As UN ambassador Susan Rice is caricatured by Republicans and the media as too blunt and incompetent to be appointed as Secretary of State by President Obama, another portrait of the woman is being painted in recent profiles: brilliant, tough, passionate and extremely hard-working.
A long piece in the Washington Post sketched her complex and outsized personality—an unconventional but highly successful diplomat whose demeanor can at times be combative and domineering but who is also warm, funny and passionate about her job. She’s a woman who isn’t afraid to turn up the R&B at a dinner party and start dancing. About her musical tastes, Rice, 48, told the Post that “I like old-school.”
“She’s not a typical diplomat,” Ed Luck, a former special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general, told the Washington Post. “She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and I don’t see why she should.”
Luck told the Post that although he had his doubts when Obama named her UN ambassador four years ago about whether her personality would work in the job, he said he has been pleasantly surprised and, at times, moved, by the job she has done—particularly when she gave stirring remarks commemorating the Rwandan genocide and acknowledging that the United States did not do enough to stop the killing.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite such a personal and emotional account given by a diplomat at the UN,” Luck said.
Rice, whose parents divorced when she was a child, comes from extremely distinguished pedigree—her father Emmitt J. Rice, who died last year, was a Cornell University economics professor and the second black governor of the Federal Reserve System and her mother Lois Fitt is an education policy scholar at the Brookings Institution. She and her husband Ian Cameron, an ABC News producer whom she met when they were at Stanford, have two children and are close friends of the Obamas. Known as extremely competitive, Rice is a former three-sport athlete at the National Cathedral School in Washington, DC, and was a point guard on the basketball team—in addition to being student council president and valedictorian. She says she has never played basketball with the president because she doesn’t think she could hang.
Obama has not told even close aides whether he will select Rice, according to a senior White House official. In a show of support, however, she was present Wednesday during Obama’s first full Cabinet meeting since the election. The president responded to a question about whether lawmakers are “being fair” to Rice by complimenting her as “extraordinary.”
“I couldn’t be prouder of the job that she’s done,” he said.
A White House official and Democratic aides said they think that Rice could win Senate confirmation for the top diplomatic job if Obama nominated her.
But with lawmakers potentially facing difficult votes on taxes or entitlements, confirmation could come at a high political cost for Obama and vulnerable Democrats facing reelection in 2014.
On Wednesday, some Democrats came to Rice’s defense.
“Ambassador Rice is clearly a very strong candidate, and if nominated, I hope we can come together and move the confirmation hearings along swiftly and get past the misguided partisan political attacks on her reputation,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.).
Sen. Mary Landrieu (La.) said Rice’s GOP accusers are “horribly unfair” and completely wrong to accuse her of shading intelligence about the attack to suit political ends.
A profile of Rice in the Guardian describes her as “a savvy and tough operator who has done much to repair America’s status there after the willful neglect of the George W. Bush years.” The story called her career “glittering” in the many diplomatic and foreign policy jobs this child of Washington has held.
“She is a sharp woman. She’s Type A. She likes to achieve her goals and she is tireless,” said Michael Williams, co-editor of Power in World Politics and who worked with Rice on the 2008 Obama campaign.
The profiles also point out a primary reason why John McCain has been going after her so vociferously. During the 2008 campaign, after McCain had put on body armor during a visit to a Baghdad market in Iraq, Rice said about Obama’s trip to the Middle East: “I don’t think he’ll be strolling around the market in a flak jacket,” she said.
McCain was so incensed at this young black woman making him look like a sissy that he never forgot her comments.
Rice’s personal wealth, estimated at more than $25 million coming from inheritances from her family and that of her Canadian husband Ian Cameron, have come under scrutiny because she holds stocks in Canadian oil companies that could benefit from construction of the Keystone Pipeline, a project that she might have some influence over if she were named secretary of state.
Michael O’Hanlon, a fellow at Brookings, told the Guardian he clashed repeatedly with Rice when he worked for Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “We battled hard yet parted as close friends despite it all. She is very likeable and appealing,” O’Hanlon said.
The Washington Post profile ended with a revealing anecdote about Rice after she gave the convocation address at Howard University. When she was done, she walked to a private office as she was being trailed by VIPs and a few students. One student was a “shy but persistent” young woman who wanted desperately to meet Rice, according to a person who was in the room at the time.
“The normal protocol would have been for Rice to give face time to the assembled muckety-mucks,” the Post wrote. “But she sat instead for a long time, listening to the woman tell her story. The VIPs had to wait.”