Rhodes agreed to be the first alumnus to be featured in our new School of Social Sciences newsletter, engaging in an interesting conversation on his memoir and life working with President Obama.
Just seven years after graduating from Rice University, political science alumnus Benjamin Rhodes '00 became a speechwriter for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and began his ascent into Obama’s exclusive inner circle of aides. Rhodes served in speechwriting, communications, and security advisor roles during President Obama’s eight years in office.
Despite Rhodes double majoring in English and Political Science, and then earning an MFA in creative writing from NYU prior to working in politics, Rhodes never cared much for the political memoir genre and had no immediate plans to write his own story. Not until after the presidential transition did Rhodes think to work on his memoir. According to Rhodes, “I realized that I had a unique entry point for a political memoir, because I was a relatively anonymous 29-year-old when I went to work for Obama. I felt like if I could focus on my personal experience and transformation in the job, I could give a reader a sense of what it’s like to work in the White House. And I felt like offering an honest and open portrayal of how the presidency used to work would be of value in a world where the presidency - under Trump - operates so differently.”
Rhodes’ memoir, The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House is an intimate look inside the Obama White House. He chronicles his favorite part of the job, international trips to Cuba, Germany, Austria; walks the reader through the intelligence conversations that occurred before the Osama bin Laden raid; and shares anecdotes about falling asleep on Air Force One only to be woken up by his boss, the President of the United States. But, The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House is as much about Rhodes’ professional and personal growth as it is about the Obama administration. He shares his trajectory as a new-to-Washington D.C. young adult blossoming into a seasoned political advisor. Along the way we see just how quickly his career took off. After several promotions, the White House installed a communications system in his two-bedroom apartment. When he mentioned to colleagues how noisy the system was and how it took up a large chunk of his living room, he realized that his peers were not having the same noise issues because they had the space to store the devices much further from their bedrooms, meanwhile he was still living in “a young person’s home.”
Rhodes’ journey to the White House began when he worked for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and started doing freelance work for the Obama campaign. After a few months of doing everything he could imagine to earn a job on the campaign, including writing op-eds and editing speeches, he started to wonder if his efforts would ever result in a full-time job offer. A turning point came when Rhodes was invited to spontaneously participate in debate prep with Obama. Candidate Obama put Rhodes on the spot asking him his opinions on the Iraq War. Rhodes was filled with nerves, but soon learned that Obama liked to call on everyone in the room. Rhodes shared, “I was so nervous, that when Obama asked for my view I had to frame my answers in questions to him so that I could break up my own speaking.” Rhodes advised Obama to vote “no” on a spending bill in Congress that would fund the surge in Iraq. “Hey I’m Barack, glad you’re with us,” Obama said to Rhodes at the end of the encounter.
Shortly after this initial life-change meeting, Obama voted “no” on the floor of the Senate and Rhodes was asked to move to Chicago to join the three-person speech writing team and also put his foreign policy knowledge to work. President Obama became known for his oratory skills, eloquence and famous speeches, while Rhodes quickly became one of the individuals working fervently behind the scenes to perfect each speech. To prepare he read and re-read Obama’s books, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. According to Rhodes, the experience of writing the words Obama would deliver was both thrilling and intimidating. “Thrilling, because you get to work for someone who takes speeches seriously, and who commands an audience when he speaks. Intimidating, because people have very high expectations for an Obama speech. For that reason, I felt a great sense of responsibility. When he would give a speech in a foreign country, for instance, even if it wasn’t going to be a big deal in the United States, it meant an enormous amount to the people in that country - both because he was an American President, but also because of who he was. So even though I wrote probably a thousand speeches for Obama, I still felt a great sense of responsibility - and stress - for the last speech I wrote for him,” said Rhodes.
In Rhodes’ book, it quickly becomes clear Obama not only respects Rhodes as an employee, but that they developed a warm friendship. It is likewise clear Rhodes found Obama to be a supportive boss who fostered his growth. After he was re-elected for a second term, Obama called Rhodes up to the front of Air Force One, told him he wanted Rhodes to remain on the team and asked him what he would like to work on. According to Rhodes, “That became two years of secret negotiations with Cuba to normalize relations. When that was done, he gave me a lot of credit, but I reminded him: in the past, there were other people who wanted to normalize relations with Cuba, but they didn’t work for a President who empowered them; who let them travel for hundreds of hours to Canada, Trinidad, and Mexico for endless meetings with the Cubans; and who ultimately had the guts to make a deal.”
The World As It Is takes Rhodes, Obama, and the readers from Chicago, to Washington D.C. and countless countries for over a nine-year period. Now that Rhodes’ term in the White House has ended, he is working on more writing, helping his friends at Crooked Media with their podcasts, serving as an NBC contributor, and doing his part to support Democrats.
Both Rice University and the Baker Institute, as well as Rhodes’ brother David Rhodes, Economics and Political Science'96, make cameos in The World As It Is. Of his decision to attend Rice, Rhodes says, “Coming from New York City to Houston helped broaden my sense of the country in ways that were useful.” Rhodes will return to Houston on Monday, November 26, 2018 to speak at the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston. Rhodes’ advice for current Rice students is, “The best plan for your career is to have no plan - that’s what allowed me to make some pretty dramatic shifts in my twenties, and ultimately led me to the Obama campaign and the White House.”
Benjamin Rhodes resides in Washington D.C. with his wife and two daughters.
Rhodes’ book was released on June 5, 2018 and can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/World-Memoir-Obama-White-House/dp/0525509356.