Meet Ben Coes. A White House speechwriter, turned campaign manager, turned author, is about to release his third thriller The Last Refuge, which builds on the character Dewey Andreas. You may remember hearing about Dewey Andreas from Coes' first two novels Power Down and Coup D'etat.
Throughout his writing Ben draws on his considerable experience in politics, including his time as campaign manager for Mitt Romney's 2002 run for Governor. His characters are vibrant, and his novels are page turners that often bear a striking resemblance to the current political climate.
Ben talked to us about his career, his writing, and making a life in Boston.
We understand you come from a background in politics as a former speechwriter and campaign manager. What was it like working in the political system in America and why did you decide to get out of it?
I love politics. I worked at the White House, and I ran Mitt Romney’s campaign for Governor of Massachusetts in 2002. I met my wife through politics – she was a policy expert for the Governor of California. I have a ton of friends from my time in politics. Politics is a blast, full of interesting, smart, passionate people from all walks of life. But once I had "punched my ticket" I wanted to do more – I wanted to make more money and to write books. Those things aren’t compatible with politics.
How did you get into speechwriting, and how did you come to be a White House appointed speechwriter under President George H. W. Bush? What was it like working in the White House and how did it influence your novels?
I was a White House Intern under President Reagan between junior and senior years at Columbia. After graduating, one of President Reagan’s top aides, who I had worked for and who went to work for George H.W. Bush, asked me if I wanted a job.
I worked on the 1990 Economic Summit, which was organized by the White House and State Department, and then was offered several jobs, both inside and outside the White House. I wanted to be more than just a staff member, however, and so I asked to be considered for a speechwriting position, and was appointed by the White House to write speeches for the Secretary of Energy at the height of the Gulf War. I learned a great deal about oil policy, energy policy, and nuclear weapons.
My two bestsellers draw heavily on my time in politics and the White House. Power Down (2010), my first book, is about an attack by terrorists on an American oil company. Coup D'etat (2011), my second thriller, concerns nuclear weapons policy and conflict between Pakistan and India. My third book, The Last Refuge, involves Israel and Iran, an interest that also came out of my time at the White House.
So working at the White House and Energy Department instill real policy knowledge into my books. Perhaps more importantly, my time at the White House and in politics generally gives all of my books what I hope is a feeling of authenticity for the reader; a feeling that I’ve been there before and that many of the actions and conversations that take place are in fact possible.
Speechwriter and campaign manager appear to be two very different occupations on the surface. How did you make the transition to campaign manager from speechwriter? How are they similar?
After my time in government, I went into the private sector, where I worked in private equity for many years, and, in fact still do. It was through contacts in the private equity world that I met Mitt Romney. He was looking for a campaign manager who had both political skills and private sector management skills, and I guess I fit the bill. I wasn’t looking to be a campaign manager, but I really like Mitt a lot and so I convinced the partners at my firm to let me take an eight month
sabbatical to run the campaign. The transition was pretty easy because I was familiar with both of the two worlds that existed inside the campaign – the business world, and the political world. In some ways, I was a translator between those two worlds and I think it helped create an unusual but effective culture that ultimately was successful at the mission, which was winning.
What was it like working as Mitt Romney's campaign manager during his run for governor? Do you see any similarities between his campaign then and his campaign now?
Working for Mitt was great. I really like him. I know it’s been written many times, but I’ll say it again, he’s a very smart person with real integrity. What many people don’t necessarily see is Mitt’s terrific sense of humor. He made every day – even when we were behind – fun. In addition, his wife, Ann, is an absolutely wonderful person, truly one of the kindest and smartest people I’ve ever met. We had a hard-charging team of talented people on the campaign, but we also had fun, and I think having the ability to keep one’s sense of humor and grace are key elements to winning. You need to have a fun atmosphere in order to get the best out of people.
What types of experiences from the campaign trail have you drawn on for your writing?
I think my time on the campaign trail and my time at the White House give my books authenticity. This I hope comes through in the behind-the-scenes sequences that are important to all of my novels, in which we see the President and his top national security advisors dealing with problems. It’s not so much that I saw our national security team working, but rather, on a more general level, I understand how the political give and take, the words and dialogue, the stress and pressures, effect people.
Hopefully, it comes through for my reader by enabling him or her to feel as if they’re a “fly on the wall” for these key scenes in my book.
Tell us about your character Dewey Andreas. This is Dewey's third novel, correct? Where did the inspiration for Dewey come from and how has Dewey evolved?
Dewey is an American ex-special forces soldier – a former Delta. Long before the series of books begins, Dewey had been falsely accused of a crime – killing his wife - and kicked out of the military. He was acquitted of the charges, but he was embittered and left the U.S., finding work on an offshore oil platform. A decade later, that oil platform is the target of a terrorist strike – the beginning of Power Down. That book is in some ways about Dewey’s redemption and how he risks
his life to come back and help stop terrorists from harming the country that on one level he hates, but on a deeper, more profound level he still loves.
There is, I hope, a larger arc to Dewey’s character that occurs both within and even outside the pages of the book. If Power Down is about Dewey’s redemption and reconciliation with the country he fled, Coup D'etat, the second book, is about Dewey beginning to once again serve America and utilize his extensive training; Coup is about America overthrowing the president of Pakistan. Book three sees Dewey’s relationship with the U.S. intelligence infrastructure becoming even closer, as he works with Israel to stop Iran from detonating its first nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv.
More often than not, three-dimensional characters end up writing themselves. Did that happen with Dewey?
Great question – and the answer is yes and no.
In Power Down, I set out to create what I envisioned as a hero. This forced me to ask myself, what qualities do I believe in. It was hard and involved creating something from scratch. But in Coup and my third book, The Last Refuge, Dewey directed the action. Sometimes I felt as if I was taking dictation as he drove the plot forward.
Do you see any of yourself in Dewey?
Dewey is in so many ways the person I would like to be. He embodies the qualities I aspire to. Honest, tough, quiet, funny, smart, straightforward, brave. At the same time, he’s deeply flawed. I think my readers like the combination of his strengths and his weaknesses. It’s what people are actually like.
Your new book The Last Refuge was difficult to put down! Was it as easy to write as it was to read? What were some of the joys and challenges in writing this book?
It was hard to write, mainly because half way through I had open heart surgery and had to put down my pencil for several months. When I returned to finish it, I had a tough time understanding some of the motives and ideas that were driving the plot. In order to settle back in, I literally re-typed several chapters into my computer so as to try and get a visceral sense of the book. It helped.
Although The Last Refuge is a work of fiction, there are many parallels to our current political climate. The line "I trust Iran about as far as I can throw them" really stood out. Do you anticipate your book spurring further research among readers into some of the issues you bring up? What do you hope people take away from The Last Refuge?
I hope it generates interest and causes people to take a look at a number of issues. I want readers to know how important our relationship is with Israel. I also want people to be vigilant in our distrust of Iran and radical Islam. At the same time, I tried to paint a nuanced portrait of Iran by having one of the heroes be Iranian. The fact is, most of Iran is decent and desires closer ties with America, and peace with Israel. Like much of the Middle East, however, the top of Iran’s leadership hierarchy is populated with very bad people.
What's next for you and Dewey?
I’m in the middle of my fourth book, entitled Year of the Scorpion – which will come out a year from now. It involves China. The Ministry of State Security – China’s powerful intelligence service - wants Dewey dead.