on November 8, 2010
I have always admired Ms. Rice for her accomplishments as a woman and especially as a black woman growing up in the segregated South. And so I eagerly awaited her memoir, hoping to gain more insight into this seemingly remarkable woman. But it was a complete disappointment. It was nothing more than a summary of the facts that were already known about her life. I keep wondering why she even bothered to write this book. She comes across as wooden. There are no musing about the trials and tribulations of life; for example, how she dealt with adversity - from segregation and racism to the politics and pettiness of academia; how she overcame her fears and doubts about momentous undertakings (entering a Ph.D. program at a top university, negotiating with Russian leaders, working for the President of the United States, etc). Readers will find no such contemplations here. Even the highs of her life are given nothing more than "I was so happy" and "Daddy was so proud of me." Several times I wanted to give up on the book, but I plowed through it anyway. (This is more because if I start a book, I force myself to finish it, no matter how boring, ill-written, or frivolous).
There are just a handful of examples of the superficiality of the book:
The chapter "1963" about the firebombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls was nothing more than a recap of the events of that day. It amounted to: we heard a loud thud, we assumed it was another bombing, my father decided not to hold services that day, we turned on the television and learned what happened, and we all felt sad. That was it - she felt sad! How could this event not have provoked intense and lasting emotions? Did she hate all white people at that moment? Did she hate America? Did she feel things would never change? Did she turn to religion for solace? Did she grapple with the dichotomy to "love thy neighbor" as her deeply religiously upbringing taught her, with the fact that "thy neighbor" was bombing and murdering her friends and neighbors? We have no idea! Making this even more shocking was the fact that she knew the four little girls. In fact, one of them, Denise McNair, was a student of her father's!
I was always interested in how Ms. Rice came to choose Soviet studies as her field. This surely was a most unusual choice for a black woman growing up in the segregated South. Was she drawn to the study of oppressive governments because of her own experiences? Or was she pulled to the rich history of the Soviet Union and its status as a world power? Or perhaps she was fascinated by Communism, a form of government so radically different from the U.S. But the reader will never know. Her explanation (if one could call it that) is given in a single sentence: "That's when I wandered into an introductory course on international politics taught by a man named Josef Korbel." I was dumbfounded! That's it - she wandered into a class? There wasn't even a mention of the topic Professor Korbel was discussing when she "wandered in".
The chapters about her years at Stanford were equally disappointing. I was looking forward to learning how Ms. Rice dealt with her anxieties about entering a doctoral program at one of the best university's in the world. I think all Ph.D. students experience some moments of doubt and fears, and this would be especially true of a black woman, a rarity on Ivy League campuses. But Ms. Rice glosses over this with only a passing sentence or two. It was the same shallowness when it came to the chapters about her rise in the Stanford administration. There was nothing of substance.
Then there was the chapter on the sit-ins by minority students while Ms. Rice was Provost of Stanford. She laid off the highest-ranking Latina in the administration for budgetary reasons, provoking strong criticism by students and the press. Her reflections on that very difficult time amounted to: I called Daddy; he gave me some advice, and I decided to take a softer approach going forward. That was it! There were no ruminations on what she learned about leadership, negotiation, the appropriateness of how she handled the situation, or even if the students had a valid argument. Nothing!
I found it somewhat creepy that Ms. Rice refers to her parents throughout the book as "Mother" and "Daddy". It's very bizarre that a highly educated, successful, professional woman decides to write a biography and then refers to her parents this way instead of "my mother" and "my father". After a while, it became quite annoying. Perhaps she thought this was a way to connect with her readers and demonstrate her depth. (Now, that's what I call irony).
I also found her portrayal of her parents to be highly unrealistic; more in the realm of fantasy. She rarely has any criticisms of them, and when she does, it still portrays them in a good light. For example, they made an unsuccessful effort to start her in kindergarten at age 3. So yes, it was a mistake, but it was a good mistake. Any difficulties were simply glossed over - given a sentence or two and nothing more. A perfect example was her father's serious health problems in middle age. He had congestive heart failure, was overweight, and had problems with his legs. Yet, as Ms. Rice stated, he refused to give up his high-fat, high-cholesterol Southern diet, especially fried pork; even though this was the main contributing factor to his dire health problems and ultimate death. But Ms. Rice cannot even acknowledge that terrible decision. She devotes a whole sentence to it, and without any judgment. Even the best, most loving parents make mistakes, but Ms. Rice is unable to recognize this in her own parents. No, these were perfect people - every decision, every opinion, every parenting skill, every piece of advice - it was always 100% correct and perfect. They are not in the realm of us fallible humans. In her eyes, they are elevated to the status of Gods.
But by the end of the book, I think I understood the reason. I think Ms. Rice - for all her education, her power in government, her business savvy and management skills - is emotionally and psychologically stunted. She seems to never have matured out of the childhood mentality of seeing one's parents as perfect; larger than life; infallible. This explains why she refers to them as "Mother" and especially, "Daddy". It also explains why an adult woman bizarrely refers to her herself as "Daddy's little girl". It explains her refusal to acknowledge any mistakes they made or any bad advice they gave her. In real life, even the smartest and sharpest people are sometimes wrong. In the real world, adults can love their parents, admire them, look up to them, feel they're the most loving and wonderful people on earth, and yet still acknowledge they have flaws and make mistakes. But disturbingly, Ms. Rice doesn't seem able to do this with her parents.
Overall, this was an incredibly shallow book. If you're looking for insight or a deeper understanding of this professionally impressive woman, then you won't find it here.
If you want to read this book, I'd recommend checking it out of your local library so you don't waste your money, or at least buy it used. This might also be a good book if you're looking for "light" or "fluff" reading (i.e., doesn't require much concentration or thinking or even mental attention), such as when you're on a plane or train or need some beach-reading.
on October 26, 2010
This was a difficult book for me to review, having trod some of the same ground as Dr. Rice: I fought (rather than was a bystander) in the civil Rights struggle; taught at the University of Denver when Dr. Rice's father was an administrator there, (and while she was apparently a music student there). One of my favorite colleagues in the School of International Relations was Dr. Joseph Korbel, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's father, and a favorite professor of Dr. Rice's. Secretary Albright had said in her book that she and Dr. Rice were sisters since they both had been mentored by the same father, Dr. Joseph Korbel. For a time I thought that Dr. Rice had perhaps taken my "Introduction to International Relations course," but later discovered that she entered the program a year after I had moved on to the University of Washington. I also was one of several people who prepped Dr. Albright for her confirmation hearings when she was being groomed for the job as U.S. Ambassador to the UN -- as well as when she was preparing for her "murder boards" to be confirmed as the first female Secretary of State. Under her, and Colin Powell I served as a UN diplomat and Foreign Affairs Officer, as well as a second tier manager in the Political and Military Affairs Bureau of the State Department. And even though I retired from the State Department in November 2001, Dr. Rice's and my paths have crossed both in psychological space, as well as in professional spaces.
What is difficult for me in reviewing this book is being completely objective and dispassionate about Dr. Rice when we have been on opposite sides of the political and social struggles of so much black American history -- from the deep South all the way up through the State Department Bureaucracy. To me, it seems that she, like so many other uncommitted blacks, elected to take a "free ride" and were quick to grab the goodies once the blood had been shed -- and did so without looking back. She saw the worse face of racism up close and personal, but she and her parents, (her father was a personal friend of Fred Shuttleworth, the acknowledged Godfather of the Civil rights Movement), but elected to remain "bystanders," giving no more than moral support to the cause. While that is not a sin, it also is not a very heroic attribute to have on ones otherwise stellar resume.
Dr. Rice and her family had the luxury of minimizing the events of the 1960s in favor of worrying about the pettier indignities of not being able to sit on Santa Claus' knee, or being able to attend the local amusement park,or shunned by clerks while shopping, or swim in the local swimming pool, etc. Yet, when the struggle called, the Rices, including her Presbyterian minister father, were MIAs. Nevertheless, when it is convenient for her to do so, she makes a big deal out of not being a black victim? For sure, the Rices were in good company when they dodged their historic responsibility, but this still leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth.
The most important reason it leaves a bad taste in my mouth is that during the time I was a diplomat and manager at the State Department and during Dr. Rice's tenure after I had left, except for the Department of Agriculture, the practice of racial discrimination against blacks, was worse in the State Department than in any other agency in Washington, D.C. It was the two black Secretaries of State who promised "beneath their breathes" to do something about it, but both proved conveniently to have an allergy to handling this "hot potato." So, shirking ones responsibilities on one front has definite consequences on another.
Yet, in fairness to Dr. Rice, a confirmed conservative Republican, the same can be said for our current biracial Democratic President, who rode in on a 93% black majority, but so far as offered blacks only a beer Summit (and this only after his good friend "Skip" Gates was jailed for being black and breaking into his own house?). I could forgive Dr. Rice for taking a pass in the Civil Rights struggle if only she or Colin Powell had not also "skipped out" on their responsibilities to make the environment in the State Department less racially hostile to black professionals. Even sympathetic whites expected them to do this, but both punted on this "hot potato." It seems that the status of blacks is unaffected by blacks being in a leadership position? One could argue that in Rice's case, moral cowardliness early in life has its consequences later on in life.
As for the book as a whole, the title about says it all. Dr. Rice's philosophy of life is aptly summarized on pages 157-58: "You might not be able to control your circumstances but you can control your reaction to them." That philosophy is true to the book and to Dr. Rice's personality more generally: it to is defensive, passive-aggressive and unenlightened. Together, it and the book are so unremarkably ordinary that both are self-absorbing to the point of being boring. "Strait-laced, self-absorption, goody-two-shoeness" and "namedropping," ricocheting between failures, and exceedingly pedestrian writing, just does not make for interesting reading. I was looking for a lot more. I am happy that Dr. Rice's life has been a success, but an American heroine, she is not. That is why I recoiled when I saw her name in the "Everything Great Thinkers Books" along side Sir Winston Churchill. (Go figure?)
Since I already made sure she will make a lot of money, by buying this book, in clear conscience I can give it the one star it deserves.