By Victor Stepien, Guest Writer
A review of her memoirs of her early life
In Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, (Crown Archetype, 2010) Condoleezza Rice, best known as former President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State, looks at how she became who she is. At its core, this memoir is the story of her parents, John Rice, a high school guidance counselor and Presbyterian minister (and, later, university administrator), and his wife Angelena, an English teacher, who were nothing but an ordinary couple. Yet this volume shows how they shaped her on her way to becoming one of the most senior diplomats in the world at a most critical time in our history.
Despite being born in a middle-class family, Dr. Rice grew up during the Jim Crow era in Birmingham, Alabama, then referred to as ‘’Bombingham’’ because of the endemic racist violence. There, opportunities as banal as taking swimming lessons or eating in any restaurant were kept out of her way by law. Yet Dr. Rice shows how her parents managed to empower her with alternatives that would prove to be just as effective for her well-being, thanks in part to the ironic buffer that segregation provided against racism and bigotry. It is evident that they instilled in her the belief that anything was possible, and that in spite of less-than-ideal circumstances, the American Dream was very much within her grasp.
In a sense, Dr. Rice is nothing like you would expect. Rather than being a color-blind conservative, her black activism resides in the power of education, career opportunities, and prestige. She
is not a social conservative; her father was friends with black radicals, and sympathetic to the Black Panthers. She is a big football fan, and she also likes to watch sumo wrestling on television. She lived in Russia as a visiting student, and this shaped her politics dramatically. She was a registered Democrat before that trip, and became a Republican because of Ronald Reagan’s policies towards the Soviet Union. Her childhood dream was to become a concert pianist, and after she failed her music major in college, she decided to turn to foreign policy for her Masters. She is glad she changed her major, and so are we.
At the core of her story is a mélange of serendipity and hard work. Perhaps one of the most candid revelations in this book is that she is no genius, contrary to what her public image would suggest, as can be found in John Updike’s depiction of her in his 2006 novel, Terrorist. She is a self-confessed procrastinator, and has always struggled with standardized assessment tests. She is not as voracious a reader as her academic peers, and has always watched television. She is grateful for affirmative action, believing it to have helped her a great deal in her career. Coming to Stanford seems to have been the end of a series of failures that hard work could not prevent from happening. Being a failed pianist, followed by failed competitive ice-skater, made worse by her inability to find a job after college, led her to believe that there was something better out there.
This lack of complacency, coupled with determined optimism, is perhaps what propelled her to a professional life of success and fulfilment. Yet it would be a mistake to forget that in her case, this stems in part from the encouragement her parents gave her throughout this journey. She has admitted to finding writing the chapter about her mother’s untimely death from cancer when she was in her twenties the most difficult part. And the book ends with her struggle to recover from her father’s heart stroke. Her grief comes through as she can sense a ghostly presence whenever she thinks of her parents, a sign of her faith in God as a practicing Presbyterian.
In her adult life, she immerses herself in her career as assistant professor and provost at Stanford University, then as advisor to the 41st and 43rd presidents, George H.W. Bush and later George W. Bush, up until the Florida presidential election recount of 2000. As the book progresses, the reader can see that she becomes less of a dreamer, more of a pragmatist. True, she confesses to holding a grudge for years against the University of Denver for alienating and firing her father in a manner she finds unseemly. Yet she appears to have encountered a hornet’s nest with a Hispanic administrator in her own capacity as provost at Stanford. Resentment is thus slowly ebbed away, and replaced by common sense.
Perhaps her many friends and colleagues, for whom she always has a good word to say, also make up for her family. The second book – or third, if we are to take into account the young person’s version of this book – should expound the significance of her professional life at greater length. It will be the ‘’obligatory Secretary of State memoir,’’ as she puts it, opening a window into the White House and the many decisions she had to make while serving in public office. It will be sure to deal with the seminal challenges of 9/11, the Iraq War, the War on Terror and the freedom agenda of compassionate conservatism. For now, this volume is the delightful story of a little girl whose parents had big dreams for her.