Rachel Kleinfeld, an Alaska-born Rhodes Scholar, is using her Truman National Security Project to build a new Democratic foreign-policy establishment
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.”
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