Sunday, May 8, 2016

A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Something

Portrait of Don DeLillo learning that he has fans in the corridors of power. Just kidding. But it's a nice picture. Via Alchetron.
This deeply annoying David Samuels profile of Obama's youthful deputy national security advisor for strategic communications in the Times Magazine—

The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru

How Ben Rhodes rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age.
—has been arousing a lot of comment in my Twitter timeline, though very little to none here in our quarter of Left Blogistan, and I feel as if I ought to be reporting on it, even though I'm not quite sure why it's worth noting. Fact is, I'm not quite sure what it's attempting to accomplish, because it seems to be doing two different stories, somewhat overlapping, one about what a gigantic crush Samuels has on Rhodes (they both love the novelist Don DeLillo! It's Kismet!) and the other about how he thinks Rhodes has led some kind of Benghazi-like conspiracy to hide the Truth About the Iran Deal, which is that Obama started negotiating it with Ayatollah Khamenei before the election of President Rouhani, as evidenced by
the letters that Obama covertly sent to Khamenei, in 2009 and in 2012, which were only reported on by the press weeks later.
OK, a conspiracy, if there was one, to delay the truth about the Iran deal for several weeks on two separate occasions in the years before it was negotiated, because I don't know but it looks to Samuels like proof that Rouhani and Republican Guard factions in Iran aren't really at war with each other and thus the Iran deal is really a huge trick being played on somebody by somebody else. Perhaps. Or I may be reading it wrong, because frankly the prose is so simultaneously purple and clichéd, from its first DeLillo name-check—
He saw the planes hit the towers, an unforgettable moment of sheer disbelief followed by panic and shock and lasting horror, a scene that eerily reminded him, in the aftermath, of the cover of the Don DeLillo novel “Underworld.”
—to the fifth, thousands of words later but nowhere near the end—
The books on his shelves are a mix of DeLillo novels, history books, recondite tomes on Cuba and Burma and adventure-wonk stuff like Mark Mazzetti’s “The Way of the Knife.” C. S. Lewis makes an appearance here, alongside a volume of Lincoln speeches (Obama tells all his speechwriters to read Lincoln) and George Orwell’s “All Art Is Propaganda.”  I have seen the same books on the shelves of plenty of Brooklyn apartments. Yet some large part of the recent history of America and its role in the world turns on the fact that the entirely familiar person sitting at the desk in front of me, who seems not unlike other weed-smokers I know who write Frederick Barthelme-type short stories, has achieved a “mind meld” with President Obama and used his skills to help execute a radical shift in American foreign policy.
—that I can't be at all certain.

He's thought to be a serious stylist, according to his Wikipedia biography, but its tone betrays the possibility that it's been written by somebody shall we say pretty close to him*:
His work hearkens back to the New Journalism of the 1960s—a blend of first-person observation, minutely detailed reporting, and a careful, literary attention to language.
One of the standout arguments of the piece is its contention that Ben Rhodes is a kind of secret known only to a few very special journalists because of his crazily self-effacing behavior:
It has been rare to find Ben Rhodes’s name in news stories about the large events of the past seven years, unless you are looking for the quotation from an unnamed senior official in Paragraph 9. He is invisible because he is not an egotist, and because he is devoted to the president.
In fact, he is not quite invisible.

Me, just on March 12, quoting horrible-Zionist Jeffrey Goldberg, or as Samuels calls him "handpicked Beltway insiders like Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor" [Update: One of the things wrong with the piece is it seems to accuse Goldberg and Rozen of having "helped retail" the Iran deal to Congress and the public, which in addition to being stupid and impossible is also possibly defamatory]:
The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ”
And quoting Rhodes himself (April 13 2015):
They did walk it back a little, last week, in anticipation of the Panama summit, national security communications guy Ben Rhodes trying to minimize the severity:
the wording, which got a lot of attention, is completely pro forma.  This is a language that we use in executive orders around the world.  So the United States does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security.  We, frankly, just have a framework for how we formalize these executive orders. 
And citing a by-name reference to him from a Times article by Mark Mazzetti, Robert Worth, and Michael Gordon:
...said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser
There are something just short of 80 mentions of Ben Rhodes in the New York Times archive (not quite 80 because a couple of other people named "Ben Rhodes" have also been mentioned, but the presidential adviser is almost all of them), including four times in columns by Maureen Dowd, who has referred to him as "the political hack behind the deceitful Benghazi talking points", not that there's anything wrong with that, since they were neither hack work nor deceitful; and ten or eleven stories from 2009 to 2010 with David Sanger's and/or Peter Baker's byline (so it's really true that Rhodes stopped talking to Sanger for attribution, which is what he meant by calling them "the most closed and control freak administration I have ever covered") . But 46 of the mentions are from 2011 and later, just by different authors, including this fancy quote from Robert Draper in the Times Magazine in September 2015:
The persistence of a chesty, exceptionalist view of America’s place on the world stage is, of course, also abetted by today’s nuance-free zone of political dialogue. ‘‘The discourse in Washington just becomes like a self-licking ice cream cone of maximalist foreign policy,’’ Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told me. ‘‘That’s what gets you on television. That’s what gets your think-tank paper read.’’ 
But any Beltway insider who gets mentioned by me three times is not invisible, because if I've heard of them they really have to be out there.

I got into it here, I guess, because of the gratuitous insult to Laura Rozen, the former Needlenose, maybe the greatest and surely the most rigorous blogger on the subject of the Iraq War, now an essential semi-mainstream reporter, whose Twitter feed remains an or the essential source for more or less every point of view. And of course Jeffrey Goldberg, whom I've insulted (non-gratuitously) myself from time to time, but whose extraordinary skill I was forced to recognize, even though I disagree with him about an awful lot of important stuff, after his big Obama piece in March.

But I stayed for the bad writing, and the Dowdy value judgments it veils in a fog of Edwardian syntax. I'm going to stop soon, swear.

On Samantha Power:
Her attire suggests a disingenuous ambivalence about her role in government that appears to be common among her cohort in the Obama administration, with a cardigan made of thick, expensive-looking cashmere worn over a simple frock, along with silver spray-painted rock ’n’ roll sneakers. See, I’m sympatico, the sneakers proclaim.
On Leon Panetta:
One of the few charter members of the Blob [or adherents of the Washington Playbook] willing to speak on the record is Leon Panetta, who was Obama’s head of the C.I.A. and secretary of defense and also enough of a product of a different culture to give honest answers to what he understands to be questions of consequence. 
Hahahahahaha. If you say so.

That Panetta bit is so deluded that I henceforth regard myself as not required to take anything this guy says seriously. If I get any information suggesting there's something worth talking about I'll let you know.

Update: Rhodes himself has appeared on Medium to walk back some of Samuels's idiocy and clarify (a) that there was no conspiracy to sell the Iran deal, though he obviously did his best to sell it, as his job required, and sincerely, and (b) that he doesn't think he's the person who did the deal himself. I swear he sounds like somebody important has been yelling at him, and I hope it's true. He deserves it. But he has also clearly done some very fine work in his time in the White House. Which cannot be said for our author.

And an extremely helpful piece by Fred Kaplan has appeared at Slate. Also a response by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic quoting Rhodes in such a way as to make clear that Samuels misquoted or misinterpreted him deeply and noting his personal animus against Goldberg.

 I believe the 9/11 attacks reminded quite a lot of people of the cover of Underworld. For some reason it was quite a common observation.
*The Samuels Wikipedia biography also contains an awful lot of praise that I find dubious for one reason and another—
His long profile of Yasir Arafat for The Atlantic in September 2005 was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in reporting, and was named one of the three most important articles of the year by the columnist David Brooks in The New York Times....
—including a lengthy chapter on "Style" which I need to quote at length to convey its flavor:
In The New York Observer, critic Matt Haber called Samuels "a master of the new old journalism." In the same publication, critic Michael Washburn described Samuels' work in The Runner and Only Love as "thrilling"; "With an intelligence and unsparing lucidity reminiscent of Joan Didion, Mr. Samuels has written some of the best long-form literary journalism of the past decade." In a long review essay in The Nation, the critic John Palattella wrote that Samuels' achievement was "staggering" and compared his work favorably to that of Didion and Tom Wolfe....
Reviewing The Runner for The New York Times, Keith Gessen wrote "Samuels is an elite narrative journalist, a master at teasing out the social and moral implications of the smallest small talk." Writing separately in the same publication about Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Jascha Hoffman described the collection as "a tribute to the twin American traditions of self-invention and self-deceit" and the author as "a brilliant reporter who has made a career of observing 'our national gift for self-delusion and for making ourselves up from scratch.'" In The Los Angeles Times, critic Richard Rayner cited the author's "wonderful feeling for the weirdness and truths of self-contained worlds"; he continued, "the writing is Joseph Mitchell-meets-Elmore Leonard, and a whole subculture comes to life...Samuels is heir to an American tradition."
James Hannaham wrote in The Village Voice that Samuels "has nearly autistic command of minor details and facts" and "achieves the glorious breadth and detail of a mural painter."[7] Contrary to most critics, Hannahan preferred Samuels' book The Runner to his collected journalism in Only Love Can Break Your Heart, calling the book "terse, passionate and complicated," while criticizing Samuels' political writing for "a creepy lack of bias."
How many currently active writers have a "Style" section in their Wikipedia biographies, anyway? To name-check some names that appear in a quick glance at my shelves, Michael Chabon doesn't. Jonathan Safran Foer doesn't. Zadie Smith doesn't. Arundhati Roy doesn't. There is no "Style" section in the Wikipedia biography of Don DeLillo, incidentally, though he certainly has a hell of a lot of it. Among journalistic writers with a notable command of style neither Matt Taibbi nor Michael Lewis has one. There's none for Naomi Klein or Barbara Ehrenreich. There's none for Ta-Nehisi Coates! 

But the anonymous author of the Samuels biography felt his biography had to have a "Style" section (like Walter Pater or Gustave Flaubert), and you notice how the couple of critical words cited in "nearly autistic command of minor details" and "creepy lack of bias" encode a kind of praise. Wikipedia's editors don't appear to have thought there was anything untoward going on here, but I'm afraid it doesn't meet Wikipedia's standards of a Neutral Point of View and may have been written by someone with a personal interest in the subject.

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