The Spy Sherwood Piece

By popular demand, my 1988 piece on the then-budding young Rhodes Scholar who has now ascended to be head of ABC News. This time, much more legible:

Current Rhodes Scholar Benjamin B. Sherwood II's nervous eyes and carefully goofy warmth suggest a lifetime of manic achievement. Simultaneously elusive (at Oxford he would only give me an off?the?record interview) and overbearing ("Let's do lunch sometime; I’ve been looking forward to meeting you"),  he is perhaps the archetypal Rhodes scholar, the ultimate in a long line of centerless resume featherers. This is his story ....

Ben, now 24, had his eye on the Rhodes from an early age. The son of a well-connected Beverly Hills lawyer, he was educated at the Harvard school in Los Angeles – southern California’s premiere prep school – and grew up in the shadow of his equally driven elder sister, who won a Rhodes in 1981. According to a friend, his parents actually paid slightly older  children to play with their offspring as a way to inculcate social precocity and thus, perhaps, speed up their fellowship preparation. (Mrs. Sherwood confided to a family friend that she intended to write a book, "How to Raise a Rhodes Scholar.") By the time he entered Harvard College with the class of 1985, Ben was for primed for résumé battle in the big leagues; already he stood out among his peers. As a 1986 Los Angeles Times interview put it just after he won the Rhodes, "Ben Sherwood… has had to work hard to fit in with others his own age while darting in and out of a more adult world, that tended to find his enthusiasm quite charming.” Yes, that is the word: enthusiasm. "He never lost his excitement about learning something new,” remembers an older former employer.

But as the Times hinted, Ben's enthusiasm had provoked some teasing from classmates. 'It was a common bond among my classmates at Harvard, hating Ben Sherwood," notes one of his more affectionate former friends. "Ben is one of the most hated people alive," agrees Clark Freshman, a Harvard classmate and, as a Marshall scholar, a fellow Oxonian. "It's bizarre. People actually make an effort to dislike him." Others put it more gently: 'When you think Ben Sherwood, you think funny stories, you think asshole, you think 'Thank God I'm not him,' " says a friend.

But through it all, Ben has held steady. "I'm reluctant to make waves when sitting in a group of classmates when one person says something I disagree with," Ben ventured to the Times. "And Machiavelli, who is widely misunderstood, said that in the long run it's not very important to be popular, because popularity is fleeting, but respect is permanent." Some say that Ben himself is widely misunderstood, that his enthusiasm can encompass a humorous sense of fun, To the Times he confided shyly that he plays chess with a computer; has tried sumo wrestling in Japan; speaks French, Russian end Chinese (well, a summer course at Andover); and won a disco-dancing competition with his grandmother. He also has a penchant for magic tricks and mime.

None of this, mind you, has anything to do with endearing himself to the overweeningly well-rounded men and women who make up the Rhodes Selection Committees. At the Harvard Crimson Ben’s enthusiasm quickly came to the fore: as a freshman he immediately declared his intention to be its president (the paper’s equivalent of editor in chief) and wrote more stories to qualify for a position on the paper in his first semester than any other freshman. Once he'd acquired the nominal title of editor (like every other reporter who makes the staff), he wrote only a handful more pieces. Why the sudden withering of his journalistic passion? "He realized he didn't need the Crimson," explains a fellow editor, "and he had his active three moments for his resume."

Indeed, a miraculous series of prestigious internships followed: two stints working for the Los Angeles Times in its Washington and Paris bureaus, each of which was completely unconnected with his family's close friend, publisher Tom Johnson; a summer at CBS in New York (among the references on his résumé have been Walter Cronkite and Don Rather, and featured prominently on his Oxford wall is a photo of Ben hugging Diane Sawyer on the CBS Evening News set); and the time spent covering the Jesse Helms - James Hunt 1984 Senate race for the Raleigh News and Observer.

Fellow reporters at the Times still remember Ben's enthusiasm. "He was a young man going on 65," one of them recently said. "He really worked his buns off." Ben boasted to a close friend afterward, "I walked in and asked how many articles [someone else had] written as a summer intern. They said five. So I said 'Right, I’ll write more, then.' And I did." Back at Harvard, Ben's enthusiasm subsequently fastened on rugby. Asked why he had a sudden interest in this obscure British sport, he explained that it was "to lock up my Rhodes.” Although he was on the team, his closest friend at the time cannot recall him playing a single game. (His teammates valued his contribution so much that at their annual cookout they chose to strip him nude and funnel beer down his throat? a ritual Ben apparently took as an affectionate form of hazing.)

Academically, Ben soldiered for a solid A? average, and by his junior year there was only one obstacle between him and the Rhodes: another supremely enthusiastic man in his class from Los Angeles who would be formidable competition for the Harvard endorsement for the southwestern district. Fired with competitive spirit, Ben decided to take a year off to discover himself. Working for the United Nations for three months on the Thailand ? Cambodia border was a burden for the Beverly Hills prodigy, but he bore it well (happily, it also fulfilled the Rhodes's community-service requirement). He reminisced to the Times, "I had the distinct impression [my friends] expected me to come back from this experience and reject the country club and the house and the family and the servants and the Hollywood Bowl. I could have done that. And it would have been outrageous. …When I look at poor people, I don't feel guilty that I have what I have. Nor does any sense of guilt necessarily motivate me to give immunizations to Khmer Rouge babies on the border in Thailand. What does motivate me to do things is a sense of duty."

And enthusiasm. "I guess it was kind of funny being on the Thai?Cambodia border with him and discussing strategies for getting fellowships," says another relief worker (according to this source, the border was crawling with resume?padders). When Ben returned to Cambridge in the fall of 1985, he took a refugee?camp sign to a store to have it framed. It hung on his wall next to the Diane Sawyer photo. Ben was so sure he would make the cut and get a Rhodes interview that he is rumored to have made his plane reservations to California a month in advance.

In the winter of 1985, when Ben finally won the Rhodes, latent anti-Sherwood sentiment erupted in a splurge of telephone wailing. One classmate had to renege on his promise to commit suicide if Ben got the Rhodes. "I remember people calling one another up when he got it and saying, 'My God! There's no justice in the world!’ " recalls a schoolmate. "People were dumbfounded,' an acquaintance says, "not simply because he got the Rhodes but because he planned and executed getting the Rhodes. He'd devoted his life to it. When he got it, we lost all hope." At the Harvard reception for the Marshall and Rhodes scholars, Ben leaned over to a friend and whispered the classic contemporary assertion of self?dramatizing hubris. "Imagine," he said, "if a bomb fell on this place tonight."

Since then, friends say, his enthusiasm has been tempered by a new mellowness. Well, perhaps. Last summer he worked in Washington at the World Bank. Now, in contemplating his return to the United States from Oxford, he has been studying circulation figures of various newspapers to target the right reentry point. Let's see? which newspaper has produced the most Pulitzer prize winners?