Obama’s Boy Genius Grows Up

Ben Rhodes addresses the White House press corps.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Julia Ioffe
June 7, 2021

Let me start by saying that I like Ben Rhodes. He is kind and smart, and, by all accounts, a decent human being. When I moved to Washington in 2012, he was then-President Obama’s trusted advisor—a wunderkind speechwriter turned foreign policy factotum—and my only interactions with him were those befitting a reporter and her source. After the end of Obama’s second term, he followed the path of so many Obama staffers who hadn’t expected a Trump victory. He went on TV, he wrote a book—Rhodes famously has an MFA in creative writing—and, instead of waiting at a think tank for the wheel of fortune to return a Democrat to the White House and hire people like him, he started his own foreign policy initiative.

He also prepared to write another book that would try to explain what the hell was happening in America by connecting the paradigm with what the hell was happening abroad. He would talk to pro-democracy activists from Hungary, Russia, and Hong Kong, as well as Cuba and Myanmar, and through them describe why the American-led post-Cold War world order had become a vanishing fiction.

I was asked to do an event for the resultant book, After the Fall, and I agreed, looking forward to reading what I was sure would be a smart and sophisticated analysis from a smart and sophisticated person. And that’s why I say I like Ben—because I really didn’t like his book, and saying something like that publicly in D.C. is a gross violation of the culture of superficial niceness that provides convenient cover for the shivving that people do for a living here. You can shiv, but you have to be nice. The worst thing you can be in Washington is not nice, which is why I want to make clear that I like Ben Rhodes as a person even though I kind of hated his book.