Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power
By Steven Martinovich
Six and a half years into the life of the Bush administration and virtually all of her top officials have worn out their welcome with the public. The lone exception appears to be Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who still is widely admired. On the face of it she has achieved the American dream. Raised in the segregated south, she grew up to be incredibly driven and intelligent, and is likely the most powerful African-American woman in world history.
Yet it is clear while Americans know who Rice is, they don’t know what she is. For all the adoration she receives, it’s quite clear that she remains an enigma to the public. She is notoriously private and greets most inquiries about her personal life with a steely silence. It is this challenge that Marcus Mabry attempts to overcome in his biography Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power.
As Mabry chronicles, Rice grew up extraordinarily sheltered by an insular and ambitious family. Struggling under segregation and violence in Birmingham, she felt the blast of the bomb that killed four little girls in a church bombing, Rice was taught that education was the only way she could achieve her goals. Weakness of any kind was frowned upon and the only reward for hard work was more hard work. From an early age Rice was fed a steady diet of school and piano practice – and closely watched by her larger than life parents the Rev. John Rice and wife Angelina.
Much of that is probably due to Rice’s upbringing in the racist south of the 1950s and 60s. Rice’s conception of race, however, is complex and has led her to often be at odds with the African-American community. Mabry writes that Rice believes that individual action is more important in combating racism than collective action, that simply being the best – twice as good – will gut racist attitudes and allow her to prevail. Remarkably, Mabry seems puzzled that while Rice enjoys strong support from whites, she is unpopular in the black community.
Mabry’s research was thorough but throughout the book the reader can be forgiven if they believe that he failed to understand his subject. Given the subject, he probably can’t be faulted. Rice comes across largely as a vulnerability free person, someone who is so strong and focused that even a major setback is dealt with in a disconnected manner, someone so optimistic that failure is merely a chance to succeed at something else.
One incident in Rice’s life is telling in this regard. Rice, who learned to read music before she could read words, had been groomed from an early age to become a concert pianist and countless hours were invested in becoming a flawless player. At 17, however, Rice abruptly stopped playing the piano after a teacher determines that while her playing was “technically competent”, she wasn’t emotionally involved in the music the way the truly great pianists are. Faced with this hurdle, something that could have emotionally crippled another person, Rice simply decides to direct her energy into other avenues.
Given current events, it is likely Rice’s recent history that will be of most interest to readers and here Mabry does a better job of exploring the secretary of state. Mabry believes that Rice and George W. Bush are too close to allow her to play the role of doubting Thomas, and that adopting the Bush administration like a second insular family allowed her to ignore the dissenting voices over the Iraq war. It’s also clear that she was unable to bridge the divisions in the White House while serving as National Security Advisor.
Has Rice fulfilled the promise she showed when Bush brought her to the White House in 2000? Mabry seems to believe that Rice’s service to the United States has been an uneven mix of success and mostly failure. Her tenure as NSA, he writes, will likely be judged as a failure for a number of reasons including fallout from the Iraq war and her time as secretary of state has yet to produce any large achievements.
The number of books exploring Rice is likely to expand greatly in the coming years, but few will cover the ground as well as Twice as Good has for some time. Although the portrait of Rice he has painted is incomplete – despite her tacit assistance with the project – Mabry has nonetheless managed to throw a light on some crucial aspects of Rice’s past and character, giving some clues as to what makes this formidable woman tick.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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