Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way

Rhodes Office

When he was working on his MFA in creative writing, Ben Rhodes used to write Frederick Barthelme knock-off fiction. In the tiny office where he works today — almost 15 years after leaving the program — he has shelves of books and binders, a picture of his daughter, some reminders of his favorite baseball team. When asked, he says his life could fit the mold of a Don DeLillo novel. His colleagues compare him to Holden Caulfield.

This is all familiar territory for anyone who has, or knows someone with, a creative writing degree. Except that Ben Rhodes works in the West Wing of the White House. The picture of his daughter shows her being held by a smiling President Obama. The colleague who compared him to Holden Caulfield is the Ambassador to the United Nations.

Rhodes is, as the New York Times writes this week, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-policy Guru.” He has been Obama’s go-to foreign policy speechwriter since the 2008 campaign, contributing to everything from Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize remarks to his State of the Union addresses, not to mention influencing history-making foreign policy decisions.

The article — which runs through Rhodes’ writing life — features excerpts from his student fiction as well as a high-level view of how he shaped communications on the Iran nuclear deal. The whole thing has generated quite a stir, and will no doubt be fuel for the dumpster fire of this Sunday’s political pundit shows. People are already making complaints about the chumminess between writer and subject; others are upset about the details revealed on the Iran negotiations.

These all seem reasonable. Though it seems more interesting that, when the reporter asks what novelist might be writing his life, someone so deeply enmeshed in foreign-policy didn’t answer “Kafka.” It’s also reassuring to see that someone with so much access to power has the innate human decency and underdog spirit to be a Mets fan. Most important for this blog and writer, however, is the hope Rhodes gives to creative writing students everywhere. Never stop believing!  

Read the full article “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-policy Guru.”

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