“I wanted a hero,” says Ben Rhodes, explaining why after 9/11 he abandoned his literary ambitions, left New York to become a policy wonk in Washington, agreed to help Barack Obama prep for a presidential debate, then later joined his staff as a speechwriter and adviser on national security.
Rhodes paraphrases a common refrain. Byron begins his comic epic Don Juan by declaring “I want a hero”, and in one of her songs Bonnie Tyler growls “I need a hero”, specifying that he must be Herculean, though his services will only be required “till the end of the night”. In politics, that desire can be dangerous: how many hero worshippers have surrendered to a strutting, loud-mouthed demagogue? But Rhodes does not regret his choice, even after allowing his private life to be subsumed in his job for the eight nerve-racking years he documents in his taut, compelling book.
Obama, as seen by this admirer, is little less than a superman — preternaturally intelligent, disciplined, abstemious, unfailingly polite and, despite his self-control, capable of a cathartic emotional release that leaves Rhodes sobbing when Obama sings Amazing Grace, not quite in tune, at the memorial service for the victims shot at a black church in Charleston. Rhodes records one incident of fraying temper, when Obama a little curtly tells him to get a shave. He also detects a single vice: Obama is a secret smoker — not something that would have given much leverage to Kremlin blackmailers.
At every point, the contrast with Obama’s successor goes without saying. Trump is surely not a hero to the underlings he abuses or the flustered surrogates who fib for him, let alone to whichever valet is charged with teasing, training and lacquering the single strand of citrus-yellow hair that adorns his hollow head. Whereas Rhodes looked for a career that would supply a “heroic narrative” as uplifting as the civil rights movement of the 1960s had been for his parents, Trump’s regime veers between tragedy and farce; either way, it aspires to no ideals, and is animated only by a craving for publicity and personal enrichment.
Rhodes is never disillusioned, yet the closer he gets to Obama the more tricky and paradoxical their relationship becomes. A symbiosis or “mind meld” creepily overtakes them. Having written some of Obama’s most notable orations — one delivered at the Victory Column in Berlin before his election, another in Havana during a visit to make peace with Cuba — Rhodes is entitled to feel like a ventriloquist, with the president as his dummy. But his anonymity rankles: once Obama is performing in front of the teleprompter, the author of those eloquent paragraphs is no longer indispensable and feels “temporarily irrelevant”.
The president, proverbially the most powerful man on earth, likewise chafes at the way he is manipulated by the aides who handle his photo ops. On an Asian tour, Obama querulously wonders “why you make me do this stuff on trips”. Rhodes bites his lip and reflects: “I cared more about the global progressive icon Barack Obama than Barack Obama did.” Then, with a twinge of compassion, he sees how Obama has been forcibly impersonalised: hustled to and fro by the secret service, telegraphically referred to as POTUS, he is “more an object than a human being”. On the day of Trump’s inauguration, Obama instantly forfeits this symbolic status. He travels to California on the same plane he has used for the previous eight years, but the place cards on board now refer to it as “the presidential aircraft”. It can’t be called Air Force One because it’s not transporting the current president; Obama, a mere civilian, might as well be flying commercial.
Rhodes experiences a similar annihilation of identity when a conniving interviewer misrepresents his account of the nuclear deal with Iran: he feels he has been “erased and replaced with a different person — a liar, an egoist”. It’s even worse when rightwingers accuse him of manufacturing an excuse for the US ambassador’s death in the siege of the embassy at Benghazi. The charge is patently untrue, but that doesn’t put a brake on the coverage it receives. “It was a story,” Rhodes remarks, “and I was one of the characters.”
That is the helpless complaint of a man who, before he moved sideways to work for Obama, hoped to become a novelist, able to determine the outcome of stories and design the characters who took part in them. Political strategy and literary theory interestingly overlap in Rhodes’s conversations with his boss. The task of government, Obama says, is “to tell a really good story about who we are. We’re just chimps without that”; this coincides with Rhodes’s search after 9/11 “for a better story about America, and myself”. But the noble purpose they share is debased when the Republicans mock Rhodes for his degree in creative writing, which they say trained him to tell official lies.
The title of Rhodes’s book accepts that the world as it is, venal and irredeemable, will always prevail over the world as it ought to be. Employing a metaphor from American football, he laments that “instead of carrying out an affirmative agenda, I spent my days in a defensive crouch”. When Obama travels to London at David Cameron’s behest to support the case for membership of the EU, Rhodes ruefully comments that “the name of the campaign — Remain — sounded like a concession that life wasn’t going to be all that you hoped it would be”.
Eventually the hypocrisy or mendacity of Washington persuades Rhodes that he exists in “an alternate reality that was insane” — a nightmarish novel of the wrong kind. Stitched around the circular border of a rug in Obama’s Oval Office was a quote from Martin Luther King promising that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Trump initially trod on those words or rode roughshod over them, then had the rug replaced with something gaudier and less metaphysically portentous. Happy endings, as Rhodes has discovered, occur only in fiction.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd