From the Washington Post:
Did the White House know what David Samuels thought about the Iran deal?
By Erik Wemple May 9 at 6:02 PM
The White House has had to answer some uncomfortable questions over the past few days, thanks to a profile of Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, in the New York Times Magazine. Under the byline of David Samuels, the story delves into how Rhodes & Co. chose to sell President Obama’s high-priority nuclear deal with Iran. The take-aways weren’t terribly favorable.
Here’s one question that White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest faced on Friday:
On Iran, did the administration have “hand-picked” beltway insiders to push the message, to sell the message of the Iran deal to the public? And the characterization that’s out there, it has been reported that the administration misled the public in a manner as well. How does the administration respond to that characterization that the public was misled in the selling of the Iran deal?
And a follow up:
But, Josh, the characterization I’m speaking of came from a profile on your Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes. You read that article. I’m sure you’ve had time to digest it. Do you disagree with some of the characterizations that were in that profile?
Those questions stem from a story titled, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru.” It’s something of a hybrid piece of journalism — half-featurey look at Rhodes himself, a 30-something fellow who channeled his love of writing into a super-influential foreign policy job in the Obama White House; and half-patdown of the tactics deployed by the White House to sell its historic Iranian nuclear deal. On the latter front, here’s Samuels’s thesis:
Rhodes’s innovative campaign to sell the Iran deal is likely to be a model for how future administrations explain foreign policy to Congress and the public. The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal. Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false.
The way Samuels tells it — with key supporting quotes from Rhodes — the White House whipped up fancy talking points and fed them to its people, who in turn fed them to gullible reporters with no experience in foreign policy. The public swallowed it all. Samuels even names names: “For those in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation, handpicked Beltway insiders like Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor helped retail the administration’s narrative,” writes Samuels.
Obama gave Jeffrey Goldberg lots of personal access, and Goldberg obliged him with a pretty obtuse article. Goldberg never seems to notice that his personal ethnocentrism and Obama’s ethnocentrism might cause any conflicts. Samuels, whose wife edits the Jewish magazine The Tablet, in contrast, is acutely aware of the conflicts.
That very sentence is launching entire pieces. Goldberg is responding ferociously, bemoaning the absence of fact-checking and noting that he and Samuels have had a tiff that bears disclosing. Also, Rhodes denied to Goldberg that he’d chosen him to “retail” the Iran message.
Those matters will shake out over the coming days.
What’s not likely to fetch an answer anytime soon is why the White House did such extensive business with Samuels in the first place. …
Did the White House have any idea that Samuels believed these things? It hasn’t responded to a request for comment.
David Samuels is an awesome magazine writer (here’s me in 2009 linking to his article on UFC fighter Rampage Jackson). I’ve been linking to his work at least since 2008, when he published a great article, “Invisible Man,” in The New Republic on Obama, Rev. Wright, and Dreams From My Father:
What’s even more remarkable about Dreams from My Father is the fact that it was written by a man who has since decided to run for president by disowning the most striking parts of his own voice and transforming himself into a blank screen for the fantasy-projection of the electorate. It is hard to overemphasize how utterly remarkable it is that Dreams exists at all–not the usual nest of position papers and tape-recorder talk, but a real book by a real writer who has both the inclination and the literary tools to give an indelible account of himself, and who also happens to be running for president. In which connection, it seems right to mention that the Barack Obama who appears in Dreams, and, one presumes, in his own continuing interior life, is not a comforting multiracial or post-racial figure like Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter who prefers to be looked at through a kaleidoscope. Though there are many structural parallels between Dreams and Invisible Man, Obama believes in the old-fashioned, unabashedly romantic, and, in the end, quite weird idea of racial authenticity that [Ralph] Ellison rejected. He embraces his racial identity despite his mixed parentage through a kind of Kierkegaardian leap into blackness, through which he hopes to become a whole, untroubled person.
My own belief is that Barack Obama has the makings of an unusual and unusually effective president, because he might combine a writer’s sense of the dramatic moment, and of how language helps to shape reality, with the brain–and perhaps the soul–of a Harvard-educated technocrat. At the same time, I find it hard not to wonder about how President Obama will see the world, and what the major fault lines in his personality might be. The fact that the talking heads and the voters alike are unable to see him plain is an optic effect that Obama anticipates in his first book. …
Obama’s decision to identify with the lineage of his black Kenyan father to the exclusion of his white U.S.-born mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, and her parents allows him a measure of release from the cruel racial logic that binds Ellison’s narrator–he comes from outside American society, and therefore he is not entirely bound by the overdetermined racial logic that unites the children of slaves and masters. Yet, while Obama’s rejection of his “white blood” may seem familiar from the writings of African American authors like Malcolm X, it is actually much stranger; Obama’s partial “whiteness” is not the product of an ancient rape by an anonymous slave-master but is instead the color of the mother who raised him. Obama’s embrace of authenticity separates him from Ellison’s profoundly modernist consciousness, and prevents him from seeing the serial absurdities of his own story. Where Invisible Man bubbles with fiery, absurdist humor, the narrator of Dreams rarely cracks a smile. One can only imagine what Ellison would have done with Obama’s straight-faced account of his futile career as a community organizer in Chicago, or with the incredibly juicy character of Dr. Jeremiah Wright–a religious con man who spread racist and anti-Semitic poison while having an alleged sexual affair with a white church secretary and milking his congregation for millions of dollars and a house in a gated community whose residents are overwhelmingly rich and white.
Now, you know and I know what Samuels is talking about here, but for most of the media this is just a big Does Not Compute.
An interesting question is whether Obama and Rhodes, who are both good writers, gave Samuels access because they get it that he gets it about Obama. Or were they just clueless too? Did Samuels use his iSteve-level awareness of Obama to play the President?