Diplomatic Immunity

By Amy Alexander,
whose reviews appear monthly in Style
Tuesday, June 26, 2007


Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power

By Marcus Mabry

Rodale/Modern Times. 362 pp. $27.50

What to make of Condoleezza Rice?

In "Twice as Good," we encounter the secretary of state in a straightforward biography that is at once utterly predictable and moderately surprising. By the end of this exceptionally well-researched book, whatever opinion you take away probably will stem more from your own expectations than from the Condoleezza Rice portrayed in these pages.

For one thing, despite Mabry's meticulous research -- the book is divided into three parts, totals 13 chapters and is footnoted within an inch of its life -- Rice comes off as essentially the same person we've come to know over the past dozen years from her countless public appearances and Sunday morning talk-show interviews: intellectually tough, physically attractive, burnished. Confident in a know-it-all way, yet emotionally inscrutable.

What accounts for her power? Her steely composure? Her seemingly bottomless patience for President Bush's intellectual incuriosity? Mabry, a veteran journalist, gets the key in the lock but opens the door only wide enough to reveal a teasing sliver of the rooms beyond.

Rice's back story is remarkable in terms of its archetypal place in mid-20th-century American social and political history: Born in segregated, post-World War II Alabama to striving parents, Rice wanted for little. Her mother, Angelena Ray Rice, was prim, educated and intensely private. Her father, John Wesley Rice Jr., was outgoing, educated and dedicated to improving the lot of his family and other blacks in Birmingham through hard work, religious faith and education rather than boycotts and sit-ins. Together, as the fires of racial change began raging across the Deep South, the Rices endeavored to raise a daughter who was impervious to racism and discrimination. John and Angelena succeeded in keeping their daughter out of that fray, though they also made her aware of racism and its insidious potential to rot one's soul. Condoleezza Rice has never failed to cite her parents' and grandparents' keep-your-chin-up-and-work-harder-than-everyone-else strategy as a valuable part of her foundation.

The book's title comes from a well-known saying among black families, at least black families of a certain era: "Then as now, many African American parents told their children, 'You have to be twice as good,' " Mabry writes. "Meaning, they had to be twice as good . . . given you're black." In Rice's family, the message was even more pointed. "It wasn't 'You have to be twice as good and that's unfair,' " Rice has said. "It was 'You might have to be twice as good,' end of story."

Many African Americans look at Rice today and wonder, "What is up with her? How can she be so loyal to conservative Republicans?" They may be interested to learn of her belief in "individual will" as the chief vanquisher of racism and discrimination. In her worldview, you either will yourself over or around life's obstacles or you don't. If this sounds like Clarence Thomas in a skirt, think again: Rice is tougher than Thomas, and personable enough to win over with charm and grace even those who object to her politics.

But Mabry suggests that imperviousness to racism, the armor that Angelena and John clanked so tightly around their daughter, somehow smothered compassion and empathy toward others and hindered her ability to admit or countenance weakness of any kind in herself. More intriguingly, Mabry writes that Rice lacks a key internal ingredient, one that separates mere holders of power from the truly great leaders: a conduit for giving or receiving strong, sometimes messy feelings. He frames this theory in the context of Rice's early ambition to be a great concert pianist, implicitly arguing that the ability to express emotions candidly is also what separates the truly great artists from the talented amateurs. In short, despite her expert fingering of Brahms on the piano keyboard, Rice simply cannot swing.

As a former music teacher of Rice's put it, she was "too detached emotionally to be a great pianist." Mabry continues with the assessment of Theodor Lichtmann, who taught Rice classical piano in Denver: "To be a musician, you have to make someone else's thoughts and emotions your own. . . . I don't think she has that interest or inclination; particularly taking someone's emotions, experiencing them, tearing them down, and building them back up. You have to be willing to be misunderstood, to be ignored." In Lichtmann's view, Rice "couldn't let herself go."

Mabry uses anecdotes such as Lichtmann's sparingly and wisely as he valiantly attempts to provide a broader, deeper view of what may lie beneath all that Alabama steel. He does not succeed, and we are not surprised.

At the same time -- and, here, finally, is the other thing -- it is unrealistic to expect a thorough autopsy to be performed on a living subject, especially one who is a big player in Bush's inner circle, that onetime temple of secrecy. Between May and November 2006, Mabry interviewed Rice twice, totaling slightly more than three hours, for this book. Not surprisingly, he found her "radiating grace and warmth" and "extraordinarily disciplined, the product of a generation of Southern African Americans who believed strongly in propriety and a stark separation between the public and the private." Typical of these topical books, however, "Twice as Good" does not spend much time handicapping Rice's future prospects, although Mabry does quote her as saying she would "love" to work in "sports management" after leaving politics. The door is opened on her political aspirations, but Rice doesn't let Mabry see any more than she wants him to see. Thus, her political persona is firmly rooted in the here and now.

And thus, as the president's poll ratings slide into the root cellar, and indictments, investigations and other humiliating signs of unraveling mount, we are left with network-news images of Rice in various parts of the globe, smiling coolly in photo ops with heads of state as she leads the administration's late-breaking diplomatic strategy. From these images and from Mabry's yeoman work, we can see clearly that Rice will not waver in her allegiance to Bush, or in carrying out this administration's increasingly wobbly mission. But as for how or what she feels about the worsening conditions of the world's citizens most directly affected by Bush's policies, about the thousands of Iraqis and Americans who have died or been maimed, made homeless or psychologically wrecked by her and Bush's "bold democratization vision," we can only surmise.

Mabry writes smoothly and with confidence; he captures Rice's discipline and toughness, and he demonstrates cleanly where it originates. But Rice, even while agreeing to be interviewed by Mabry, succeeded in concealing the rooms we most wanted to see, the sachets, tchotchkes and hope chests that might have clued us in to the woman beneath the ramrod posture and perfect perm.

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