Washington doesn’t work the way people think it does. And when the public gets a peek into the way it does work, there’s a lot of outrage.
Most real power doesn’t lie with the senators or Cabinet officials or ambassadors. The people who make things happen don’t have an office of their own or a room with a view. They’re one or two levels down, working the machine from the inside. When they succeed, the public isn’t aware of their existence, much less their influence. These are the “cave-dwellers” of Washington.
Occasionally, one of the cave-dwellers surfaces and is subjected to public scrutiny. The results are rarely pretty. For one thing, the very important people for whom the cave-dwellers work bristle at their lowly staff members soaking up some of the spotlight. Other cave-dwellers can use the opportunity to settle scores.
This is what happened last week when the deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, was profiled by David Samuels in the New York Times Magazine. For people outside Washington, the piece may seem like a glowing portrayal of a young writer who formed a close relationship with the president and rose to a position of power inside the White House. But inside Washington, the reaction was almost all negative.
Foreign-policy pundits seized upon Rhodes’ description of the campaign to defend the Iran deal as evidence that the White House lied to the American people and spun the press. Prominent journalists attacked Rhodes’ personality and called him names on the grounds that he appeared to be gloating about defeating the anti-deal efforts.
On Sunday night, the cacophony of criticism compelled Rhodes to write a post on Medium clarifying several of the quotes he gave to the Times about how the Iran deal was sold to the public. He denied that the White House spun the facts. He came close to apologizing for saying that most reporters “literally know nothing.” He defended the Iran deal on its merits.
Tellingly, at the end of the post Rhodes acknowledged the greatest sin he had committed while participating in his profile — overshadowing his bosses: “Lost in all of this discussion of how we communicated about the deal is the heroic work done by the team of diplomats and experts who designed and negotiated the deal over a period of years — led by people like Secretaries John Kerry and Ernie Moniz, Wendy Sherman, Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan,” he wrote. “My job was to support them.”
In a Sidewire chat on Sunday, my colleague Eli Lake and I debated the Rhodes profile with Tommy Vietor, who worked for Rhodes for years as press secretary for the National Security Council.
“I don’t think this is an instance where Ben wanted credit,” said Vietor. “I think the NYT Magazine came to him saying they wanted to profile him and he participated. I don’t begrudge him that at all — he worked in this job a long time and deserves to tell his story.”
That was where Rhodes erred. Cave-dwellers take a big risk when they talk publicly about their tactics. As Lake pointed out in our chat, Rhodes threw his validators under the bus, bragged about vanquishing his enemies and showed how the sausage is made. As Lake noted, you are not supposed to say that stuff out loud.
But let’s not pretend we are all shocked when it’s revealed that there’s gambling in the casino. Rhodes was doing what anyone else in his position would do, and skillfully. The tactics I saw from opponents of the Iran deal battle were equally controversial.
“I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” Rhodes told the Times, shrugging. “But that’s impossible.”
On that score, he has a point. Rhodes is saying “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” One can decry the politicization of important national security issues — that’s the new normal in making foreign policy.
Rhodes was a staffer for senior Democratic foreign-policy officials and then a campaign worker for a senator who became president. Despite his unusual path to becoming a cave-dweller, he is part of the community.
But early on in the Obama administration, Rhodes decided he was not looking to make a career in Washington, and he began acting accordingly. Rhodes has a following of loyal young White House staffers and some key allies in other agencies, mostly those whom he knew from the 2008 presidential campaign. But he took an adversarial approach to most of the other cave-dwellers. He accumulated many enemies along the way to his moment in the sun.
His White House colleague Jon Favreau said Rhodes does not care at all what insiders say about him in Washington: “I think he’s always seen his time there as temporary.”
That attitude contributed to why Washington took such glee in tearing down one of its own. Rhodes chose not to toil in anonymity, and he’s paying a price. But the rest of the cave-dwellers will keep influencing policymaking, any way they can. That’s the way Washington really works.