Thursday, June 07, 2018

Storytelling IS What Distinguishes The Obamas From Other Primates...,


NewYorker |  Barack Obama was a writer before he became a politician, and he saw his Presidency as a struggle over narrative. “We’re telling a story about who we are,” he instructed his aide Ben Rhodes early in the first year of his first term. He said it again in his last months in office, on a trip to Asia—“I mean, that’s our job. To tell a really good story about who we are”—adding that the book he happened to be reading argued for storytelling as the trait that distinguishes us from other primates. Obama’s audience was both the American public and the rest of the world. His characteristic rhetorical mode was to describe and understand both sides of a divide—black and white, liberal and conservative, Muslim and non-Muslim—before synthesizing them into a unifying story that seemed to originate in and affirm his own.

At the heart of Obama’s narrative was a belief that progress, in the larger scheme of things, was inevitable, and this belief underscored his position on every issue from marriage equality to climate change. His idea of progress was neither the rigid millennial faith of Woodrow Wilson nor Bush’s shallow God-blessed optimism. It was human-scale and incremental. Temperamentally the opposite of zealous, he always acknowledged our human imperfection—his Nobel Peace Prize lecture was a Niebuhrian meditation on the tragic necessity of force in affairs of state. But, whatever the setbacks of the moment, he had faith that the future belonged to his expansive vision and not to the narrow, backward-pointing lens of his opponents.

This progressive story emerged in Obama’s account of his own life, in his policies, and in his speeches. Many of them were written by Rhodes, who joined the campaign as a foreign-policy speechwriter in mid-2007, when he was twenty-nine; rose to become a deputy national-security adviser; accompanied Obama on every trip overseas but one; stayed to the last day of the Presidency; and even joined the Obamas on the flight to their first post-Presidential vacation, in Palm Springs, wanting to ease the loneliness of their sudden return to private life. Today, Rhodes still works alongside Obama.

The journalistic cliché of a “mind meld” doesn’t capture the totality of Rhodes’s identification with the President. He came to Obama with an M.F.A. in fiction writing from New York University and a few years on the staff of a Washington think tank. He became so adept at anticipating Obama’s thoughts and finding Obamaesque words for them that the President made him a top foreign-policy adviser, with a say on every major issue. Rhodes’s advice mostly took the form of a continuous effort to understand and apply the President’s thinking. His decade with Obama blurred his own identity to the vanishing point, and he was sensitive enough—unusually so for a political operative—to fear losing himself entirely in the larger story. Meeting Obama was a fantastic career opportunity and an existential threat.