Arts & Entertainment

Book review: 'Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family' by Condoleezza Rice

FamilyColleges and UniversitiesEntertainmentMusicUnrest, Conflicts and WarNational SecurityElections

As national security advisor and then secretary of State to President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice never displayed any doubt or admitted any errors in the White House decisions that led to war in Iraq.


FOR THE RECORD:
"Extraordinary, Ordinary People": A review of Condoleezza Rice's memoir "Extraordinary, Ordinary People" in the Oct. 16 Calendar said that she received her PhD from Stanford University. Rice received the degree from the University of Denver. —


Rice seems similarly immune to introspection or self-criticism in her disappointing new memoir, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family." That's a shame because Rice's story should be inspiring.

Born in 1954, she was raised behind a wall of strict racial prejudice in Birmingham, Ala., which she rightly recalls as America's most segregated city. Only one decent restaurant, A.G. Gaston's, served black patrons — and it was black-owned. Even after integration, Rice's school had one white teacher and no white students.

But Rice's formidable parents, John and Angelena, and other middle-class families in the all-black neighborhood of Titusville thrived in a kind of parallel universe. Segregation offered "a kind of buffer," she writes, that allowed her parents to create "a relatively placid cocoon of family, church, community and school."

Gauzy accounts of the civil rights struggle often overlook those who rejected the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil disobedience, and who refused to join headline-grabbing protests and sit-ins. Rice's parents, by her account, largely watched from the sidelines as "Bombingham" exploded in violence, marches and mass arrests.

Nearly all their energies, it appears, were focused on their only child. Rice's mother looked to Italian musical terms for names, and came up with Condoleezza, an anglicized version of the Italian con dolcezza, "with sweetness." (Some kids called her "watermelon head" because of her large cranium.)

Rice describes her upbringing as "quite normal," but it clearly wasn't. Gifted and ambitious, she started piano lessons at age 3 and soon was practicing for hours a day. She was "enchanted" by Mozart when her friends adored Elvis. She took ballet, gymnastics and baton twirling, plus private French lessons, She scored 136 on an IQ test at age 6, she reveals, "good but not Mensa level." It was a rare setback (and one reason, she notes, that she doesn't trust standardized tests).

Her goal always was to be "twice as good" as other kids, and her childhood became a whirl of piano concerts, school competitions and figure skating lessons. In high school, she practiced skating two hours before class every morning, then again after piano practice. She apparently never rebelled, stayed out too late or suffered teenage angst (one boyfriend had "a heart of gold," another was, well, "another nice guy").

Rice attended the University of Denver, where she majored in political science, was all of 20 when she got her master's degree from the University of Notre Dame, went on to get her doctorate from and then taught at Stanford University. She won award after award, but in the end, she was "totally stunned" to be named the university's provost in 1993.

Rice writes with such detachment and so little humor or passion that parts of her book read like a résumé. You want candor? Procrastination, she admits, "remains a problem for me to this day." Surprises? She loves Led Zeppelin (but doesn't say why). Oh, she initially registered as a Democrat and voted for Jimmy Carter. Years later, when asked why she changed parties, she replied, "I would rather be ignored than patronized."

Her father is far more intriguing. He voted Republican all his life because he never forgot that a sympathetic registrar in Birmingham let blacks register to vote — but only if they signed up for the GOP. Yet after the conservative Presbyterian minister moved the family to Colorado to become an assistant dean at the University of Denver, he became friends with Stokely Carmichael and other black radicals.

"I was never taught that [ Louis] Farrakhan was a traitor or that the Black Panthers were terrorists," Rice writes. During the 2008 presidential race, when Republicans accused Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama of radical ties, Rice "wondered what might have been made of the people who sat at our dinner table." She said nothing publicly at the time.

Rice credits her parents' high expectations and unconditional love as key to her successful career, and her intimacy with them is poignant and powerful. But she also cultivated influential patrons. And in 1988, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who would soon be national security advisor to President George H.W. Bush, asked her to join his staff as a Soviet specialist.

The vast Soviet empire was crumbling, and Rice had a front-row seat. But on Nov. 9, 1989, an aide urged her to turn on the TV. "The crack staff of the [National Security Council] had been scooped by CNN," she writes. The Berlin Wall was coming down.

The book ends as Rice returns to the White House with Bush's son in 2001, and she is writing a sequel to cover that tumultuous time. But those hoping to learn why Rice insisted Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, why she approved waterboarding of a high-level Al Qaeda suspect, or answers to other controversies, may find one insight here.

"Frankly, it's not unusual for me to put the consequences of failure out of mind until an event has finished," she writes. That's fine for piano recitals. Foreign policy is another matter.

Drogin, a national correspondent for The Times, is author of "Curveball: Spies, Lies and the Con Man Who Caused a War," which won the 2007 Cornelius Ryan Award for best nonfiction book on international affairs.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading