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Book Review: Rice Digs Roots in Family-Centric Memoir

Many of the larger-than-life personalities from the George W. Bush era grabbed headlines with hawkish sentiments about the Middle East. By contrast, Condoleezza Rice initially came across as a cool presence in the chaotic post-9/11 world.

But that administration’s execution of the war on terror turned out highly unpopular, and it marred Rice’s otherwise stellar career as a foreign policy intellectual.

Two years after leaving Foggy Bottom, Rice has apparently had time to reflect about her life, and in “Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family,” the former secretary of State writes a detailed account of her childhood in Alabama, where she had a front-row seat to witness the turbulent years of the civil rights movement.

The memoir’s first half is set in the 1960s in a place many knew as “Bombingham,” where her middle-class parents led educational crusades to provide African-American children a better chance to advance in a segregated culture. Education, young Condi was often told by parents John and Angelena, would arm her with the power to pursue any goal.

The Ku Klux Klan terrorized her community. Nevertheless, there would be plenty of tough love from church leaders, as well as her family. “Whatever feelings of insecurity or inadequacy black adults felt in the appalling and depressing circumstances of Jim Crow Birmingham, they did not transfer it to us,” she writes. “For the children of our little enclave, Titusville, the message was crystal clear: We love you and will give you everything we can to help you succeed. But there are no excuses and there is no place for victims.”

Her parents instilled in young Condi their fighting spirit and passion for academia, arts and culture and their ethos to be “twice as good.” Being “twice as good” was the family motto, which they credited with shielding them from many of the problems African-Americans endured at the time. That maxim would become Rice’s pedigree.

Her father secured a promising career as a school leader and became a pioneer of affirmative action. He moved the family to Denver, not to escape the violence of the South that claimed the lives of friends and neighbors but to provide better schooling for his daughter.

Rice writes that she immersed herself in her scholarship, becoming a formidable student at an all-girls private school. Her desire to pursue arts and humanities at the University of Denver, and later foreign affairs at Stanford University, would begin there.

She chronicles her meteoric rise in the foreign policy field: her work at the Pentagon and at the White House during the George H.W. Bush administration. And the reader appreciates her brilliance, which is the unrivaled understanding of Soviet history and civil-military concerns.

Rice also reveals a few things: She hates Fidel Castro for his role during the Cuban Missile Crisis; she did not pursue graduate work at Columbia University since it was in “a bad neighborhood”; her main goal as provost at Stanford was to prevent the school from turning into another Harvard University, which she found too formal. She loved sitting on Chevron Corp.’s corporate board (it allowed her to travel all over the world; the company even named a ship after her). And she is a procrastinator, or so she says.

“I’m afraid that procrastination remains a problem for me to this day. It’s one of the few bad habits that my parents failed to cure me of when they had the chance,” she writes.

Ultimately, Rice’s career eclipses the story she seeks to tell about her parents. The early part of the book is rich with remembrances of her family’s struggle. Then Rice abandons her parents’ middle-class suburban narrative to focus almost entirely on her accolades. She writes quite favorably about her role in shaping Stanford’s curricula, meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin after the fall of the Berlin Wall and teaming up with both Bush presidents — events far more interesting than what her parents would achieve.

Rice occasionally praises her parents in these chapters. But the detour into her own achievements contradicts the memoir she committed to tell.

And her prose is flat and uninspired at times. Many passages read like bland diary entries from the desk of a well-organized public school teacher who takes too much time thinking about composing proper sentences.

Of her first White House experience, she writes: “George H.W. Bush is simply one of the nicest and most self-effacing people that I’ve ever met. He taught me so much about leading people.” The lack of a compelling storytelling voice hurts this promising memoir.

To many observers, Rice — a pianist, educator and international leader — is a modern Renaissance woman. Her friends are the elite. She is a restless worker with a passion for academia and has a subdued ego, making her story of an only child in segregated Alabama that much more compelling.

But Rice’s legacy is not her virtuosity of the piano or academic affairs. Rather, her career was defined in her role as national security adviser, her influence on the Iraq Stabilization Group and her directives as secretary of State. None of these highlights is addressed, leaving readers to wonder whether she’ll return to her life story in another memoir.