The innate appeal of the political thriller, or memoir, is that the machinations of plot are revelations of character. With The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, Ben Rhodes proves that a memoir can be a political thriller. Seamlessly combining non-fiction and novelistic narrative techniques, The World As It Is tells the story of ten years of author Ben Rhodes’ life. Beginning with his invitation to join the Barack Obama presidential campaign and finishing with the turnover of the American government to Donald Trump, Rhodes’ plot is as exciting as the headlines. But his quiet insight into the motivations that drove him and those around him reveal a conflict behind the turmoil. The World As It Is happens when young but experienced idealists meet and try to change the human machines that enmesh them.
Rhodes’ perspective is throughout the book feels like that of an outsider even though he is in many ways, the ultimate insider. Because he eventually becomes part of Obama’s foreign affairs arm, Rhodes is not generally concerned with the immediate domestic crises created by the toxic Republican reaction to Obama’s election. Instead, he shows his work to be that of a busy firefighter, as he’s asked to solve one problem in a manner that creates more. National (in)security keeps him incredibly busy, essentially sweeping the sand back into the sea.
Be that as it may, we also see a group of men and women who believe that the machineries of government can accomplish lots of good for lots of people. Moreover, they’re good at integrating idealism and action. After years of frustration, we see Rhodes lead the effort to open up Cuba. It’s a lot of grunt work, meetings with Raul Castro to prepare the path and then the actual steps down the path. Baby steps, to be sure, but certain and difficult to un-create.
Irony arrives early and often, as when Rhodes celebrates the success of how Obama dealt with Libya. One key moment of accomplishment from within the perspective of the Obama administration was that they prevented Gaddafi’s promised razing of Benghazi. For all the lives they saved, they had no idea of the repercussions of that word in the years to follow. Unhappily, we see this play out as well. And yes, eventually Ben Rhodes becomes a villain for Fox News. Credit Rhodes’ writing expertise with the fact that in his narrative, this bit of recorded history seems surprising, as indeed anyone’s own vilification might seem surprising to them.
Rhodes’ prose is a big part of the real pleasure of reading The World As It Is. It feels raw and poignant, polished but prosaic. As a character, he feels a bit uncertain about his place in this world, but he’s willing to forgo or postpone personal life for the necessities of political action. And there are actions, plenty of them, positive things done by forward-looking humans here. Change is possible but never easy. Government is a human construct, easily broken by those who wish to, but fixable by those who care to. And in The World As It Is, we spend ten sweet years with those who care to and can selflessly change things for the better.
Here’s a link to my in-depth interview with Ben Rhodes, or listen below.