She should have listened to her mother.
“Why do you have to go on the shows?” Lois Dickson Rice asked her daughter, Susan, in September 2012. “Where is Hillary?”
Susan Rice was then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, equipped with a gold-standard Washington résumé — Stanford, Rhodes scholar, Oxford doctorate, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs. She explained that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was “wiped after a brutal week.” The Obama White House asked Rice to appear “in her stead” on all five Sunday news programs.
It was days after attacks in Libya killed four Americans.
“I smell a rat,” said her mother, a lauded education policy expert. “This is not a good idea. Can’t you get out of it?”
“Mom, don’t be ridiculous,” Rice said. “I’ve done the shows. It will be fine.”
Well, no, it was not.
Benghazi became the millstone in Rice’s stellar career. It stopped her from succeeding Clinton.
Criticism of Rice was relentless after the intelligence talking points she was given proved incorrect and inadequate. She said the attacks were a spontaneous protest, but the government inquiry was still evolving, and later determined that some individuals were affiliated with terrorist groups. The scrutiny lasted through multiple congressional investigations.
The aftermath took a punishing toll on Rice’s family and professional reputation, she reveals in her frank new memoir, “Tough Love.” The book also explores how, despite Rice’s many accomplishments during two administrations, she attracted criticism for her brusque manner. And Rice faces an extra challenge — she’s been forced to grapple with whether any of this adversity was somehow a result of her race and gender.
“The combination — being a confident black woman who is not seeking permission or affirmation from others — I now suspect accounts for why I inadvertently intimidate some people, especially certain men,” she writes, “and perhaps also why I have long inspired motivated detractors who simply can’t deal with me.”
In the immediate wake of the tragedy, Rice became the administration’s face of Benghazi, though other officials were more directly involved in oversight in Libya. “Either incompetent or untrustworthy,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said of her. “I was irresistible to Fox News,” she writes. “Still, I wasn’t prepared for the attacks on me escalating after the election.”
Being in the vortex, “I don’t think I understood at the time how traumatic it was for my family,” says Rice, 54, in her stately, color-saturated Washington home in the Palisades neighborhood, decorated with art from Africa, Gullah baskets from South Carolina, and a massive portrait of Miles Davis.
Her daughter, Maris, then 9, experienced hallucinations, “men coming out of walls,” Rice writes, from the trauma of seeing her mother constantly excoriated in the news. Rice’s mother, recovering from cancer surgeries and a stroke, “was losing her mind,” Rice says. “She was furious and obsessed.”
Meanwhile, Rice says, “I had a hugely intense job to do, and I didn’t have the option to go ‘woe is me’ and leaving Syria and North Korea and all of the issues that we were working on at the U.N. on ice.”
Yet, the distress experienced by her daughter and mother “brought me crashing down to earth,” she says.
“The attacks on her bring up uncomfortable issues of race and gender,” says Ben Rhodes, who served as one of Rice’s deputy national security advisers. “As a black woman, she was a ripe target. Her critics often have villains who are women and people of color.”
Does Rice feel she was targeted for those reasons? “There are those who have reacted to me, at different times, through that prism. But I’m also careful not to be quick to ascribe every bad thing that happens to me to racism and sexism,” she says. “More significant was my perceived closeness to Obama — and that this was a way of getting at him.”
In December 2012, Rice withdrew her name for consideration as secretary of state, though she believes “we would have won” confirmation — the Senate then controlled by Democrats. It wasn’t worth the ensuing “demolition derby,” she writes. Her son Jake cried, “You are not a quitter.” Her younger brother told her that, during Benghazi, she had “acted like a girl,” she writes, and that “I put everyone else’s interests above my own. I didn’t promote or campaign for myself the way a guy would have.”
Instead, Rice became Obama’s national security adviser and worked on the Iran nuclear deal, relations with Cuba and the Paris climate agreement.
Months after President Trump’s inauguration, he accused Rice of a crime, with no evidence — of trying to learn the identities of his campaign associates contained in classified intelligence reports. The blistering criticism from the right began anew. “I think the Susan Rice thing is a massive story,” Trump said.
On “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” Monday, Rice said the president’s decision to abandon the United States’ Kurdish allies in Syria was “bats— crazy.” During the past three years, Rice has watched the unraveling of the Obama administration’s foreign policy accomplishments.
“It’s not fun,” she says. “The decision to undo all these are made not out of an alternative strategy or objective but seemingly out of spite.” She’s concerned about America’s international standing. “The world now is going to have reason to doubt our constancy,” she says. “If you’re, in essence, playing ping-pong with each change of party, why would anybody commit to a binding agreement with us? Why would they view us as a reliable partner?”
Rice is a child of Washington’s power elite. Her father, Emmett, was an economics professor at Cornell and became a governor of the Federal Reserve. Her mother, the child of a Maine janitor and seamstress, became known as “the godmother of the Pell Grants,” which she helped develop as vice president of what is now the College Board. (Susan Rice’s father died in 2011, and her mother in 2017.)
It was rarefied air. Her family, she says, was “exceptional even before you get to being African American. It was a huge, huge blessing.” Her mother told her and her brother, John, a former NBA executive who heads a leadership nonprofit, “never use race as an excuse or an advantage.” The overall message, Rice writes: “Just best them all.” She was one of six black students in her graduating class of about 60 girls at the National Cathedral School.
“Her mother broke down when Susan said she was going to Stanford instead of Harvard,” says lifelong friend Andrea Worden. “This was the stuff of crises. That was her teenage rebellion.”
When Rice’s parents launched a bitter custody battle, it was the late activist and philanthropist Peggy Cooper Cafritz who made sure 10-year-old Susan and her brother didn’t have to testify before a judge. When Rice was deciding whether to attend law school, it was Eleanor Holmes Norton, then a Georgetown Law professor before becoming D.C.’s U.S. House delegate, who advised her to distinguish herself, asking, “And how many black PhDs in international relations do you know?” And it was Madeleine Albright, her mother’s close friend and future first female secretary of state, who served as an early mentor and Rice’s eventual boss in Bill Clinton’s administration.
“I think she is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. She has this peripheral vision,” Albright says. “She is very straight about things. She doesn’t couch her words in any ifs and buts.”
Rice has a reputation for being more respected than liked. Her background is in policy, not the popularity contest of politics. “I’m not setting out to alienate people,” she says. “People who are so intent on being liked may not have the fortitude to do the right thing — or the tough thing.”
As undersecretary, Rice gave the middle finger to then-U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke — “a classic bully,” she writes — after he mocked her in front of six U.S. ambassadors to Africa who reported to her. When she called the secretary of state to admit what she had done, Albright laughed, asked for elaboration, then responded, “Good for you!”
“Yes, she can be tough. She can push you. Yes, she can be short,” says Rhodes. “She determined early on, as an African American woman, that she couldn’t just be like everyone else. She had to find her own voice, and if she wasn’t going to be invited into the room, she was going to have to kick down the door. ”
Obama administration staffers recall her kindness and interest in their lives — she made sure her staffers could balance work and family. “Susan’s got this big reputation for being firm and fierce and direct,” says Gayle Smith, former National Security Council senior director for development and democracy. “Despite all these big jobs, she has never stopped holding up her side of her friendships.” Avril Haines, another of Rice’s deputy national security advisers, says, “some of the criticism was sexist. I found that she was this extraordinarily generous person.”
Rice describes herself as “an inveterate tomboy,” and her memoir is packed with sports analogies. One childhood nickname is “Spo,” short for Sportin’. Worden dispels her 5-foot-3 friend’s reported aptitude for basketball.
“Susan’s prowess as a point guard is an urban legend,” Worden says. Rice wasn’t all that great, her friend says, but she was “scrappy. She dove for every single loose ball on the floor. She was not going to give up.”
Her husband and college sweetheart, Ian Cameron — a former executive producer of ABC News’s “This Week” who is a reading tutor and a board member of the literacy nonprofit Reading Partners — arranged to have Aretha Franklin perform at Rice’s 50th birthday party. Rice loves to dance.
“We have all sorts of discussions about hair, food and movies,” Albright says. “We also have policy discussions.” Indeed, during our interview Rice discusses her makeup, the trademark navy eyeliner (“one eyeliner color, one lipstick shade, makes it easier”) and how she enjoys her post-administration uniform of yoga pants.
Late in the afternoon, her son, Jake, arrives home. A college senior, he is the former head of the Stanford College Republicans and helped organize a “Make Stanford Great Again” event.
“I confess it can be deeply painful to love someone so powerfully with whom I disagree so profoundly,” she writes. Mother and son decline further comment. Maris, a high school junior, has moved politically to the left of her parents, Rice says.
In 2018, Rice flirted briefly with running for the U.S. Senate from Maine against Susan Collins, after the Republican senator supported Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. She is no fan of Collins, writing that hers was “the most disingenuous meeting I had” discussing Benghazi on Capitol Hill.
Rice decided it was not her time. She has the book, and a lengthy promotional tour, as well as visiting fellow appointments at American University and Harvard. Rice is open to working in philanthropy, possibly heading a foundation, or working on a start-up. She’s a member of Netflix’s board, and wouldn’t mind joining others.
Several Democratic candidates have asked for her help on foreign policy. Diplomatically, she doesn’t mention names. If the Democratic candidate wins in 2020, would Rice return to government service?
“I’ve been blessed to make it to the top of my field,” she says. “And you know, I’m good. My bar for coming back is really high.”
This story has been updated.
Susan E. Rice appears in conversation Friday with Madeleine Albright at Sidwell Friends Meeting House in Washington, presented by Politics and Prose.