the 2010 midterms, Obama was listless, frustrated and sometimes bored. ‘Often,’ Rhodes writes, ‘I felt as though I cared more about the global progressive icon Barack Obama than Barack Obama did.’
Foreign policy is also where American presidents go to take out their frustrations when they can’t get things done at home. That was not Obama’s way, because of his inbuilt wariness about the world as it is. He believed his legacy would come at home and be built on two signal achievements: healthcare reform and the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Even though neither was strictly a personal accomplishment – one depended on Congress, the other on the Supreme Court, and both were anchored by shifts in public opinion – that’s what made them special, and potentially lasting: the president hadn’t just done it himself. But his foreign policy advisers were endlessly conscious of what they could be doing, and were occasionally tempted to try to do some of it themselves. It is remarkable how much authority Rhodes accumulates over the eight years he is with Obama, given that he never rises above the rank of deputy national security adviser. It comes from his proximity to the president, his longevity in the post, and the fact that Obama was happy to delegate some of the big thinking to the people who most cared about the outcome. By the end, it is Rhodes who gets to negotiate and orchestrate one of the biggest shifts in US foreign policy for a generation, the opening up of Cuba. That he succeeds is a testament to his tenacity and sense of purpose. But even here, there is a mismatch between his impatience for redemption and what is practically possible, never mind politically feasible. Rhodes grows increasingly obsessed with the symmetry of the notion – ‘the unintentional genius’, as he puts it – of agreeing to Cuba’s request that the US hand back Guantánamo to Cuban control, inmates and all. That way two historical wrongs could be righted at once – the long-standing affront of a US military occupation on Cuban soil and the more recent affront of the uses to which Gitmo had been put since the start of the war on terror. It would certainly have been neat. It would also have blown apart what was left of Obama’s presidency. Rhodes goes so far as to mention to Obama how much he likes the idea. We don’t get told the president’s response because we don’t need to be told. It didn’t happen.
Rhodes is haunted throughout his time in the White House by two earlier catastrophes of American foreign policy, neither of which Obama had any responsibility for, and both of which therefore he might have been able to put right. One is the Iraq War, which Obama does what he can to get out from under, though it was always going to be too little, too late. The other is the Rwandan genocide. One of Rhodes’s heroes is Samantha Power, the person ‘I most wanted to become when I moved to Washington’. Between 2013 and 2017 Power was the US ambassador to the UN; before that, she lived with ‘the permanent tagline “Samantha Power, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘A Problem from Hell’: America in the Age of Genocide”’. When the Libya crisis erupts in 2011, Power is on the National Security Council and at one meeting she passes Rhodes a note saying that if Benghazi is allowed to fall to Gaddafi’s forces, ‘this was going to be the first mass atrocity that took place on our watch.’ Both advisers push Obama hard to sanction military intervention. Obama reluctantly agrees that something must be done.
Two years later, in the summer of 2013, Rhodes is again pushing Obama to take military action, this time against Assad in Syria after he used chemical weapons against his own people in a suburb of Damascus. By now, scarred by the domestic blowback against his Libya policy, Obama is much harder to move. He draws on his own opposition to the Iraq War. ‘“It is too easy for a president to go to war,” he said. “That quote from me in 2007 – I agree with that guy. That’s who I am.”’ Rhodes finds it impossible to argue with this sentiment, but he also finds it difficult to sacrifice his urge to do better than last time. ‘It was as if Obama was finally forcing me to let go of a part of who I was – the person who looked at Syria and felt we had to do something, who had spent two years searching for hope amid the chaos engulfing the Arab world and the political dysfunction at home.’
Then, a few days later, while preparing for a G20 summit in Russia, Obama goes further. He is sitting with Rhodes in his villa on the grounds of a palace outside St Petersburg, dressed in a grey T-shirt and black sweatpants. An NFL game is on TV in the background. It was like being in ‘a neatly appointed condominium you might find alongside a golf course in Arizona’. The discussion turns to growing domestic political opposition to military action in Syria. ‘Maybe we never would have done Rwanda,’ Obama says. For Rhodes this is the most jarring comment of all. He can’t let it go.
‘You could have done things short of war.’
‘Like jamming the radio signals they were using to incite people.’
He waved his hand at me dismissively.
‘That’s wishful thinking. You can’t stop people from killing each other like that.’ He let the thought hang in the air. ‘I’m just saying, maybe there’s never a time when the American people are going to support this kind of thing.’
For someone who came to Washington wanting to be Samantha Power, there can have been nothing harder to hear than that.
Being a foreign policy adviser to an American president can feel like getting a ringside seat at the events that shape history. Certainly that’s how it seems to Rhodes, particularly during the early days of the Arab Spring, when he can barely contain his excitement that this might be the change they can all believe in. He is unceasingly conscious of the importance of his work, and the potentially fateful consequences of a misstep. ‘For me, this was a time when every moment had the electric charge of history … Every statement we made, every meeting I was in, every decision Obama had to make, felt like the most important thing I’d ever been a part of – and I wanted us to do something, to shape events instead of observing them.’ At the same time, Rhodes can’t stop worrying about getting it wrong, fearful of putting words in the president’s mouth that he can’t take back. He remains traumatised by an experience early in Obama’s first presidential campaign, when a remark he’d drafted for the inexperienced candidate about being ready to go after bin Laden in Pakistan was condemned by the Pakistani leadership. The campaign’s panicky communications chief emailed Rhodes afterwards to tell him that this was their worst mistake yet. ‘I thought I’d tanked the campaign,’ Rhodes recalls of that miserable moment. ‘A knot formed in the pit of my stomach and tingled out into my arms, a sense of stress that stayed with me for the next decade.’ But he should have known that almost nothing a would-be president says about foreign policy has the power to do him terminal damage, because it doesn’t matter enough. Only one truly fateful thing was said during the 2008 campaign, and it came from the lips of Obama’s Republican opponent. After Lehman Brothers went under in September, just seven weeks before election day, ‘John McCain uttered one of those phrases from which presidential candidates never recover: “The fundamentals of the economy,” he said, “are strong.”’ Rhodes was never near enough to the things that really concern the voters to do Obama much harm, or much good, there.
Despite his hankering for historical significance, Rhodes understands the anomalousness of his own situation. To travel the world with the American president – and not just any president, but this one – was to get access to some of the most famous people in the world, who nevertheless continued to regard Obama with a kind of awe. Even as his popularity waned back home, Obama remained the biggest draw on the world stage. Stars were starstruck by him, and some of the fairy dust inevitably got sprinkled on whoever was standing nearby. Only on very rare occasions did someone manage to break the spell. In early 2011 Rhodes gets an invitation with the rest of Team Obama to a state banquet at Buckingham Palace. He rents a white-tie tuxedo – ‘You guys clean up pretty well,’ the impeccably turned-out Obama tells his normally scruffy speechwriters – and goes to see the British aristocracy put on a show. ‘The women wore diamond tiaras; some of the men, military uniforms. One of these ladies, after telling me about her various hobbies, looked at me quizzically – “You do know who I am, don’t you?” she said. Of course, I assured her … I didn’t have the slightest idea.’ Then the real centre of attention arrives:
Obama stood next to the queen, a stoic yet kindly-looking woman adorned in jewels. Standing there, you got the sense of the impermanence of your own importance – this woman had met everyone there was to know over the last fifty years … When the dinner was over, we were moved to another room, where they served after-dinner drinks. I found myself in a conversation with David Cameron about the HBO show Entourage, which we both apparently enjoyed – in a room full of royals, the prime minister is oddly diminished, just another staffer.
‘The Impermanence of Importance’ would have made a good alternative title for this book.
That said, the title Rhodes chose is better, because it has a deeper meaning. At one level, it refers to the ongoing contest between Obama’s realism and the hopes of people like Rhodes that he would deliver lasting change. The tension between what is and what ought to be forms the essence of most political coming-of-age memoirs and this one is no different from other classics of the genre, such as The Education of Henry Adams: the dilemmas it describes could come from any time in the history of modern politics, not just our own. But the other reference point for the title is more about now. We are witnessing the increasingly fraught contest between the world as it is – the world of facts – and the world as it is described by people with little or no regard for the facts. Obama and Rhodes may sometimes have found themselves on different sides of the struggle between what is and what ought to be, but they were always on the same side of the struggle between the world as it is and the world as they say it is. Both men were victims of character assassinations by their opponents, who showed increasing disregard for anything that might be called common ground. During Obama’s presidency, the world as it is started to disappear, buried beneath the accusations and counter-accusations of those who said it was another way entirely, simply because they could.
This story is best told backwards, because it is a tale that culminates in the election of Trump. If that represented the ultimate catastrophe for Team Obama – ‘after all the work you guys did,’ as Rhodes’s wife says to him the morning after Trump’s victory – what precedes it has to be sifted for clues that it might be coming. They are easy to miss and Obama’s people missed plenty of them at the time. Sometimes this was down to political incompetence, but there was also some arrogance. In April 2016 Obama travelled to London on a hastily arranged trip to help Cameron fight off the threat of defeat in the Brexit referendum. Obama is greeted by an op-ed from Boris Johnson in the Telegraph attacking him for removing a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office. ‘Some said,’ Johnson wrote, ‘that it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire.’
‘Really?’ Obama said. ‘The black guy doesn’t like the British?’ We were standing in the US ambassador’s house in London, a stately mansion with a lawn so big, with grass so carefully cut, that it resembled a football field without lines.
‘They’re more subtle back home,’ I said.
‘Not really,’ he said. ‘Boris is their Trump.’
Obama agreed to do what Cameron wanted, which was to explain that the Brexiteers’ idea that they could easily negotiate a trade deal with the US was a fantasy. One of Cameron’s people said: ‘We’d be at the back of the queue.’ Everyone laughed. ‘It would be great,’ Cameron said, ‘if you could make that point publicly.’ Obama did as he was asked. He also turned his fire on Johnson. ‘As the first African-American president, it might be appropriate to have a bust of Dr Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who would somehow allow me to have the privilege of holding this office.’
Afterwards, Rhodes goes out to dinner with Cameron’s team ‘to celebrate a visit that had accomplished everything they had asked’. Nevertheless, the Americans are warned by the Brits that Brexit might still come to pass, if the voters decide they don’t want to play it safe. It doesn’t reflect well on Rhodes that he leaves the story there, and never comes back to discuss what it means that this is precisely what happened. It is as though he is saying that Obama did what he could – he played the game, he delivered his bit, he teed it up. It’s not the president’s fault if the other guys couldn’t close it out. But that’s a misrepresentation of how it went down. Obama’s visit was a drag on the Remain campaign, hampered by the obvious contrivance of his message (by saying ‘back of the queue’ rather than ‘back of the line’ he made it clear he had been fed the quote by Cameron’s people). Campaigners for Vote Leave will still tell you that Obama’s visit was one of their best moments, because he was so tone-deaf to the dynamics of the referendum. He didn’t notice how little most people cared about what he had to say; what bothered them was his presumption in coming all this way to say it. Rhodes ignores the dissonance too. But he does register the ominous parallels with Trump. ‘When I watch [Trump’s] rallies,’ he tells the Cameroons over dinner that night in their comfortable London restaurant, ‘I think how potent his message would be from a more skilled politician.’ The implication is that this form of politics might have its day one day, but not while the most skilful politician of all was still at the top of his game. How little they knew.
Before Brexit, it was another B-word that signalled the dangers to come: Benghazi. After Chris Stevens, the US ambassador, was killed there in 2012 during an attack on the American compound, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, bore the brunt of Republican fury for what they saw as a cover-up of the truth. It became a matter of faith for many Republicans that the Obama administration had somehow been complicit in the attack, as revealed by their apparent refusal to condemn it as an act of terrorism. Rhodes, who was Obama’s chief spokesman on the politics of the region, had met with Stevens shortly before his death to discuss how America could help rebuild Libya’s higher education system (it’s hard to think of anything that would be more of a red rag to the bull of the alt-right than that idea). He soon got caught up in the madness that followed. It became the story that no one knew how to kill. ‘“Benghazi” was an accusation that seemed to mean everything and nothing at the same time, shifting from one conspiracy theory to the next.’ Its ubiquity made Rhodes increasingly paranoid. ‘Benghazi followed me around like an unseen shadow. When I met strangers, I wondered if they went home to Google me, only to find a litany of conspiracy theories.’ It wasn’t just people on the fringes who became obsessed with the issue. Even Mitt Romney, Obama’s opponent in the 2012 presidential election, and in many ways a world-as-it-is Republican, couldn’t resist the siren call of Benghazi.
It led to a moment that crystallised the way the political argument was changing. In 2012 Obama had struggled badly in his first presidential debate with Romney, coming across as world-weary and unengaged. Romney had been the more authoritative. For the second debate, Obama’s preparation was much more thorough, including on the matter of Benghazi. Fox News had run a relentless campaign claiming that Obama had refused to use the word ‘terrorism’ in his early responses to the attack. In fact, what Obama had said in the Rose Garden of the White House on the day after Stevens died was that it had been ‘an act of terror’. His advisers, including Rhodes and chief speechwriter Jon Favreau, drummed into him that he must repeat this precise form of words, rather than getting sucked into calling it terrorism. They were laying a trap for Romney. In the debate, Romney heard Obama claim that he had called Benghazi an ‘act of terror’.
Romney looked surprised, even shocked, at his good fortune. ‘You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you are saying?’
Obama was now the one who looked pleased. ‘Please proceed, Governor,’ Obama said.
‘I want to make sure we get that for the record,’ Romney said, ‘because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.’
‘Get the transcript,’ Obama said.
‘What an idiot,’ Favreau said [of Romney], as we watched this unfold on a television backstage.
The debate moderator checks the transcript and confirms Obama is right. Romney can’t believe it. Even though it is a decisive victory for his candidate, Rhodes still feels a chill. ‘Romney – an intelligent man – really did seem to believe something that wasn’t true. You could almost see how his debate prep had gone, a group of aides who’d been feeding on a steady diet of Fox News … I assumed they were just cynical; what if they actually believed this stuff?’ With hindsight, the line that really stands out in that debate is ‘Get the transcript.’ That is so 2012. Who would think that the transcript would make any difference today?
But Rhodes’s fears about what might be coming don’t date back just to the 2012 election. They start in 2008. The politician who really scared him was Sarah Palin. When McCain chose her as his running mate, most Democrats treated it as an act of desperation – a Hail Mary pass, to use the sporting metaphor many favoured at the time. Rhodes is nowhere near so sanguine. Palin’s speech at the Republican convention was one of the best of the campaign. It electrified her audience, notwithstanding its lack of substance, and it fuelled their shared sense of grievance at Obama’s rise. Rhodes is still spooked by what he heard back then. In trying to describe his early misgivings, his normally assured prose style deserts him. ‘As much as she became a punchline,’ he writes, ‘Palin’s ascendance broke a seal on a Pandora’s box: the innuendo and conspiracy theories that existed in forwarded emails and fringe right-wing websites now had a mainstream voice.’ It’s an ugly sentence, but its meaning is clear. When Trump wins the keys to the White House eight years later, the phrase that Rhodes uses to characterise the voters who put him there is telling. He calls them ‘Palin’s people’.
Was Obama sufficiently spooked? As the person at the eye of the storm, he does his level best not to let it get to him. From the outset he remains determined not to get dragged down by the craziness that surrounds his every move. This attitude plays to his strengths: his sangfroid is formidable and his refusal to be baited is admirable. But it is also frustrating – Rhodes feels it and by the end the reader feels it as well. It comes too close to that side of Obama’s personality that ends up with him shrugging his shoulders and walking away. After Trump’s victory, the Obama team convene a series of meetings to try to work out whether Russian interference in the election might have made the difference. Rhodes is tasked with bringing the president up to speed:
I went to see Obama and told him that I thought we had a problem with Russia. ‘You think?’ he said sarcastically.
‘I mean us. We have a problem. There’s going to be a narrative,’ I said, choosing my words carefully, ‘that we didn’t do enough. It’s already building.’
‘What were we supposed to do?’ he asked. ‘We warned people.’
‘But people will say, why didn’t we do more, why didn’t you speak about it more?’
‘When?’ he asked. ‘In the fall? Trump was already saying that the election was rigged.’
I told him that I worried about the scale of the fake news effort, the disinformation that went beyond hacking. ‘And do you think,’ he asked me, ‘that the type of people reading that stuff were going to listen to me?’
Of course, they weren’t. But sometimes that’s not the point. The point is you have to lay down a marker, so your own people know that you care.
Because this book is fixated on the relationship between Rhodes and Obama, few other Democratic politicians get much of a look-in. Hillary appears in various walk-on parts, but Rhodes is so muted in how he talks about her it is hard to avoid the impression that he is trying not to talk about her at all. An occasional but more vivid presence is Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden, who provides a glimpse of a different kind of politics. ‘At 66, he was two decades older than Obama, and also embraced a more old-fashioned brand of politics – he’d walk through the hallways of the West Wing, stopping to talk to people, gripping your forearm and holding onto it as he spoke.’ Whereas Hillary offers advice that often seems technically correct but is painfully convoluted – of the Afghan war, she tells the president that ‘putting in troops wouldn’t work but still you need to put in troops’ – Biden is much more direct, even if he is sometimes wrong. On Libya, he was probably right: when the White House was reviewing its options, Biden declared that to his mind ‘intervention was, essentially, madness – why should we get involved in another war in a Muslim-majority country?’ On the raid that resulted in the death of bin Laden, Biden was wrong: he warned Obama not to do it, because of the risk it would draw a military response from the Pakistanis. (Hillary, by contrast, would only say that it was a 51:49 call.) But even there, Biden comes out of the episode well. He tells Rhodes afterwards that he simply saw his job as making sure the president got enough robust advice that he had room to think for himself and wasn’t captured by one side. After Obama had decided to go ahead, Biden was with him all the way. Once Biden was in, he was all in.
It is hard not to speculate about the what-ifs when reading about Biden. What if he had been the candidate in 2016? What if he had been the candidate in 2008, and Obama had been his running mate? What if Obama had tried occasionally to learn from Biden, rather than simply being grateful to have him around? When, two weeks before Trump’s inauguration, James Comey and the other intelligence chiefs hold a briefing for the outgoing administration on what they had learned about ‘the relentless campaign waged by Putin on behalf of Trump’, the response of the president and vice president are a study in their very different styles: ‘Obama sat silent and stoic, occasionally asking questions for clarification. Biden was animated, incapable of hiding his incredulity.’ Sometimes, with Obama, you feel a bit of incredulity might have done him some good. But that wasn’t his way.
One other calamity hangs over this book. It has nothing to do with Putin or Trump. Rhodes, who often found he couldn’t sleep (‘the accumulated effect of Benghazi stress and a hungry newborn’), binge-watches TV through the night and becomes increasingly obsessed with his favourite show, Parts Unknown, hosted by the chef Anthony Bourdain. He sensed he had found another kindred spirit. ‘I felt a sense of recognition in this guy wandering around the world, trying to find some temporary connection with other human beings living within their own histories.’ Rhodes makes it one of his ambitions before leaving office to get Obama to record an episode with Bourdain. Amazingly, he succeeds, and on a trip to Vietnam in 2016, the two men are filmed sharing a meal in a tiny restaurant, eating noodles while sitting on plastic stools. Beforehand, Rhodes tries to explain to the president why he thinks he should do this. ‘His philosophy isn’t that different from yours. If people would just sit down and eat together, and understand something about each other, maybe they could figure things out.’ Obama understands what Rhodes is telling him. ‘“So we’re doing this for you?” he laughed.’ In June this year, just days after The World as It Is was published, Bourdain was found hanged in a hotel room in France, having apparently killed himself in the middle of making an episode of Parts Unknown in Strasbourg. It was a shocking, inexplicable event. Obama immediately paid tribute, saying that Bourdain’s work had ‘helped to make us a little less afraid of the unknown’. Rhodes wrote: ‘The curiosity, intelligence and generosity of spirit in Anthony Bourdain’s work got me through some of the toughest times in the WH and opened doors to new worlds.’ These tributes were heartfelt but they also felt inadequate, especially for Rhodes, given how much he had invested in what Bourdain had to offer. There was little consolation to be found here.
In the end, politics is not cooking. We have to do more than share a meal together. Nor is politics basketball. The team with the best player doesn’t necessarily win. Politics isn’t golf either. You can’t just leave your opponents to play their game and hope you play yours better. What Rhodes and Obama had in common was that they were always looking for ways to make politics something other than it is, above all to find some perspective on it with which they could feel more comfortable, or less than tormented. For Obama this was sometimes the grandest perspective of all. Late in his presidency, he reads Yuval Harari’s Sapiens and finds some consolation there, both in the idea that as a species what connects us are the stories we tell, and also in the thought that none of us makes much difference overall – ‘One thing he kept coming back to was the expanse of time, the fact that we were just “a blip” in human history.’ Sometimes, the comfort is to be found in the small world of family ties. On the flight back from one of his final overseas trips, he tells Rhodes: ‘I am not certain of many things, but I am certain of one. On my deathbed, I won’t be thinking about a bill I passed or an election I won or a speech I gave. I’ll be thinking about my daughters and moments involving them.’ I know it’s true – at least, it is a truism – that no one passes their final moments wishing they had spent more time at the office. But still it is a little disappointing to have to hear it from the president of the United States. Both Rhodes and Obama came into politics without deep party ties or a well-established political programme. Both were inexperienced. What they each had instead was enormous intelligence, along with a pronounced sense of right and a pronounced sense of self. It was too much, and it wasn’t enough.