There’s a certain view of Ben Rhodes which arose in the aftermath of the Iran deal and specifically after the publication of that infamous NY Times profile in which Rhodes talked about creating an “echo chamber” of know-nothing journalists to push the deal. After that story, it was easy to see him as a kind of Machiavellian character manipulating people from behind the scenes.
There a good reason Rhodes does his best work behind the scenes. He’s just a really bad actor. I mean ‘bad actor’ in the theatrical sense, i.e. someone who is playing a part in our national story with such overwrought pathos that it becomes unintentionally funny. The case for that view is best summed up in this video clip. This is Rhodes in 2016 reacting to the realization that Hillary Clinton has lost the election.
Matthew McConaughey is an amazing actor who absolutely deserved the Oscar for Dallas Buyer’s Club. For some reason, I can see him playing this exact scene (having shaved his head and put on weight for the part). I’m sure his version would be gut-wrenching. His eyes would fill with tears. He would stare into the distance and fall silent. After a pause, he’d shake his head and sneak a smile at the camera or whoever was holding it. Then he’d saunter off into the night and we’d know he was headed for the nearest bar where he planned to get completely blitzed. It could win him another Oscar.
But when Ben lives this I feel like I can see him acting and wish the camera would back away a little. He’s just not ready for his closeup.
It’s not just the acting, it’s also the dialogue. McConaughey on his best day would struggle to make “I can’t even…” sound like anything but an awkward joke. This is something you see in Buzzfeed headlines or tweeted by 14-year-olds, not something serious adult people say at a serious moment in their lives.
Rhodes has a book coming out about his experience in the White House. The NY Times profile of it suggests Obama’s reaction to Hillary’s loss wasn’t much better:
Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.
“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.
He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.
Is that how Obama really talks or is that Obama as filtered through Rhodes? Maybe Rhodes penchant for over-acting and self-seriousness is something he picked up from his boss. Going back to that infamous NY Times profile of Rhodes, it was Rhodes himself who said, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”
As I said at the time: Ewww!
But I also wanted to ask: Who talks like that in real life? Apparently, the same guy who literally says “I can’t even…” to mark a dramatic moment. People are already making versions of this with various choices of background music. This one with the Hulk TV theme seems fitting: