Obama the Fabulist

A number of people at AT and elsewhere have written about the New York Times’ fascinating but also deeply disturbing story of how Ben Rhodes, a callow, unsuccessful but well-connected short-story writer became the Obama administration’s primary foreign policy mandarin. This should come as no surprise to careful observers of this administration. Rhodes, according to the Times piece, is Obama’s foreign policy “guru” a man who has a “mind meld” with the president. What Rhodes and the president share though, is not so much a leftist approach to foreign affairs -- though presumably that plays a role -- but rather a talent for creating foreign policy fables that flatter Obama and his coterie, and can be passed off to lapdog media types as “successes.” In this, Rhodes is just one more piece of the fictional story that is Barack Hussein Obama, the country and the world his stage, and the rest of us merely players -- if that.

For those that don’t want to bother to read the long and mostly flattering article, Rhodes’ path to foreign affairs stardom came while working for an MFA (at NYU), at which time he had little knowledge of foreign policy or even an interest in it. According to the Times, he had an epiphany after the 9/11 attacks and through his well-connected family (his mother was close friends with the publisher of Foreign Policy magazine) ended up as a staffer for former Congressman Lee Hamilton, a notorious critic of Israel, a topic about which he and Obama also appear simpatico. Rhodes’ older brother David currently is president of CBS News, though is it fair to assume that in that case, the younger brother’s connections to the White House greased the skids of the elder’s rise.

But what is particularly interesting about the Rhodes story is the essential admission from within Obama’s inner circle that Obama is truly an unapologetic and compulsive fabulist. In the case of the Iran deal, Rhodes, at Obama’s behest, invented a story of Iranian moderation, and the administration’s determination to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, neither of which are true, but which Rhodes sold to sycophantic media types like the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg among many others. Rhodes justified this by his contempt (shared by Obama) for the so-called foreign policy “blob” by which he means the views of vastly more experienced and educated people than he and his boss. The advantage that Obama and Rhodes have over the blob is not any expertise, ability or in the end success, but rather a knack for creating pleasing fictions about the world around them, and then selling them to a gullible press and public. 

And this, of course, is the secret of Obama’s success in general. Sometime during his initial stint in college Barry Soetero, a self-admitted poseur, transformed into Barack Obama, a fictionalized version of himself that he has since ridden to remarkable political success. Obama’s genius such as it is, was recognizing that his unusual background, modest talents and looks marked him as a princeling among his liberal college professors that he could manipulate to his benefit. In the crude words of his future vice-president “an articulate and bright and clean and a nice looking guy” who was also a “mainstream African-American.” On the basis of grades never made public, Obama managed to move from run-of-the-mill Occidental College to Columbia and thence to Harvard Law School. There he managed become editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review, despite never penning an article, the usual sine qua non for such a position. 

This event was significant enough to interest a publisher who suggested Obama write a memoir about his actually rather unremarkable life. In effect, this was the opportunity for Obama to formally fictionalize his life experiences under the banner of a nominally “true” story. The problem was that Obama lacked the ability and energy to write it. This problem was solved by Obama’s rooting section in academia in the form of Bill Ayers (unrepentant terrorist and college professor) who almost certainly actually wrote Dreams of My Father for Obama, something Ayers doesn’t actually deny, rather maintaining a deliberate and condescending vagueness on the topic. 

Dreams is nothing but a fable, and Obama by adopting it as his own, became a fabulist of the first order. At times he went overboard, as in telling his publisher that he was born in Kenya for the book’s initial publicity pamphlet, a remarkable error that the Obama machine and media eventually pinned on the publisher’s employees, though anyone involved in publishing knows the author always supplies that information. Either Obama didn’t have presidential ambitions at the time, was just ignorant of the Constitution, or both. That didn’t stop him from becoming a Constitutional Law professor, though. 

More importantly, although he did not write the book, he rode the critical success of the work to fame and some fortune, and added another significant part to his fable -- that he is a writer of unusual talent. In fact, there is almost no evidence of this. He most probably did not write Dreams, he never penned a law review article either as editor of the Harvard Law Review or as a law professor (again a major oddity) and he doesn’t write his speeches -- as the piece on Rhodes makes clear. Sure, he reviews and edits them. Obama is in his own estimation a better speechwriter that his speechwriters or would be if he actually bothered to write one. No matter. It is now part of a fable which has morphed into fact as far as most of the media is concerned. Obama’s almost preternatural self-regard reinforces the conception, since either Obama must be man he says or an obsessive liar -- there is no middle ground. 

Viewed from this perspective, much of the Obama presidency can be seen as nothing but fable making, especially, but not exclusively, in foreign policy. Obama’s feud with Benjamin Netanyahu is almost baffling except in this sense. That a sitting president would nurse and exacerbate a grudge with the elected leader of an important American ally over nearly a decade is hard to explain other than as part of a self-directed fictional psychodrama that also soothes his anti-Zionist animus without being explicitly anti-Israel. Likewise, Obama’s phony friendships/relationships with foreign government heads, among them Putin, Erdogan, and Merkel, are actually with leaders who obviously view him with contempt. Hillary Clinton’s disastrous turn as secretary of state is enmeshed in Obama’s fictional bubble, allowing her and her acolytes to claim with a straight face that she’s qualified to become president.  

It’s the same on the domestic front. Just the other day at Howard University Obama bragged that race relations had improved under his presidency, a claim that the public knows is untrue, and which is belied on virtually a daily basis. Does Obama actually believe it, or does he consciously know he’s lying -- as with “if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor”? It hardly matters for the fabulist. The line between fact and fiction blurs until such distinctions are meaningless. 

Obama took leftist relativism and the building of narratives, turned it first into biography and then in Orwellian fashion, into governing principle. The lesson will not be lost on those that follow him.  

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