Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, by Condoleezza Rice (Crown Archetype, 352 pp., $27)
If you are looking for a comprehensive autobiography of former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, or even a comprehensive autobiography of her younger years, this is not the book for you. True to its subtitle, it is a memoir of family, specifically a memoir about her parents, Angelena and John Wesley Rice Jr., who died in 1985 and 2000 respectively. The book ends on Christmas Eve in 2000, with the passing, after long-term heart disease, of Rice’s father, exactly one week after the newly elected President Bush asked Rice to serve as his national security adviser.
Of the “juicy stuff” regarding Bush’s and Rice’s tenures in high office, you will find not a word. Even the role that she played as foreign-policy adviser in Bush’s first presidential campaign receives only two pages’ worth of attention, at the very end of the book. She does not even mention her electrifying speech at the 2000 GOP convention, in which she declared that America’s military was not supposed to be a U.N.-style “global police force” but would fight “to win.” Rice the author is both personally modest and frustratingly discreet.
The good side of this is that Rice’s book avoids the glaring self-aggrandizement that makes most politicians’ memoirs dull and cringe-making: the name-dropping, the score-settling, the résumé-padding, the fawning in-print obsequiousness toward everyone who gave them a boost in the past (along with their “lovely” wives), especially if those people might be in a position to give them a boost in the future. Extraordinary, Ordinary People is refreshing in this regard. Rice pays due respect to her friends and mentors but never boasts or gushes.
Warning: This is not an artfully written book. Rice is a specialist in international affairs, not a literary stylist. She has no talent for imaginative description, trenchant observation of the political and academic personalities who crossed her path (a group that included Bush; Bush’s father; her late doctoral-dissertation adviser, Josef Korbel, who also happened to be the father of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; and Gerhard Casper, the Stanford president who made Rice his protégée), or the sort of personal reflection that typically characterizes the memoir genre. In short, this is no Dreams from My Father (say what you will about Obama’s politics, he is a talented autobiographer).
Still, this is an engaging book, precisely because it devotes so few pages to Rice’s public life, and focuses instead on a lost and fascinating subculture quintessentially represented by Rice’s parents: the socially and economically precarious but intellectually ambitious black middle class of the racially segregated South — in particular, Birmingham, Ala., where Rice was born in 1954.
During Rice’s childhood, segregation was starting to break down under the pressure of federal court orders and the civil-rights movement, but it was still no joke, and her parents, born in 1923 (father) and 1924 (mother), bore its full degrading brunt for much of their lives. To be black and middle-class in Birmingham back then was not easy, since blacks were barred from most institutions of higher learning and from access to all business and civic institutions except those that catered specifically to blacks. Even the historically black colleges of the South such as Fisk and Morehouse were reserved for the offspring of a patrician elite, many of whose ancestors had been freemen and landholders since before the Civil War. Middle-class status was mostly a matter of aspiration and unrelenting striving by people of modest incomes. Rice’s maternal grandfather, Albert Ray, worked three jobs — coal-mining, shearing horses, and building houses — so that he and Rice’s grandmother, Mattie Lula Ray, could own their own home (hand-built by Albert) and Mattie Lula could cultivate her tastes for fine mahogany furniture (paid for in cash stashed under the mattress) and classical music (she taught piano for many years and passed down her talent to her famous granddaughter, an accomplished pianist who has played with Yo-Yo Ma). Thanks to Albert’s determination, the five Ray children, including Rice’s mother, became the family’s first college graduates.
Rice’s paternal grandfather, John Wesley Rice Sr., wangled a scholarship to Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., by agreeing to train for the Presbyterian ministry. His degree and subsequent ordination scarcely guaranteed him a living, however: He roved the Deep South, mostly Louisiana, founding and preaching in numerous churches, starting schools for black children designed to teach them something more than the wretched rural public schools did, and working odd jobs that took him away from home for months at a time. He infuriated his wife by buying — with money his family could ill afford; during the Depression they were living mostly on sandwiches of bread and mayonnaise — a leather-bound set of literary classics by Shakespeare, Balzac, and others. His daughter, Theresa, Condoleezza’s aunt, earned a doctorate in English literature from the University of Wisconsin and became a college professor. His son, John Jr., although never much of an intellectual (his talents lay in athletics), earned a degree and followed his father into the Presbyterian ministry. As with his father, this didn’t mean earning enough to live on. He held day jobs coordinating sports and working as a guidance counselor at various (segregated) high schools in or near Birmingham; at one of these schools he met Condoleezza’s mother, by then in her late twenties and an English teacher — a prize job for a black woman in the South.
Like other blacks in Birmingham scraping together respectable lifestyles on meager salaries during the 1950s, the Rices were determined to do two things: ignore the indignities of segregation, and refuse to have anything to do with what today would be called “ghetto culture,” the undisciplined speech, mannerisms, and mores of poorly educated lower-class blacks. When young Condoleezza, an only child, watched Amos ’n’ Andy on television with her parents, they “went out of their way to point out and correct” the “butchered English” of the show’s black characters, she writes. Angelena Rice, who had chosen the name Condoleezza for her daughter as a contraction of the Italian musical term “con dolcezza” (“with sweetness”), started the girl on piano lessons with her grandmother at age three and bought her books about the great classical composers. Her father made a deal with her, promising that he would get her a piano of her own if she learned how to play “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” perfectly — which she did, after eight straight hours of practice at her grandmother’s. Too strapped for cash to keep his promise, he and her mother went out and rented a piano. Her mother took a year off from teaching in order to home-school Condoleezza, so that she could start second grade a year early. This was a stepped-up educational pattern that Condoleezza followed throughout her youth; she skipped both sixth and seventh grades, and graduated from college at age 19.
Rice writes that “because Birmingham was so segregated, black parents were able, in large part, to control the environment in which they raised their children. They rigorously regulated the messages that we received and shielded us by imposing high expectations and a determined insistence on excellence.” There were few single mothers, and therefore plenty of men around to enforce rules. The black schools in Birmingham were poorly funded, but boasted dedicated teachers like Angelena Rice, who tolerated no excuses from low performers. “‘To succeed,’ they routinely reminded us, ‘you will have to be twice as good,’” her daughter writes. Middle-class blacks tended to avoid public places where they might be exposed to such indignities as “colored” restrooms. With equal fastidiousness they avoided many of the places where blacks could legally go: dives in rough neighborhoods characterized by drinking, knife fights, and the “loose women” that no respectable black females wanted to be. Middle-class social life took place exclusively within a dense network of churches, clubs, fraternities, and the homes of friends.
In 1963, Birmingham became infamous as the epicenter of violent white resistance to integration. It was the year of Bull Connor and his dogs and fire hoses, and the September 15 church bombing that killed four little girls. All the Rices personally knew at least one of the victims. John Rice refused to march with Martin Luther King Jr., however, because he thought that King’s tactic of non-violent resistance endangered lives. Conservative in temperament (he was a registered Republican who voted for Nixon), he preferred to sit on his front porch with a loaded shotgun keeping a lookout for night riders. When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act the next year, requiring the desegregation of public accommodations, John Rice took his family out to dinner at a hotel restaurant for the first time in their lives on the very next evening.
After that, their lives changed drastically. The family moved first to Tuscaloosa, where John Rice became dean of students at Stillman, and then to Denver, where he quickly moved into several assistant deanships at the University of Denver. The teenage Condoleezza enrolled at the university, first as a music major, and then, after she realized she wasn’t talented enough for a concert career, switching to political science with a specialty in Soviet studies. After that: mastery of Russian and Czech, internships, a master’s degree at Notre Dame, doctoral work at Denver, a fellowship at Stanford that quickly led to a faculty position, a stint at Harvard, a fellowship in Washington with the joint chiefs of staff, tenure at Stanford, an appointment as an adviser to George H. W. Bush’s joint chiefs during the breakup of the Soviet bloc, and, in 1993, the job of provost at Stanford. That last position was marked by successes — turning the university’s $20 million budget deficit into a $14.5 million surplus within two years and depoliticizing its core curriculum, which had been radicalized during the “Western Culture Has Got to Go” years — and also by controversy, mostly over her opposition to coddling minority students with eased grading standards and to affirmative-action tenure decisions (a complaint filed by a female history professor denied tenure resulted in a government investigation that cleared Rice).
Meanwhile Angelena Rice, who had successfully battled breast cancer during the 1970s, succumbed to brain cancer at age 61. John Rice moved to Palo Alto not far from his daughter, got involved in volunteer programs at the city’s schools, and remarried in 1989. In early 2000, he suffered a severe cardiac arrest that led to brain damage. Three days before Christmas that year, he called Condoleezza, then in Washington with George W. Bush, and told her that he was “going home.” To this day, she writes, both parents remain “by my side,” telling her, “You are well prepared for whatever is ahead of you.” Prepare her they did.
– Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute’s “Minding the Campus” website.