At the State Department, Susan Rice Has Trained Her Sights on U.S. African Policy

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has been a fan of Susan Rice’s since the days the former point guard for the National Cathedral Eagles was taking the basketball strong to the hole. Albright watched Rice grow up with her daughters -- hanging out at backyard barbecues, languishing poolside or lunching at McDonald’s. And she is still watching Rice, now assistant secretary of state for African affairs, and still cheering her on.

“If I were to characterize her, whether it’s playing basketball or anything else, she’s fearless,” says Albright. “She says what she thinks. She steps into situations without doubt. She’s very determined.

“I just never doubted that if Susan wanted to do it all, she could.”

Rice’s brother, John, now a marketing director for the National Basketball Association, says it’s no accident that his sister wound up playing point guard. Back then, they called her “Spo,” short for “Sportin’,” a reference to her enthusiasm for the game where she was the ball handler, the shot caller, the one player who, more than any other, ran the action.

In many ways, it is a role she still plays. But her arenas have gotten much bigger.

Susan Rice, 33, can seem something of a wonder woman -- make that Alpha woman. The high school valedictorian, Rhodes scholar and Oxford PhD has always had a knack for coming in first. And, some grumble, a need for complete control.

Now the former National Security Council adviser who grew up in a family with an almost fanatical belief in education is accompanying President Clinton, the first lady and a congressional delegation on a historic six-nation trip to Africa. And while Rice credits the team at the NSC and the efforts of her colleagues at the State Department for making it happen, she’s the one on point.

She’s chaired early morning meetings, midafternoon briefings and high-level policy debates. She’s in her office by 8 a.m., and leaves for home at 7:30 p.m. or later, and makes time to entertain with her husband and nurse her 8-month-old son as well. It’s been a month of March madness, but Susan Rice is on top of her game.

Promoting a Platform

Standing in front of the Brookings Institution auditorium, dwarfed by the lectern, Rice seems instantly familiar. She could be a college coed, perhaps even a head cheerleader. Or she might be the teacher your love-struck 6-year-old spent all afternoon making a Valentine’s Day card for. Dressed in bright purple and sporting her typical short hemline, the 5-foot-3 policymaker looks as if she could be any of these people.

Then she opens her mouth.

“We see human rights and democracy not only as the expression of universal values, but as the only means of achieving the goals of long-term political stability and sustainable economic development on the African continent,” Rice tells the nearly 200 people seated or standing along the wall.

A few hours later, at a hearing of the Senate subcommittee on African affairs, Rice makes small talk about policy and mutual friends with fellow panelists and Senate staffers.

“Hi, nice to see you,” greets Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), subcommittee chairman. “How’s your little one?” he asks. Rice beams, inquires about the senator’s daughter, who is expecting a baby, and the two swap quick stories about the nocturnal habits of infants.

Then, testifying in fluent administration “we-speak,” Rice becomes a cogent, telegenic witness laying out administration accomplishments and goals.

“How old is she?” CNN producer Karla Crosswhite-Chigbue whispers to a reporter. “She looks like she’s 22.” Rice gets that a lot.

After each event, media types, policy wonks and interest group staffers hover around the assistant secretary like birds at a feeder, hurriedly introducing themselves and pressing business cards into her hand.

“She’s just surprising,” says Nicole Widdersheim, an associate with a local humanitarian agency. “She’s African American, she’s a woman, she’s a young person. She’s just exciting to see. I have a lot of hope for her. She’s got a tough agenda -- it’s hard to sell African engagement to the American public.”

But then that’s one of the reasons Rice was tapped for the job. People who’ve worked with her say her combination of personal style and intellectual prowess, not to mention the ear of the secretary of state, has elevated the profile of African issues.

She’s had a hand in helping the African Growth and Opportunity Act trade legislation pass the House and in crafting the African Crisis Response Initiative to augment the continent’s peacekeeping capabilities. She’s helped isolate the repressive Khartoum government in the Sudan and instituted a more forceful policy toward the military government in Nigeria.

“I’m incredibly proud of her,” says Albright. “She’s very smart, she’s dynamic, she’s filled with ideas, and she’s very knowledgeable about Africa.”

Both Rice and Albright are careful to stress that the president’s 10-day trip is the result of a great deal of teamwork, and a desire by the president to usher in an era of cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa.

Still, according to Albright, “there has been a desire to have the president go to Africa for some time, and Susan has been a central part in having that happen. . . . She is the one that has provided a great deal of the framework and the substantive underpinnings for the trip.”

Now that they’re in Africa, her job is to make sure the president and his key aides know the players and the issues, even as situations become fluid. It’s a difficult task, and to the extent the trip is a success or failure, she will help shoulder much of the credit or blame.

Of course, to her failure is not an option.

Images of Death

Even as the Clinton administration talks in terms of an “African renaissance” and “new partnerships,” part of Rice remains seared by old images.

She’s seen war zones: Angola, Liberia, Mozambique -- they all had a certain destructive uniformity. Then there was Rwanda.

Rice visited the small East African nation in 1994, after the three-month slaughter in which more than half a million people died. The killing had stopped months before, but the bodies remained. “We visited a church,” she recalls. “People had gone there to seek refuge. This was a place where people were hoping they would be safe . . .” Her voice trails off.

“You cannot describe what it is like to see thousands of bodies rotting in one place. Shot, hacked up, dead, decaying faces. People frozen in whatever position they might have fallen -- babies in mothers’ arms.” Rice pauses. She alternately shakes her head, almost imperceptibly, or stares at some distant point. Then the assistant secretary with a news anchor’s gift for articulation struggles to find words. “I couldn’t speak for hours afterward . . . never, never want to see . . . I had nightmares . . . nightmares for a long time.” After a moment, she regains control.

“I will do everything in my powers as a policymaker to make sure not to have to ever see that again,” she says emphatically. “I don’t know if I’ll succeed, but I’ll go down fighting.”

Faces of death may guide her policy, but images of hope inspire her humanity. In Africa, the two often coexist.

Last December on a trip with Albright, Rice visited a northern Ugandan rehabilitation center that housed children who had escaped Sudanese terrorists.

“There was a 1-month-old whose family had been shot in a roadside massacre. I think her name was Charity,” Rice remembers. “Her 2 1/2- or 3-year-old brother saw that she was still alive and picked up the baby and carried her miles to this rehabilitation center. Secretary Albright was holding the baby, who was so fragile, but gonna make it. I couldn’t even watch. . . .

“It strikes me that if you really want to do something, then you can do anything. It was a triumph of life over death.”

Citizen of the World

A few hours before a recent dinner party, in Rice’s spacious Adams-Morgan town house, her son, John David, nicknamed Jake, fidgets. He fusses. He gets all set to tune up, when without ceremony, or even a conversation break, Rice lifts her shirt and breast-feeds the infant. Sitting across the living room, Africa bureau spokesman Louis Segesvary, nibbling on a shrimp cocktail, doesn’t bat an eye.

Since Rice took over the bureau’s top job in October, he has gotten used to her matter-of-fact, un-self-conscious style.

“I’m going to breast-feed for as long as I can,” Rice says. “I’ve managed this far, but it hasn’t been all that easy.” Until the day before her son was born, Rice worked as a senior director for African affairs at the National Security Council. While on maternity leave, she went through congressional hearings and confirmation and then returned to work as assistant secretary a few days before being sworn in, when Jake was 3 months old.

She uses her breast pump at the office while doing paperwork, and occasionally callers on the other end of the line can just make out the steady whir of her Medela mini-electric. A lot of working mothers with less hectic jobs find breast-feeding a near impossibility. But, like being elected president of her high school government association, like earning a doctorate by age 25, when Rice decides to do something, it’s done.

Like her marriage to college sweetheart, Ian Cameron, a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., who is white. “It was an anti-political decision,” Rice says flatly. She and Cameron met when they lived in the same dorm at Stanford, and Rice knew there’d be obstacles. “I was conscious of the fact that it could be to my disadvantage to marry a white guy -- that some folks would hold that against me,” Rice says. “But why the hell should I be constrained by prejudices with which I totally disagree anyway? . . . That doesn’t mean that I am any less of an African American.”

A family friend once asked her, “Aren’t you afraid that one day you’re going to wake up and Ian is going to call you a nigger?” She recalls this wryly and notes, “I imagine there are some folks who you might marry, and they are going to call you a nigger. . . . And they don’t all have to be white.”

Although her parents stressed roots and racial responsibility, she says, “it is not the sole or even the primary part of my identity. We learned to be citizens of the world, not just Washington. It is very rare for kids, particularly black kids, to dream about being whoever they want to be. To learn the sky’s the limit.”

Rice grew up in Washington’s Shepherd Park neighborhood. Political and arts activist Peggy Cooper Cafritz was her surrogate godmother. When she couldn’t decide between law school and a doctorate in international relations, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) took her to lunch so they could powwow. And though Rice denies State Department rumors that Albright is her godmother, she readily acknowledges that the secretary of state has been a lifelong family friend.

Her mother, Lois Rice, whose parents immigrated from Jamaica to Maine and worked as domestics, is a director at several corporate and nonprofit organizations, and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. Her father, Emmett Rice, now retired, was an economics professor at Cornell, and has worked as an adviser to the Central Bank of Nigeria, in the Treasury Department, at the World Bank and as a governor on the Federal Reserve Board.

Rice has always been surrounded by a family, both immediate and extended, that was obsessed with education. It is liberally sprinkled with physicians, scientists and Ivy League PhDs. And, she says, getting home in time to watch the lead story on the evening news made time around the dinner table one unending civics lesson.

Her family toured the burnt-out, pockmarked landscape of the 14th Street corridor after the 1968 riots, and she remembers being frightened by the anger. Rice boasts that it was she, at age 9, who broke the news of President Nixon’s resignation to her parents. And while she can’t pinpoint the exact moment her career aspirations took root, she vividly recalls her dream of being a United States senator from Washington, D.C.

The family mantra was “Never use race as an excuse or an advantage.” At times, Rice talks about race abstractly, in scholarly, erudite terms. At other times, it’s clear she’s been on the front lines, one of a handful -- smart, athletic, pretty, the black girl.

When she applied to colleges, she says, she feared that some of her schoolmates’ parents would assume that top universities wanted her only because she was black. And she wasn’t having it.

“I was valedictorian, a three-letter varsity athlete. They could say Susan Rice got in Stanford or Harvard or Yale because she was a good student, but goddammit, I was going to be the best,” she says. “I never wanted to be in a position where people could say I got somewhere because of something other than my ability.”

She can seem something of a paradox, a staunch believer in affirmative action who bristles at the thought that anyone would ever label her an affirmative-action baby. A black woman who grew up with the kind of privilege and superior social connections that any “old boy” would forfeit his son’s spot at Exeter for. But when Susan Rice looks around, she sees legions more just like her. And wonders why other people can’t.

“I do resent that there are people out there, African American males and females who are genuinely as talented as anybody else,” she says, “but some people want to believe that all of us who’ve succeeded are somehow just a little bit less. That makes me mad. So if I’m going out of my way a little bit subconsciously every day to take that argument away from people, then that’s fine. You don’t get to use me to feel better about your own failure to perform. I’m not going to give you that.”

The Micromanagement Charge

In foreign policy, it holds true -- somebody’s patriot is somebody else’s terrorist.

Rice enjoys a great deal of support in the administration and among venerable Africa activists, such as TransAfrica head Randall Robinson and Jesse Jackson. But not everyone has been captivated by the young assistant secretary. Her rise, by some accounts benign and meteoric, is, to others, littered with bodies.

“She’s energized everybody else, but so far, the bureau itself has been a problem,” says a colleague who, like a number of those interviewed for this article, requested anonymity. “The people who walk into the building and have to work on Africa issues all day long haven’t all fallen along on the Susan Rice bandwagon. Some people are unhappy and that’s her one problem. While the top brass are enchanted, she has not captured the hearts and minds of the grunts.”

In interviews with more than a half-dozen State Department officials and others who have worked with her, opinions about the assistant secretary generally fall into two camps, with some overlap. Even her detractors concede that in a town full of bright people, Rice is smart. She is thought of as a dynamic, creative leader with a well-defined vision -- African integration into the global economy, the promotion of democracy and human rights, and greater engagement across the continent -- who reinvigorated a bureau that many thought had been lacking focus.

But some charge she is a micro-manager -- a demanding, autocratic leader whose unwillingness to grant autonomy sometimes demoralizes her staffers, many of them career foreign service diplomats. “She broaches no contrary views,” says one official. “Once she settles on a position, it’s holy writ. Moses on the mount.” Others charge that she is not truly an “Africanist” -- someone whose professional responsibilities have primarily included African issues either in an academic or a policymaking setting, and who often has a deep historical, cultural and, perhaps, linguistic expertise. She was promoted because of her ties to the secretary of state and she lacks experience, they say. Africa is a diversion. She’s looking for a larger stage.

Others counter that whenever an energetic new leader comes on the scene, some discontent is natural. “This is a remarkably endowed person,” says one official. “You don’t put that sort of dynamo into a large bureaucracy and not expect to see sparks fly.” They say Rice’s intellectual credentials, strong ties to the administration -- Albright in particular -- and drive give her the capacity to be one of the best assistant secretaries ever. Although she lacks experience, they say, time will grant her that, and refine her managerial style.

Rice seems genuinely stung by the criticism. For a minute.

She doesn’t argue that she is not a true Africanist. Her dissertation, a study in conflict resolution, focused on the negotiations that transformed Africa’s former British colony and white-minority-ruled Rhodesia to independent, black-majority-governed Zimbabwe. And she spent two of four years at the NSC in international organizations and peacekeeping. “Many of my colleagues on Africa have a degree of understanding and expertise that I can’t pretend to have and don’t,” Rice says. “Having said that, I certainly have what’s necessary to do the job that I was asked to do. If I were older, I’d have a degree of nuance and texture, but I don’t feel handicapped in any fashion to do this job. I am fortunate to have talented people who have that knowledge and experience around me.”

And she doesn’t apologize about her direct approach. “I am impatient with bureaucratic excuses for doing nothing,” she says bluntly. “I wouldn’t call myself a micro-manager, but what I am for sure is hands-on. I feel like it’s my responsibility to the secretary to be sure that what we’re doing with respect to policy is moving in a direction that she and the president want to go. . . . I sort of call it hands-on and accountable leadership.”

And while she seems to mull over the perception that she is not open to other opinions, she skirts the idea of a larger stage. “I don’t know what I want to do,” Rice says. “I’m a political appointee. Right now, I’m on a three-year career arc. Then, what I’d really like to do is have another baby. When I’m good and ready, I’ll get back up and see what’s out there.” The assistant secretary grins. “I’m not worried about finding a job. I figure that some damn fool will hire me.”

Having Her Cake . . .

There’s one tale that Susan Rice hopes will be left out of the annals of family history, or perhaps even the next round of confirmation hearings. That would be the time the 9-year-old future assistant secretary of state sat on her little brother’s birthday cake.

It being his sixth or seventh birthday, John Rice remembers he got to ride in front of the family station wagon while his sister sat in back -- the yellow cake with white icing that read “Happy Birthday Johnny!” right next to her.

Suddenly, she was seized by a notion, and presto! -- A birthday pancake. By the time they got home, the cake was flat, the family party was ruined.

“No one noticed she did it until we pulled into the driveway. She just did it on the fly,” John Rice says. “I was [really mad]. ‘Susan sat on the cake!’ I started yelling.”

The assistant secretary is sheepish when reminded of the incident. “I can’t believe he told you that. It was just one of those stupid things you do as a kid,” says Rice. “I was mad at him because it was his birthday and he was getting all the attention.

“I didn’t like the way things were going, so I decided to change the equation.”

Susan Rice hasn’t had to resort to flattening pastries for a long time. There’s no need. It’s her party now. And the former point guard for the National Cathedral Eagles is firmly in control.

 
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