“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.”
-Ben Rhodes, Obama's Communications Director
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. 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.
Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”
Price turns to his computer and begins tapping away at the administration’s well-cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from “senior White House officials” and “spokespeople.” I watch the message bounce from Rhodes’s brain to Price’s keyboard to the three big briefing podiums — the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon — and across the Twitterverse, where it springs to life in dozens of insta-stories, which over the next five hours don formal dress for mainstream outlets. It’s a tutorial in the making of a digital news microclimate — a storm that is easy to mistake these days for a fact of nature, but whose author is sitting next to me right now.
Rhodes logs into his computer. “It’s the middle of the [expletive] night in Iran,” he grumbles. Price looks up from his keyboard to provide a messaging update: “Considering that they have 10 of our guys in custody, we’re doing O.K.”
With three hours to go until the president’s address to Congress, Rhodes grabs a big Gatorade and starts combing through the text of the State of the Union address. I peek over his shoulder, to get a sense of the meta-narrative that will shape dozens of thumb-suckers in the days and weeks to follow. One sentence reads: “But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands.” He retypes a word, then changes it back, before continuing with his edit. “Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks, twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages — they pose an enormous danger to civilians; they have to be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence.”
“Why?” I ask. She is dyed blond, slim, petite, attractive.
“You take meticulous notes,” she slurs.
As Malley and representatives of the State Department, including Wendy Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in formal negotiations with the Iranians, to ratify details of a framework that had already been agreed upon, Rhodes’s war room did its work on Capitol Hill and with reporters. 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.”