December 16, 2007 — At an address before the Independent Women’s Forum in 2006, Condoleezza Rice made a spine-tingling statement: “[T]he fact is that our Founding Fathers, trying to create a perfect union of ‘We the People,’ couldn’t quite find a way to deal with slavery. So instead, they left my ancestors to be three-fifths of a man. But some hundred plus years later, I stand before you as a descendant of those people who were three-fifths of a man and I ask, ‘Would anybody have thought it possible?’ ”
As the first black female Secretary of State, Rice should by rights be a heroine to establishment journalists such as New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, author of “Condoleezza Rice: An American Life.” But it doesn’t quite work that way.
Throughout her life and throughout this book, there are those who question Rice’s “blackness,” her pro-women bona fides and her gradual move from the Democratic to Republican Party; many refuse to recognize the reasons for the idealism of her outlook.
The portions of the book that discuss Rice’s family background, early childhood and early career path are the most fascinating. Rice’s grandfather, Albert Robinson Ray III, more likely than not worked as a laborer in Alabama’s cotton fields. According to family legend, in 1904, a white man assaulted Ray’s sister. Albert risked being lynched and avenged the attack. Four years later, he moved to Birmingham and married Mattie Lula Parham, a classically trained pianist. They had five children, all of whom graduated from historically black colleges in the South. One of their children, Angelena, Rice’s beloved mother, was a refined, proud teacher.
Early in his life, Rice’s father, John Wesley Rice, Jr., was a part-time minister, taught gym, and was head basketball coach at a local high school. The son of a former slave who could read and write, John preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. After working on a master’s degree in student personnel administration, he accepted a position as assistant director of admissions at the University of Denver where he focused on recruiting minority students.
By age three, through the sheer will of her parents, Rice had learned how to read and she gave her first piano recital at age four. At five, her mother tried to enroll her in first grade, presumably because the young Condoleezza did not need to bother with kindergarten. When the school disagreed, she took a year off from work and home schooled her daughter.
Bumiller tries to suggest some of the challenges that led Rice to become the most powerful women in the world. So we are told about a school guidance counselor who steered the very talented young woman toward junior college despite her grades and musical talent; we learn that her father registered as Republican because Democrats would not allow him to vote, imposing poll tests that no one could possibly pass (i.e., “How many jelly beans are in that jar?”), and we are told that her father favored Catholic schools over public schools for his daughter because the Catholic schools were “very rigorous, very traditional, lots of languages, Latin, lots of mathematics.” Bumiller also tells us about how young Condoleezza had a college professor who spoke positively about a physicist who was promoting a theory that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites; and we see her as the only black member of a presidential delegation waiting to see President Gorbachev off at San Francisco International Airport (the Secret Service ordered Rice to leave the tarmac and stay behind the security gate).
Bumiller conducted numerous interviews, and the book has some fascinating moments, but she misses the mark in trying to capture Rice’s wonderful story of American achievement. Indeed, many of those interviewed do not believe that Rice authentically represents the American dream, and they are seemingly incapable of understanding what fuels Rice’s self-made potpourri of idealism, pragmatism and determination to succeed. I couldn’t help wondering whether veteran members of the feminist movement and self-described progressives can be fair to a woman whose political views do not match their own.
Bumiller and many of those she quotes in her book are unable to fairly consider a black woman who embraces individual liberty, personal responsibility, limited government and the free market. She mistakenly concludes that Rice’s “real ideology was not idealism or realism,” but “succeeding.” In analyzing Rice’s evolution from concert pianist to political scientist, Democrat to Republican and political realist to idealist, Bumiller concludes that “shedding so many skins raises the question of what she really stands for . . . she is a pragmatist who for four overwhelming years got swept away by her devotion to the president.” Isn’t it possible that Rice has simply evolved rather than “reinvented” herself as Bumiller suggests?
One black Birmingham civil rights activist says that despite spending her early childhood in Birmingham and losing one of her friends in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, “[M]ost black people understand that Condoleezza Rice’s politics and our politics are not the same. I’m not sure she ever had the real black experience, I’m not sure of that at all.”
In a 2006 address, Rice spoke of the “unfolding of moral progress,” “optimism” and a “sense of historical perspective.” She told the audience that she believed that “with enough moral courage, with enough optimism and with enough human agency . . . there will come a day when we will look back on Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan and the troubled spots of the world, and we will ask, “Who could have ever doubted that liberal democracy would take hold there?” Given all that has happened in her life and the lives of her forbearers, isn’t it possible that this is her real ideology?
Michelle D. Bernard is president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum.
Condoleezza Rice: An American Life
by Elizabeth Bumiller