Rice alum helps craft Obama’s international message

Rice alum helps craft Obama’s international message

Rice News staff

When President Barack Obama went to Cairo in June, he delivered a speech that sought to recast U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world. The speechwriter working with the president was a 31-year-old Rice alum named Ben Rhodes.

The Cairo speech was widely seen as Obama’s first major effort to get beyond the international acrimony that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq with a renewed campaign of public diplomacy. “It laid down a lot of extremely important markers about what President Obama’s goals are, and his view of universal principles like democracy, women’s rights and religious freedom,” Rhodes ’00 said. “It is also a quintessentially Obama speech in that it speaks very candidly about difficult and controversial issues without pulling any punches.”

Rice alumnus Ben Rhodes, right, reviews a speech with President Barack Obama.

Rhodes went to work for Obama after the then-senator from Illinois announced his run for the presidency, and he moved to Chicago to work for the campaign full time in July 2007. For the next 16 months, he was part of a three-person speechwriting team (a fourth was added in the general election), working together on many of the bigger speeches and splitting up the other ones. He became the chief national security speechwriter and the deputy director of White House speechwriting after the inauguration.

As an undergraduate at Rice, Rhodes was a double major in English and political science. “Rice helped prepare me for both aspects of my job — writing and politics,” he said.

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He cited Max Apple, the Gladys Louise Fox Professor Emeritus of English, as a “great writing professor who — even though it was fiction — taught me not to waste words and to write clear sentences — both critical aspects of speechwriting.” He also mentioned Terrence Doody, professor of English, who had his students read American and European novels that had a heavy political bent to them. Rhodes said he continues to read a novel from the country he is about to visit to help provide context for foreign trips. “Dr. Doody will be glad to know,” he said, “that I reread ‘I Served the King of England’ before we visited Prague,” where Rhodes was the lead speechwriter on the April address in which Obama set the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons.

On the other side of his double major, Rhodes credits Rice with doing “a good job of conveying that political science cannot be seen as a laboratory — it’s driven by politics and personalities.” That message “came across clearly in classes with people like John Ambler (professor emeritus of political science) and Earl Black (the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Political Science), and it was evident in the memorabilia on the walls of the Baker Institute every time you walked to class,” he said.

After graduating from Rice, Rhodes went to New York University, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing. He also taught writing during those two years at NYU and John Jay College in New York.

Because of the attacks of Sept. 11, Rhodes said he felt compelled to work in international relations. He moved to Washington and got a job with former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton as a policy aide and speechwriter. That job lasted more than five years, and it led to his role in crafting two key documents from that era.

Hamilton was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission and co-chair of the Iraq Study Group. Rhodes helped draft sections of the 9/11 report and Study Group report, and also wrote Hamilton and Commission Chairman (and former New Jersey Gov.) Thomas Kean’s memoir of the 9/11 Commission, “Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission.”

While working on the Iraq Study Group report, Rhodes visited his alma mater a couple of times because former Secretary of State James A. Baker III was the group’s other co-chairman and because the Baker Institute was one of the sponsoring organizations. Rhodes recalled writing much of the report in a Baker Hall conference room where he once took classes. “That was a great experience,” he said, “as was the opportunity to work with (Baker Institute Founding Director) Ed Djerejian and Secretary Baker. Baker is a unique and hugely impressive person.” He added that at the end of a long day, it was also good to be able to unwind at Valhalla.

Following a short stint as a speechwriter for former Virginia Gov. (now U.S. Sen.) Mark Warner, Rhodes went to work for Obama. As the president’s foreign policy speechwriter, he had a hand in the Feb. 24 address to the joint session of Congress. He also wrote with the president the February and March speeches that laid out Obama’s strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan and recent speeches in Moscow and Accra, Ghana — in addition to the Cairo and Prague speeches.

With the administration’s focus on health care and other domestic issues this summer, Rhodes predicted “a bit of a breather coming up in terms of major foreign policy speeches.” But Obama has not yet made a presidential trip to East Asia, and Rhodes said he expects that to be on the horizon. “And I’m hoping to get down to Texas again to work in a trip to Goode Company,” he said.

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