I’m always interested in “how the sausage gets made,” especially in politics. That’s why I pick up any book about inside-stories from, for example, Obama’s White House or German election campaigns. I want to know how it is in the room where it happens…
About two weeks ago, Ben Rhode’s book The World As It Is
came out and I read it, immediately. Rhodes was Obama’s Senior Foreign Policy Advisers, and one of the few who were there for the whole eight years. He has been the chief negotiator of the Cube opening and the chief speechwriter for most of the foreign policy speeches (like the ones in Kairo, Hiroshima, and Athens). Unfortunately for me, Rhodes is rather light on the details of how the sausage actually gets made. He glosses over most making-of stories and only rarely provides an in-depth insight into the process. The simple reason for that may be that with eight years of stories, there’s just too much ground to cover. And being one of the most attacked figures of the Obama White House, he is more interested in giving his perspective on Benghazi, Syria, the Iran deal, Cuba, etc.
But like the documentary The Final Year
(on Netflix), which covers Samantha Powers, John Kerry and him during the last year of the Obama administration, the book provides a fascinating perspective into what it felt like from the inside of the administration when shit hit the fan. From the Tea Party to the Republicans in Congress, Fox News, the new right, Russia and much more – this is a staggering account of what it felt like to be at the receiving end of the Zeitgeist shifting.
This is a rather depressing book to read, once you realize that even Obama and his advisors don’t have an answer or even a satisfying explanation for what is happening. Connected with everything around the world in the last couple of weeks and months (the “G6+1” summit, North Korea, and the current crisis of the conservatives in the German government, just to name a few), I think it finally sunk in for me how deep this backlash goes. Part of me wanted to believe that it’s just the final rear up against inevitable change for the better. But I’m quite sure these days, that this won’t be over quick, because we might get closer to better explanations. But we’re still far off from any proper solutions (for lack of a better term).
One quote from Obama, trying to wrap his mind around Trump’s election, stuck with me after reading Rhodes’ book.
In a way, he was just like the rest of us – trying out different theories for what had happened, trying to figure out what it meant, what it said about us as a country. But of course, he was different. He’d seen the country, and the world, from a different perch. And the one thing he kept coming back to was the expanse of time, the fact that we were just “a blip” in human history. In giving advice on how to deal with Trump, he offered a simple maxim: “Find some high ground, and hunker down.”
This could be read as advice to just retreat from the public and stick it out until it’s over. But I interpret it more as “Stop caring too much about the short-term, the day-to-day kerfuffles, and focus on the long term.” Don’t be dragged into the reality-tv version of Trump’s politics (or whatever your country’s version of that is). Find something that will make the world better. Like investing all you got into the next generations.
I think Obama was sometimes thinking even a bit too much about the “long arc of history.” But right now, it’s the best coping strategy I’ve seen so far.
PS: If you have book recommendations on “how the sausage is made,” let me know.