In April 2018, Magnolia films released a documentary entitled The Final Year. It is an intimate look at the inner workings of the Obama administration as they determinedly use every day of their last year in the White House to see some of their key initiatives realized. The film focuses on Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, President Obama, and an individual who had—until my viewing of the documentary—not caught my attention. He was Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes: a man who transitioned a degree in creative writing into a position as the political speechwriter for Barak Obama and became a close confidant of the president himself.
Upon researching more about Ben Rhodes, I discovered that the release of the documentary closely coincided with the upcoming release of Rhodes’ memoir The World as It Is in June 2018. I wanted to know more about this man whose career took the path I dreamed for my own in my early years as an undergraduate student. I preordered the book and waited impatiently for its arrival.
As I am currently living in Liberia, West Africa, mail takes a couple of weeks more than the normal wait period. So, when I finally received my copy of the book, I couldn’t wait to get started. Rhodes drew me in with an epigraph from Hemingway’s Old Man in the Sea—a story that deals in many of these same themes that we witness and experience in politics by an author who bemoaned the publicity and lack of privacy that the success of the novella brought to his own existence. Then, Rhodes hooked me with an anecdote in his prologue that illustrated Obama’s humor and human side in his casual interactions with his staff, and I looked forward to seeing more of that side of what happened in the Obama White House.
The timing of events around this book continued to be serendipitous. As I approached the halfway point of the 422 pages, Obama was scheduled to give the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. At this point in the book, Rhodes writes about how Obama spoke to the president of Egypt about lessons he learned over the years from Nelson Mandela (who was then very ill and in the hospital) about the importance of small gestures showing proof that a leader is dedicated to bringing the country together and that everyone is important to that effort (204). I had just finished reading this as I listened to Obama give his lecture in celebration of Mandela’s 100th birthday, and I both cheered at the message he spoke and mourned the absence of this man of integrity in the political arena.
At least I had Ben Rhodes’s stories to fill the void.
As I continued to read, Obama’s voice resonated in my head in those moments of dialogue or speech-making. And Rhodes writes about meetings, special events, social gatherings, and private conversations in a way that makes readers feel like they were at least sitting in a chair against the wall in the same room as the moments transpired. We are made part of those situations by being allowed to witness them in their drama.
Getting to know more about Rhodes, too, was enjoyable and interesting. I have come to admire him, too, for the reasons he made his career choices, for showing his humanity in the ways he struggled to balance his professional and personal lives, and for the dedication he showed to Obama and his vision. Early in the book, Rhodes writes, “The events of my twenties felt historic, but the people involved did not. I wanted a hero–someone who could make sense of what was happening around me and in some way redeem it” (7). As someone who is close in age to Rhodes and could empathize with his reactions to events that fed this need (like the 9/11 attacks and the war with Iraq), I identified with this statement.
“It was always hard to explain what it was that I admired about this complicated man. Watching him, I felt that I would never have to explain it to anyone again.”
Throughout the book, there are numerous instances where Rhodes’s respect for Obama’s style of leadership, thought process, and decision making is evident. In one particularly moving section of Chapter 25, he begins by stating “A ten-day stretch in June encapsulated both the events that ensured Obama’s presidency would be a historic success and the clouds that would hover over his legacy” (316). Then, over the course of the following pages, he discusses the success of the Supreme Court Rulings on the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage. These victories, however, had a shadow cast over them by a mass shooting in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Rhodes’s play-by-play description of Obama’s subsequent memorial speech at that church, followed by the President’s singing of “Amazing Grace,” and his calling out of each of the victims’ names is perhaps the most emotional moment of the book; and Rhodes himself describes being moved to tears for the first time in many years as he watched the events unfold on the White House television channel that played whenever the president was speaking. He writes “It was always hard to explain what it was that I admired about this complicated man. Watching him, I felt that I would never have to explain it to anyone again” (319). As the chapter came to a close, I was also in tears and felt overwhelmed by the compassion and humanity of the most powerful man in the world.
Ben Rhodes writes in a relatable style with which anyone who has a passion for their work will identify. There are lines in his prose that bespeak his training in creative writing, but there is also a vast knowledge of someone who was immersed in moments that had domestic and international importance. In his recollections and retelling of those situations, he has distilled the Obama doctrine—“Don’t do stupid shit.” (278)—and has reminded us of Obama’s world view that made us all believe that “America’s leadership depended on our military but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness” (25).
Finally, many readers will connect with the fact that Rhodes was a fan of Anthony Bourdain and pushed for the famous meal in Hanoi, Vietnam shared between the celebrity chef and Obama in 2016. Had I been reading this at any other time before June 2018, I simply would have been excited to see Bourdain’s name mentioned here and there throughout the narrative. Unfortunately, Bourdain’s suicide happened just weeks before I happened upon Rhodes’s first mention of him in the memoir. So, fond recognition was diluted by a sense of loss on those pages.
Of all the possible celebrities to mention, however, Anthony Bourdain is one of the most fitting, for the philosophy that drove him in his travels—that “If people would just sit down and eat together, and understand something about each other, maybe they could figure things out” (737)—was not that different from President Obama’s mentality.
And, indeed, the optimism that Obama so frequently talked about throughout the years is something that transferred to members of his staff like Ben Rhodes who admires the man for his integrity, compassion, and pragmatism. No, Rhodes doesn’t agree with every decision the president made. Yes, there are times when Rhodes disappoints the president and feels like a failure. He is human and has his ups and downs. The administration in the Obama White House also had its zig-zags. But it seems that each of the staff members—Rhodes especially—came away from the experiences of those eight years with an even stronger belief in the possibilities of what could be when there is leadership that is rooted in strength but also goodness.