EXTRAORDINARY, ORDINARY PEOPLE: A MEMOIR OF FAMILY
By Condoleezza Rice
Crown Archetype, $27, 342 pages, illustrated
This engaging book lends new meaning to the term “close-knit family.” Condoleezza Rice lived under her parents’ roof until, as a senior in college, she was allowed to move into a sorority house at the University of Denver. She says that for the rest of her life, she talked with her parents by phone every night. What they taught her constitutes the heart of this book, which covers her genealogy, upbringing and groundbreaking careers in academe and government until she left her job as provost at Stanford University to work for the election of George W. Bush.
In segregated Birmingham, Ala., little Condoleezza was a talented, competitive and indulged only child. (Somebody had to take her to those pre-dawn ice-skating lessons, find money for her grand piano and figure out what school was best for her in numerous cities, even if it meant relocating the whole family.) For years, John W. Rice Jr., described by his daughter as a popular, outgoing man, worked two full-time jobs - as a Presbyterian minister who was very much involved in his community and as a high school guidance counselor - while studying to qualify for jobs in college administration, first at Stillman College and then at the University of Denver.
Angelena Ray Rice was a gifted schoolteacher, organist and choir director. It was she who concocted her daughter’s name from the musical terms “con dolce” and “con dolcessa,” meaning “with sweetness.” Writes the author, “Deciding that an English-speaker would never recognize the hard c, saying ‘dolci’ instead of ‘dolche,’ my mother doctored the term.” The author does not speculate on how often her name is misspelled but does note that she refused to accept her high school diploma because it was missing one “z.” Sweet, yes, but also steely.
Condoleezza grew up knowing that “in any confrontation with a white person in Alabama you were bound to lose. But my parents believed that you could alter that equation through education, hard work, perfectly spoken English, and an appreciation for the ‘finer things’ in ‘their’ culture.” The little girl started piano lessons at age 3 and often performed in public. She claims she was not particularly fond of school, had poor study habits, did poorly on standardized tests and did not like to read until she discovered biography.
Instead of decrying the parallel worlds of whites and blacks in Birmingham, Miss Rice notes that because the city was so segregated, “black parents were able, in large part, to control the environment in which they raised their children.” She, for example, listened to opera radio broadcasts with her mother on Saturday afternoons and watched pro football on television with her father on Sundays. Weeknights all three gathered to watch the Huntley-Brinkley TV newscast on PBS.
Moreover, she writes, teachers in all-black schools could demand the best of their students “with no racial overtones.” The mantra at home and school was, “To succeed, you will have to be twice as good.” She adds, “Our little neighborhood of Titusville provided a strong network of black professionals who were determined to prepare their kids for productive lives. There were few single parents, and black men were a dominant presence in the community.” Churches provided the “final pillar of support.”
In mid-1962, the young Condoleezza discovered mountains, ice-skating and new friends in Denver when her father’s graduate study took the family there for the summer. After they had returned to Birmingham, she comments, “my parents’ attempt to shield me from the hostility of the place in which we lived were no longer succeeding.”
She questions why her parents remained in the city during the 1963 “summer of police dogs and fire hoses.” She describes one night that her father spent on their porch, holding his gun in his lap, watching for white “night riders.” She also remembers hearing the bomb that killed four young girls, one of them a friend of hers, at the black Baptist church a couple of miles from her father’s church. That November, after President Kennedy was assassinated, her frightened teacher announced that “there’s a southerner in the White House. What’s going to become of us now?”
The former secretary of state writes of every school she attended, every friend she had and virtually every decision she made, from giving up competitive ice-skating for tennis (better suited to her long legs) to abandoning her dream to be a professional musician (she feared, given the competition among pianists, that she’d end up as a teacher instead of as a concert performer), to settling on a political science major at the end of her junior year at the University of Denver. (She had been captivated by the teaching of professor Josef Korbel, Madeleine K. Albright’s father, who became an important mentor.)
The chronicle of her achievements once she found her groove is mind-boggling and suggests the lesson that whatever is on offer, apply for it - internships, fellowships, master’s degree, doctorate. When she received a National Council of Foreign Relations appointment for a yearlong job within the federal government, she asked to work for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon, where she made invaluable contacts. It helped, early on, that Gen. Colin L. Powell invited her to visit him in the White House, thereby alerting people “throughout Washington that I was someone to keep an eye on.”
It wasn’t long before she found herself on the National Security Council staff, escorting Soviet specialists to Kennebunkport, Maine, to brief President George H.W. Bush. Later, as she escorted Mikhail Gorbachev in the presidential helicopter to a speech he was making at Stanford, she enjoyed the thought, “I’m awfully glad I changed my major.”
Miss Rice claims to have known that she was a beneficiary of affirmative action when a postdoctoral fellowship in Soviet studies and international security at Stanford led to her quickly being hired as an assistant professor there. She agrees with her father, who was hired to increase the diversity of the student body at Denver, that “The university should commit itself to the proposition that it is possible to have varying entrance standards, but only one exit or graduation standard.”
As provost at Stanford, she didn’t hesitate when an American Indian student accused her of not caring enough about the plight of minorities there. Ms. Rice retorted, “I’ve been black all of my life, and that is far longer than you are old.”
Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.