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Into Africa

She's young, she's impatient, she's blunt. Susan Rice is a different kind of diplomat.

Photo: Max Hirshfeld

RAPID RISE: Rice succeeded a series of middle-aged career Africanists to become, at 33, assistant secretary of state.

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By Martha Brant

Susan Rice couldn't believe her ears. Meeting with Nigerian opposition leaders at the presidential villa in Abuja, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs listened as the men talked about her in the third person, as if she weren't there. They were praising a tough speech she had given at the Brookings Institution back in Washington several months earlier. In it, she had denounced Nigeria's Gen. Sani Abacha as "one of the worst abusers of human rights on the African continent" and said the United States insists that his successor not come from military ranks. It was the Clinton administration's first direct condemnation of the dictator. Pro-government newspapers in Nigeria lampooned Rice in cartoons, but the opposition leaders were thrilled. Finally, they said, a diplomat who shoots straight.

Of course the men had no idea that the battle-ax they were imagining was the 5-foot-3 woman in stylish short skirt and pumps sitting right next to them. They had, in fact, dismissed the youthful Rice as somebody's low-level aide. When the meeting ended, a bemused Rice introduced herself. "You could see their jaws drop. It was comical," she recalls. "They said, 'We thought you were 60 years old, 250 pounds and 6 feet tall!' "

Rice, '86, has a way of surprising people. After studying history in college, she did a stint as a management consultant. The daughter of one of Washington's elite black families, she married a white Canadian, college sweetheart Ian Cameron, '83. She threw career diplomats off guard in 1997 when she left the White House National Security Council to become one of the youngest assistant secretaries of state ever. Rice's frank -- some say blunt -- talk can be disarming. As can her charm. "I guess you could say I'm plainspoken," she laughs. "I can be diplomatic when I have to be. But I don't have a lot of patience for B.S."

After seven years on the Clinton team, Rice, now 35, will likely soon be looking for a new line of work. She won't have to look too hard; she's well-regarded among both the political pros and the Beltway policy wonks. In fact, she's often compared to former Stanford Provost Condoleezza Rice, foreign policy adviser to former president George Bush and now to his son, would-be president George W. The two Rices are not related, but they do have a lot in common: both are articulate, telegenic, dagger-sharp young black women with international expertise and a talent for charming politicians. Democrats even have a saying: "They've got their Rice, and we've got ours."

In more than two years at the State Department, Susan Rice has seen a lot of conflict -- both in Africa and in Washington. Terrorists bombed U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, war broke out in the Congo and between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and much of the continent is unstable, reeling from disease and ethnic rivalries. She's made trips to most of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Back home, she's lobbied for increasing foreign aid to the region. That effort bore fruit in October, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright vowed to quadruple U.S. funds to newly democratic Nigeria. Rice has championed an all-African peacekeeping force to avert conflict on the continent. In November, she stood up to some colleagues in the State Department when she supported a controversial congressional measure that would allow Washington to provide food assistance to rebels fighting the regime in Sudan. President Clinton sided with Rice and signed the bill.

At Washington's National Cathedral School, the elite prep academy that has educated the daughters of D.C. power brokers for a century (including, most recently, the Gore girls), Rice was a three-sport athlete whose nickname, Spo, was short for Sportin'. She especially loved basketball, where she played point guard and directed the offense. She also called the shots off the court, as president of the student council and class valedictorian.

Young Susan's education started at the family dinner table, where she was fed a steady diet of policy discussions worthy of a Washington think tank. She remembers how, at age 9, she broke the news of President Nixon's resignation to her parents. Among the family's visiting scholars was Albright, with whom Rice's mother served on a school board. The Rice and Albright kids went to school together and shared meals at Hamburger Hamlet. At Rice's swearing-in as assistant secretary, Albright confided to her mother, "I feel like I'm swearing in family."

In her senior year in high school, Rice told her parents she was choosing Stanford over both their alma maters. (Her mother, Lois, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who worked as a janitor and a seamstress, went to Radcliffe. Her father, Emmett, was a City College graduate who served as governor on the Federal Reserve Board and once taught economics at Cornell.) Her mother broke into tears. Her stepfather, Alfred, exclaimed: "You mean Leland Stanford Junior University?" For Rice, it was a natural decision: "I like an experience that isn't perfectly obvious or comfortable."

As an African-American, Rice always assumed she'd have to work doubly hard to earn her success. In college, she pushed herself to "excel beyond belief," as her mother puts it. She graduated with honors, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and won a Rhodes scholarship. The day of her graduation, as she shook hands with then-President Donald Kennedy, he said, "I know who you are." But it was her political activism, more than her academic distinction, that had caught his attention. While other college students were building shanty towns out of scrap cardboard to dramatize apartheid, Rice came up with a more pragmatic protest. She created a fund for alumni donations that would hold the gifts until either the University divested from companies doing business in South Africa or the country abolished apartheid.

Africa would stay on her mind throughout her years at Oxford. Rice earned a doctorate from New College in international relations and wrote a prize-winning dissertation that examined Rhodesia's transition from white rule. But she never took herself too seriously. She continued to play basketball. Before an Oxford ball one year, she tossed a Frisbee on the New College lawn while wearing a blue formal dress, recalls Sylvia Matthews, who studied with her at Oxford and later worked alongside Rice on the Michael Dukakis campaign. It was a Dukakis aide who later convinced Rice to work for the National Security Council, first in peacekeeping, then in African affairs. "She is one of those people you feel can just do anything," Matthews says.

When Rice left for the State Department after five years in the White House, a colleague gave her a Zulu shield. She would need it, the friend explained, to fight the entrenched foreign-service bureaucracy. In fact, the flak started flying even before Rice had moved to Foggy Bottom. She filled a job that for decades had been held by a series of middle-aged career Africanists. Longtime bureaucrats griped that she was too green, that she was a political hire. Some complained that she had the same problem as many Clinton appointees: youthful arrogance. "She doesn't know what she doesn't know," says one Africa expert who deals with her. "And she doesn't tolerate dissenters." Some of the African press suggested that Rice would have little influence with traditional African male leaders. "It may be splendidly progressive of Clinton to place his Africa policy in the care of relatively young women," wrote Simon Barber in the South African Business Day. "On the other hand, he's utterly ignoring a cultural reality." Rice dismisses that concern. "They have no choice but to deal with me on professional terms. I represent the United States of America," she says. "Yeah, they may do a double take, but then they have to listen to what you say, how you say it and what you do about what you say."

Critics reserve their harshest fire for what they view as the administration's feckless policy in the region. When Clinton traveled through the continent in 1998, he proclaimed an "African renaissance." But there was little follow-up from Washington, and all that seemed to resurge was war. "U.S. policy in Africa is a unicorn," says William Zartman, an Africa scholar at Johns Hopkins. "It sounds wonderful, but it doesn't exist."

But even skeptics like Zartman concede that Rice is savvy and tenacious. "She's dynamic, a quick study, and she's good on her feet," he says. She's also a fierce debater who rarely loses an argument. When logic doesn't work, Rice -- much like Albright -- relies on a carrot-and-stick combination of easy charm and tough talk to get her way. It was this style that kept the warring parties in the Congo at the negotiating table. She made a personal visit to each of the country's leaders; her sit-down with Laurent Kabila, president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was typical. After four hours, Rice says, their conversation went from "tense to friendly."

As Rice maneuvers in Washington, it helps, of course, that she enjoys a personal friendship with Albright. She insists that she doesn't get special treatment from the secretary, but the closeness between them is impossible to miss. When Rice was nominated as assistant secretary, a rumor spread that Albright was her godmother. (It's not true.) What is true is that, in a town where access is power, Albright is always available to her protégée. In 1998, a few months after Rice's confirmation, Albright told the Washington Post, "I'm incredibly proud of her. She's very smart, she's dynamic, she's filled with ideas and she's very knowledgeable about Africa."

Rice and Cameron met during her freshman orientation at Stanford. He was a senior. "She struck me right away as someone unique. She was more aware and very confident," says Cameron, now a producer at ABC News. They talk every night when she is on the road. "I couldn't do this job if I didn't have a wonderful husband," she says, noting that he keeps things together when she travels. Rice says that her family both eases the tragedies she confronts on the job and makes them more acute. "I find the atrocities much harder to deal with now that I'm a mother, especially when I see kids who have been victimized," she says. "It makes you want to cry and throw up at the same time."

That's how Rice felt on August 7, 1998. She got a call at 4:15 that morning from Johnnie Carson, the newly appointed ambassador to Kenya. "I had never gotten a call before at that hour, so I knew," says Rice. What she knew was to expect bad news. Carson reported that two U.S. embassies, one in Kenya and one in Tanzania, had been bombed within minutes of each other. Rice got out of bed, threw on some clothes and headed to work for what she says was "the worst day of my professional career." More than 200 people -- including 12 Americans -- were dead. She flew to a military base in Germany and accompanied the bodies of the victims back to Andrews Air Force Base, where she faced grieving families.

The bombings were horrific, but Rice says her "most searing experience" was back in 1994, when she visited Rwanda while on staff at the NSC. "I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of decomposing corpses outside and inside a church," she recalls in a whisper. "Corpses that had been hacked up. It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen. It makes you mad. It makes you determined. It makes you know that even if you're the last lone voice and you believe you're right, it is worth every bit of energy you can throw into it."

For a straight talker, Rice is especially adept at administration speak. She lapses into slogans -- "Partnership with Africa" and "New African Leaders." "There are a number of new leaders who are saying, 'We are creating the problems and we have to solve them,'" she says. "They are not blaming whitey or colonialism or the cold war. They are saying, 'This is our challenge and we're responsible for it.' It's refreshing." Critics of U.S. policy say Rice is focusing on a handful of fleeting leaders instead of strengthening lasting institutions. "Horseshit!" she responds. "We are investing massively in institutions, civil society and democratic transition. We are training judiciaries and police, and building ngos. That is the long-term challenge, and that is where the bulk of the resources are going."

She bounds into her office on a recent Wednesday. There's a delegation from Kenya due in 30 minutes, and Richard Holbrooke is waiting for her to call. Rice has already spent 45 minutes talking with Holbrooke, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, about a General Assembly resolution on human rights in Sudan. It's a typically chaotic day, the kind that makes you believe Rice when she says she hasn't had time to think about what she'll do when Clinton's term ends next year. "I'm looking forward to decompressing. To being human again," she says.

Of course, the reprieve probably won't last long. Friends say she may try the private sector. Or academia. Or she may want to consider a domestic policy post in another Democratic administration. Wherever Rice lands, one thing is clear: this time, people will know who she is.


Martha Brant, MA '93, is a Newsweek national correspondent based in Chicago.

Comments (1)


  • Mr. Allan R. Halbert

    "I don't have a lot of patience for B.S."

    Except when it comes to lying for Obama about Benghazi.

    Posted by Mr. Allan R. Halbert on Jun 13, 2013 11:35 AM

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