Political Thriller

The Ben Rhodes Story: How A Hack Writer Crafted the Benghazi Talking Points of a Lifetime

Patrick Howley Political Reporter
Font Size:

Republican South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the Benghazi Select Committee, said this week that no witnesses are off limits in his committee’s investigation into the Benghazi cover-up. So who will he subpoena? Here’s a suggestion: How about Ben Rhodes.

Ben Rhodes, the 37-year old little brother of CBS News president David Rhodes, is a national security adviser to President Obama. He also happens to be an Upper East Side literary type who took a Master’s in Fiction from NYU. Real serious artist. Rhodes was the one who edited the White House’s Benghazi talking points to focus the blame on spontaneous reaction to a YouTube video, rather than an al-Qaeda attack.

Ben even published a short story in the spring 2002 edition of Beloit Fiction Journal called “The Goldfish Smiles, You Smile Back,” about an extremely good note-taker who edits talking points. “Goldfish” appears to be Rhodes’ only credit.

So what went wrong, Ben? No takers on that screenplay you had rattling around in the glove compartment? Seed money running out and still couldn’t pop a weekend piece in Reader’s Digest? Find yourself on Gower Avenue staring in your empty coffee cup, listening to the air conditioner hum? Had to take a little day job in politics to tide you over? No shame in that.

One minute you’re sipping kambucha with your peer-workshop buddies, the next you’re in a suit working on “The YouTube Video Project.” Happens to the best of us. So tell us the story, Ben. Tell us of the YouTube video talking points. Spin us this tale of power, romance, and intrigue. This is your Washington thriller. Finally. Make it count. 

Viral Crucifix By Ben Rhodes (Chapter 1: “Download of Death”)

Bm5TKp7CEAAX1em (1)

“Out of coffee and cigs,” Barack sighed, running a weary hand across his scalp. I could sense the momentum in the room shifting. We’d been up for hours, with still no workable premise and our deadline approaching. He stood and headed for the door, mumbling about picking up a bagel and a cup of black coffee. Youthful. Youthful. How do I do youthful? My specialty in grad school had been austerity. Density. I was out of my element. Then, suddenly, like the final orgasmic thrust of an unfaithful lover in a Paris motel, it came to me. “Wait. I’VE GOT IT.” Barack turned. “Mr. President, it was a YouTube video! It was a YouTube video!”


“A YouTube video. Such a brilliant MacGuffin. This is worthy of Fitzgerald, Ben. This is one they’ll remember us for.”

But our editors were skeptical. “The ending doesn’t hold together,” they said. “What happens to the filmmaker? We can’t call him Nakoula Nakoula, thats absurd.”


Barack wanted it done and told me to feed it to the press. But I was unsure of myself. Was Nakoula’s prison experience derivative of The Count of Monte Cristo? And what of Candy Crowley? Was she a moral arbiter within the text, a la Steinbeck’s Casy, or was she more of a Greek chorus? Would the paperback crowd appreciate the contradictions in Susan Rice’s character? I needed more time.


“Then Hillary says, what difference does it make? The end.”…I finished like a bourgeois wristwatch salesman in the den of a Parisian whore. Barack thought for a moment, weighing my words silently along the glistening valleys of his lips. “That’s brilliant, Ben,” he finally told me. “They’ll love it.” Then with a conspiratorial grin, he leaned close to my tender ear. “Don’t tell Jay how it ends.”


My brother at CBS News would have to like this one, I thought. He’d have to. I yearned for his fraternal approval. We’d been through upwards of forty-seven drafts. But this one was commercial. This one was a hit.

Embedded image permalink

“Then I watched wearily from the precipice of my own tortured understanding, response to that YouTube video,” I read for my colleagues in the briefing room, their stunned silence washing over my body like so many probing hands at a furtive French orgy. “Thank you.” They stood with gusto, their applause reverberating off the crescent walls. For that moment the humble White House seemed as grand and majestic as the 92nd Street Y.

“My dear Ben, we’re the new enfant terribles of the literary scene. We’re bigger than Tom Wolfe.”

Embedded image permalink

“Gentlemen, we’re from Houghton Mifflin. We loved your story about the YouTube video. We’d like to sign you to a deal.”

Embedded image permalink

Sometimes I feel like I’m back in that Carlyle Hotel room, rum on my moustache, typing those beautiful talking points. In each sound byte exploring a new facet, reaching a new understanding of my very self. Typing. Typing. Bounden and yet comfortable within the menageries cascading from my very masculine essence. In the common slang of Bastillian street walkers: les auteur.


What a tale, Ben. I’d love to hear you tell it to me in person. You don’t want to debut a work of this magnitude at Trey Gowdy’s underground spoken-word slam. You should workshop it first. In an article, say, for a political magazine.

So why don’t we throw on our corduroy jackets, meet up at the Fox Head and smoke some unfiltered cigarettes (I assume you roll your own?) Loosen up with a few PBR’s, flick Tom Waits on the jukebox, throw some game at the short-haired brunette at the end of the bar. Just like old times. I’m down if you are, buddy. I hear you’re no fan of D.H. Lawrence but I won’t hold it against you.

Tell me the story, Ben. We can write the novel together. You’ll come out the hero, I swear. Just set the scene. Tell me about the other characters in the tale. The whole Dickensian cast.

Follow Patrick on Twitter