Rachel Kleinfeld, 35 years old and one of the most successful political entrepreneurs in Barack Obama’s Washington, would almost always rather be somewhere else. Her favorite elsewhere is Alaska, her home state, but she also envisions herself in Afghanistan or Bangladesh or Indonesia, far away from the modest third-floor office off K Street in Washington that houses the Truman National Security Project, a powerful and exclusive club for the best and brightest young progressives in the country, where she currently spends her days.
The Truman Project, which Kleinfeld founded in 2004, is a testament to her ability to work the establishment while positioning herself outside of it. Modeled after conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation, which over the last several decades have functioned as clubhouses for policymakers devoted to advancing the ideas and policy proposals that underpin the modern conservative movement, the Truman Project’s goal is to provide a left-leaning counterpart, focused specifically on foreign policy. Its members-only network of insiders, known as Truman Security Fellows, share progressive views on security issues and are moving into positions to influence what gets done; it now links staffers scattered throughout various Beltway offices—the White House and Congress, the departments of State and Defense, various think tanks and advocacy groups. “It’s the best place by a mile to find out who are the young up and comers in foreign policy,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Truman adviser who until last February was the director of policy planning in the State Department. “There are Truman people all over the place.”
The roster of young Truman fellows in high places includes Matthew Spence, who co-founded Truman with Kleinfeld and is now a senior aide to Obama’s National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and Eric Lesser, who until he left for Harvard Law this summer worked in the White House, first as David Axelrod’s right-hand man and then as director of strategic planning for the Council of Economic Advisers. (He also organized the annual White House Seder.) Others have worked in the Department of Homeland Security, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the Pentagon offices of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There are journalists, like Patrick Radden Keefe, and analyst-bloggers like Micah Zenko, of the Council on Foreign Relations. And there are people like Liz McNally, a West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar who worked as a speechwriter for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq—and who, in August, wound up on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The New Greatest Generation.”
But rather than following her cohort into government after Obama’s election in 2008, Kleinfeld says she turned down offers to join the administration, choosing instead to remain at Truman, bolstering her position as gatekeeper and ringleader of the Truman network. She earned a spot last year on Time magazine’s listing of the top 40 rising stars under 40 in American politics, alongside Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin (better-known as the wife of disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, frequently mentioned as a future Republican presidential contender. In each of our conversations, Kleinfeld cited her penchant for juggling multiple projects at once—currently, writing policy briefs, op-eds, and books, consulting on international rule-of-law issues, and running Truman—as one reason she has stayed out of government service. “I do my best work when I’m juggling a lot of things,” she said when we met over the summer at her Truman office. “But when you take a government job, it is all-consuming.” And not just professionally. “I’m not a Washington workaholic,” Kleinfeld told me in a phone call. “I believe very much in stopping work at 7 p.m., at the latest.”
In person, Kleinfeld retains a hint of the gawky, precocious teenager she once was behind her polished, professional exterior of tamed brown curls, set off by luminous blue-green eyes. She grew up in what she describes as a log cabin off a dirt road in Fairbanks, Alaska, where her Harvard-educated father sits as a federal judge. She rode her considerable charm and intellect to the East Coast, where she matriculated as an undergraduate in Yale’s prestigious Directed Studies program. She went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and eventually earned a doctorate there in international relations before turning her attention to organizing her fellow academics and policy wonks—many of them young veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq—and connecting them with the people trying to reformulate progressive national-security policy for a post-Sept. 11 world. “It’s self-indulgent to just craft beautiful policy,” she told me in that phone conversation. “I was frustrated that good policy kept getting blocked by bad politics.”
Kleinfeld’s thoughtful, independent-minded, and contradictory personality was shaped by her Alaskan childhood. She describes herself as the kind of kid who both read everything she could and spent her free time writing away to humanitarian causes but also liked tools and drove a truck in the woods near her home—a self-possessed young girl in the mold of Ramona Quimby, the Beverly Cleary character. She was, her parents say, always an organizer. “Whenever anyone had anything that had to be managed or administered, they’d turn to Rachel,” said her father, Andrew Kleinfeld, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Her mother, Judith, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, tried for a while to get her only daughter interested in pursuing science, but failed. “She thought calculus would be useless,” Judith Kleinfeld said. “Then she realized she could use it to do the measurements for the curtains for her prom.”
The Kleinfelds describe their household as an Upper West Side co-op on the frontier, with family subscriptions to journals like Commentary, The Public Interest, and The New Republic, along with the Biblical Archaeology Review. Kleinfeld’s parents both grew up in solidly Democratic, culturally Jewish families—her mother in Ohio, daughter of an aeronautical engineer, and her father in the suburbs of Washington, where his father served as a Kennedy appointee on the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, which reviews decisions on claims for veterans’ benefits. The two met at Harvard, where Andrew was a law student and Judith was pursuing a doctorate at the School of Education. When they graduated, they decided to move to Alaska, where Andrew clerked for Jay Rabinowitz, a justice on Alaska’s Supreme Court and a Harvard Law graduate who was one of the few Jews in Fairbanks, while Judith could do research into Native American education. “I thought I was going to be a U.S. senator,” Andrew Kleinfeld told me. Instead, he found himself bored by the petty politics of local Democratic committee meetings, and he opened a private law practice. In 1984, the Kleinfelds registered as Republicans. “Jesse Jackson came out with the Hymietown remarks,” Judith Kleinfeld said. “It wasn’t that he said it, but that it wasn’t repudiated by his party.” Two years later, in 1986, Andrew Kleinfeld was appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan.
Early on, they decided to send their three children to Catholic schools, the most academically rigorous in Fairbanks, mainly to make sure they’d be prepared to attend colleges back East. (Kleinfeld’s older brother, Daniel, went to Columbia; he is now a filmmaker in Brooklyn. Her younger brother, Joshua, followed her to Yale and is a law professor at Northwestern.) “My brothers and I were the only Jews,” Rachel Kleinfeld said of her elementary and high-school years. “We looked different, we acted different. We’d be called on to say prayers over the PA system.” She says that being singled out in this way made her feel special, rather than alienated. On holidays, Kleinfeld’s family would join Fairbanks’ other Jews at a chapel at the local military base, where someone would pull a curtain over the cross on the altar. But the Jewish community, tiny as it was, exhibited familiar tensions. “The people who were more observant always threatened to leave,” Kleinfeld recalls. In retrospect, she adds, the experience of growing up Jewish in Alaska taught her about maintaining a community of people who disagree. “My dad would say, ‘If you leave, we won’t know what to do, and if we leave, you won’t have a minyan,’ ” Kleinfeld said.
When his children were old enough to read, Andrew Kleinfeld decided to start teaching them Talmud, mainly to have study-buddies as he read through Jewish texts for the first time. “I have the view that you can teach pretty complicated stuff to little kids as long as you break it into little pieces,” he told me. “So, I’d type out a little bit and hand it out and say, ‘Read it and tell me what you think.’ ” (Their all-time favorite lesson, he recalled, was on the rules governing lost or found property.) The experience taught Rachel confidence in her ideas and fearlessness in engaging with her elders. “At 8 years old, I was being told that I had the ability to understand it, too,” she says now.
The intellectual confidence instilled in her by her father paid off at Yale and at Oxford and in her first job out of graduate school in 2002, as a consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, where she worked for James Woolsey, who had been CIA director under President Bill Clinton. “I had interviewed with Jim for the job through a Rhodes connection, and it was a big deal,” Kleinfeld said. Woolsey positioned Kleinfeld to work on sensitive government projects the company was pursuing in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, including one that involved working as a researcher for the military’s Defense Science Board, investigating information-sharing between intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. In 2003, she decided to return to Oxford for her doctorate, in part to follow her husband, Patrick Belton, also a doctoral candidate, whom she had married in 2002. “I thought I’d be a policy wonk,” she said.
Instead, she found herself caught up in debates about the Iraq invasion and American liberals’ willingness to sign on for the Bush Administration’s post-Sept. 11 security initiatives. “You had groups bending over backward to be apolitical,” Kleinfeld said. “We were constantly on the back foot, responding to political arguments with policy arguments, which is a bad place to be.” Kleinfeld, who as a master’s student had done consulting work for the World Bank in Albania and Romania, began reaching out to other American expat students who felt that their compatriots at home weren’t seeing how damaging the perceived unilateralism of Bush-era foreign policy was to U.S. interests abroad. “We felt there was no reason why you couldn’t care about human rights and also feel like security was important,” Kleinfeld said. “But there wasn’t anywhere to go with that set of thoughts.”
A year later, in the wake of Sen. John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 presidential election, that had changed. Disaffected Democrats began aggressively moving to create working groups at all levels to reformulate their approach to national security policy in light of the Iraq war—efforts that ultimately sowed the seeds of Obama’s primary victory over Hillary Clinton in 2008. Kleinfeld had been at the 2004 Democratic convention, in Boston, and after the election, she began writing to people she had met there asking for help launching her own group. One person she asked was Rob Stein, a longtime Democratic operative who has been instrumental in seeding new progressive policy startups through an organization called the Democracy Alliance, established with funding from George Soros. “Here was a young woman focused on national security, which is a white man’s game, and she was able to convince donors and serious national security players that the whole field was old and dying and stuck in its ways, and she had a road map for bringing the next generation along,” Stein said in a recent interview. “I thought, ‘Holy shit, this is precisely what this field needs.’ ”
In 2005, Kleinfeld returned to Washington to launch Truman as a serious enterprise, a decision prompted in part by the end of her marriage. “I wouldn’t have come back to America if I hadn’t gotten divorced,” she said. “But if I hadn’t been married, I wouldn’t have gone back to Oxford.” She stopped to consider the contingencies involved in Truman’s inception and then added, “Who knows, I might have gotten frustrated enough and have done the same thing.”
Today, the Truman Project has a budget of about $4 million—a tiny fraction of the Heritage Foundation’s $183 million, but a figure that includes grants from Democratic heavy hitters like Herbert and Marion Sandler and from organizations like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based organization that funds nuclear non-proliferation initiatives. The money goes to provide an array of training and messaging programs on national security issues for congressional and executive agency staffers in Washington, as well as for aspiring politicians throughout the country, and to provide networking retreats for an impressive roster of fellows, many of them with military experience—a relative rarity in Washington’s academic-heavy think-tank world. “If you’re a veteran and you’re progressive and you want to get involved in politics, this is the No. 1 avenue for that,” said a senior congressional staffer who has been a Truman fellow. “And that gives them a credibility other organizations don’t have.”
Without being overtly critical of Kleinfeld, some people who know her wonder if Truman has, in a way, grown too successful: It is, these days, seen by some as an increasingly exclusive and competitive club that has turned down talented young people for fellowships who might have easily gained admission just a couple of years ago, when Kleinfeld was looking for “anyone who knew anything about national security and was a Democrat,” as one early Truman fellow put it. At the same time, there are others in the progressive foreign-policy camp who profess discomfort with Truman’s implicitly pro-military stance—a position some on the left snark is just “Republicanism lite.” “It’s a movement to change how Democrats deal with security, to say we’re not going to cede ground on national security,” said one Hill staffer, who has not participated in Truman programs. “So, where the super-lefty argument would be, ‘We spend more money on security than everyone else combined,’ Truman says, ‘Well, we’re preparing for the war of the future, and rather than buying dick-swinging Cold War equipment, let’s get a more agile naval fleet that helps us fight today’s enemies.’ ” But, the staffer went on, “It’s a very testosterone-heavy approach, very, ‘Fuck you, I’m a retired general and I have killed people with my bare hands and I will tell you that torture is bad.’ ”
Yet the events of the past six months—chiefly, the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, and the final NATO-assisted victory of Libyan rebels over Col. Muammar Qaddafi last week—underscore the extent to which Truman’s philosophy matches the emerging Obama Doctrine. And Truman has been willing to go to bat for the president, hosting conference calls for its fellows to coordinate messaging, like one Truman staffers Michael Breen and Dave Solimini convened in June with Mark Jacobson, then a senior NATO official in Kabul, backing Obama’s announcement that he would accelerate the American drawdown in Afghanistan. Yet Kleinfeld acknowledged significant divisions within the Truman community on what to do about Afghanistan—divisions that presumably mirrored the fierce White House debate that preceded the president’s announcement. “I myself have four or five opinions as I go through the day,” Kleinfeld told me, the day after Obama’s speech.
But, she added, part of her goal in establishing Truman was to create a place in Washington where people engaged in actually making real-world decisions could feel comfortable having the kinds of open debates typically left behind after graduate school. “It’s hard to have these fights in progressive circles,” Kleinfeld told me when we first met in early June. “So, the idea was, let’s fight these ideas out in a friendly environment so that when we’re in leadership positions, we know how to do that.” (One arena Truman doesn’t engage in is Israel policy, chiefly, Kleinfeld said, because there are enough groups devoted to it already.) And she is, by all accounts, careful to avoid pressing her own views on her organization: One person who has been affiliated with Truman since its early days—and who credits his connection to it for getting him his last three jobs, including one in the Obama Administration—said he isn’t ever sure of Kleinfeld’s personal stances. “She doesn’t advocate for a position,” he said. “And I can’t think of her opinions on any one issue.”
One reason for Kleinfeld’s reticence is pragmatism. She couches it in terms of insuring her organization, and the future of her employees, against what would happen if she were hit by a bus: “I want people to have the idea that this is an institution, and not about me,” she says.
Whether Kleinfeld stays in Washington or not, the Truman National Security Project appears to be here to stay. “Truman is now successful enough that even if Rachel were to leave, it would outlast her,” said Simon Rosenberg, a Clinton campaign staffer who founded the progressive think tank NDN, whose initials come from a predecessor political action committee, the New Democrat Network. He added, as an afterthought: “I don’t know if I’ve done that.”
Having helped to move her generation of foreign-policy whizzes from the periphery of Washington’s policymaking apparatus into its power centers, Kleinfeld herself now appears to be traveling in the opposite direction. She keeps her voter registration and her favorite books in Colorado, where she has a house and a boyfriend, and relies on Frontier Airlines to make the regular commute to the capital. “My soul is Western,” she told me in one phone call this summer from her home, near Boulder. “I like the ethos and the values.” And, she admitted, “I have a very low tolerance for bureaucracy.”
What Kleinfeld has apparently learned from her time in Washington is that ideas influence public policy—and may matter more to her than directly shaping policy herself. This winter, she’ll publish a book about the rule of law, and she has another in the works about energy policy. She has lately been reading about the development of the pioneer West to see if there might be ideas applicable to today’s developing countries. “Washington is a monoculture,” said Slaughter, who has returned to teaching international affairs at Princeton. “Ultimately, for people like Rachel who feed off of crossing boundaries and are effective and productive and creative as a result, Washington is not enough.”