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Election 2008: Ben Rhodes '96, Speechwriter and Advisor to Barack Obama

10/27/2008

Ben Rhodes ’96, senior speechwriter and foreign policy advisor for Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, wakes up in the morning and writes;  throughout the day, he writes; late into the night, he writes.

Sounds a lot like a day in the life of a Collegiate student. 

Rhodes, a Collegiate Survivor and veteran political speechwriter, is part of a four-person team of writers that works with Senator Obama on a wide range of tasks.

“Someone from the speechwriting team is usually working with Senator Obama on remarks for the next day,” Rhodes said. “And if there’s a major policy speech, or something like a primary victory speech or the convention speech, then Senator Obama will be involved in the process quite early—we’ll discuss the content of the speech, get his input, prepare a draft, and work through that with him. But a lot of what we’re doing now is crafting quick responses to ongoing news—particularly on the economy—so we’re figuring out what we have to say on very short notice.” 

Rhodes’s particular area of expertise is foreign policy, which he developed during the five years he spent as a speechwriter and policy assistant for Lee Hamilton, president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission. Rhodes served on Hamilton’s staff during the former congressman’s tenure on the 9/11 Commission.  After the Commission had completed its investigation and presented its findings, Rhodes helped Hamilton write the 9/11 Commission Report. Rhodes also assisted Hamilton and Chairman Thomas Kean in writing Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission, which details the Commission’s efforts to fully investigate the events leading up to and of 9/11, and the roadblocks they encountered along the way. Later, when Hamilton was named co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, Rhodes worked directly with him as well, helping Hamilton write the Iraq Study Group Report. 

Ben’s love of writing dates to his time at Collegiate, where he wrote for Prufrock and the Journal. His interest in politics was piqued at Collegiate, too, and Rhodes credits the history department—particularly teachers Ry Clarke, Bill Karges, and Massimo Maglione—with engaging students in political discourse and encouraging them to articulate their views on the world around them.

“Collegiate is a very argumentative place,” he said. “And I think that feeds political opinion. There’s a lot of classroom discussion and debate, and you’re often forced to pick a view and defend it.” 

Not until much later, however, did he consider politics as a career. 

“I was involved in student government at Collegiate, but I think my main role was planning the senior prom,” he said, laughing. “What I wanted to be was a writer.”

After Collegiate, Rhodes attended Rice University, majoring in English and political science. After graduation,  he moved on to New York University, where he earned a master’s degree in fiction writing in 2002. 

“For a long time, my focus was on being a writer,” Rhodes said. “But I was definitely politically engaged [in school], and I don’t think it would surprise anyone I went to high school with that I ended up doing something in politics.”

In many ways, he’s found the perfect job. 

“Writing for Barack Obama is just about the most challenging and exciting opportunity that a speechwriter can have because of Senator Obama’s own gifts as a writer and speaker,” Rhodes avers.  “You can’t be in a better place in terms of politics, and anybody who reads his books knows that we’re just trying to keep up with him in terms of writing.”

When asked if it was difficult to mesh his own voice as a writer with Senator Obama’s voice and writing style, Rhodes said, “It was a challenge at first, but he’s a very easy person to work with. He has a very clear idea of what he wants to say. His message is about change, and he speaks with the same voice now as he did before the Iowa Caucus. That makes life a lot easier [for the speechwriters].”

The other members of the speechwriting team—chief speechwriter Jon Favreau, Adam Frankel, and Sarah Hurwitz, who previously served as Hillary Clinton’s speechwriter—share an office and work closely together. 

In a New York Times article earlier this year, Ben, 30, called himself the “elder statesman” of the group.

“We have a pretty young campaign staff,” he told me. “If you walk through our headquarters, you might be surprised at the age of most people you see. We have a nice mix of people who bring some youthful enthusiasm and people who have been around the block a few times.”

It’s this youthful enthusiasm that campaign staffers are hoping will give Obama the edge on election day.

“The message of our campaign has always been about change, and there’s a sense among young people that there’s a need for generational change and change in the leadership in Washington,” Rhodes said. “And if you look at the primary results, you’ll see that the youth vote is very real in this election. Before Iowa we said that the youth vote was going to be a big part of our strategy, and people said ‘well, we hear that every four years, and young people never turn out.’ But young people did turn out, in record numbers in Iowa, and that helped to make the difference. And that was the case in state after state. I have every expectation that there’s going to be a pretty dramatic youth turnout on election day.“ 

Senator Obama made light of his presence on Facebook during the Alfred E. Smith Dinner in mid-October, but the Obama campaign’s use of the Internet has been very effective in helping them reach out to younger voters and volunteers. The Obama/Biden Facebook group has more than 2.2 million members. 

“Our campaign has used the Internet to connect people with opportunities to participate,” Rhodes declares. “We live in a time when young people are more focused on politics, because they’re seeing a more direct connection between politics and their lives and their futures. We’ve tried to empower young people by using technology in ways that campaigns haven’t before.”

Rhodes first met Senator Obama in June of 2007. While he was working with Lee Hamilton, Rhodes spent a few months working as a speechwriter for Mark Warner, former governor of Virginia, as he was preparing for a possible presidential run. Warner ultimately chose not to seek the Democratic nomination, and Rhodes decided to reach out to Senator Obama, who was then beginning to prepare for his own presidential run. 

“I knew some of the people who work in his foreign policy orbit,” Rhodes said. “And I knew that Obama had a very clear message for the campaign. He knows what he wants to do, and the campaign knows what it wants to do. So I immediately spoke to some people who had worked in Obama’s Senate office and volunteered myself.”

Initially working as a volunteer foreign policy advisor, Rhodes jumped when an opening for a speechwriter came up, moving to Chicago and joining the team full-time. He’s been a vital part of the campaign ever since—during our conversation, Rhodes confirmed what has been apparent to anyone who has been following this election: it’s been a wild ride. Grueling, too. Rhodes and the rest of the campaign team endured a particularly hard-fought primary before flying headlong into the blistering main election race—and they’ve done it all without ever really getting a chance to stop and catch their breath. 

“It’s been a campaign that has kept people on their toes,” according to Rhodes. “There have been constant twists and turns. Most other campaigns pick up right before Iowa and New Hampshire, and then they determine the nominee and things settle down for a couple months. This one has been full-speed.”

However, Rhodes has had a few moments where he has been able to step back and reflect on his position at the forefront of such a significant and crucial moment in American history. One such moment occurred when he accompanied Senator Obama on his trip overseas to Europe and the Middle East. 

“During [the trip], it was fascinating for me to see the enthusiasm for this campaign and the interest in this campaign beyond our borders,” he recalls. “It was pretty astounding. It’s easy to lose sight in the bubble of the campaign just how much this is an event that is galvanizing people across the country and around the world.”

Maybe someday he can write about it.