A new memoir by Susan Rice ’82, “Tough Love,” chronicles her political career, including as President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her service in President Bill Clinton’s administration. It also tells Rice’s personal story, particularly the influence of her family. NCS classmate and friend Andréa Worden ’82 spoke with Rice about her book.
Andréa Worden: Why write this now? What were you hoping to achieve?
Susan Rice: I want people to know who I really am, which is why I spend a lot of time on the personal as well as the professional. Had I not been thrust into the political maelstrom and public spotlight through Benghazi, I might have waited 20 years to write my memoir. But I’ve been defined and mis-defined by others, on both the right and the left, and I wanted to tell my own story in my own words.
AW: I loved reading about your parents and grandparents and their profound influence on you. Your mom’s working-class parents emigrated from Jamaica to Maine, and your dad, the grandson of a slave, grew up in South Carolina. They all emphasized the importance of education, family, service, and community.
SR: You knew my parents very well, and you knew that they were serious. They had high expectations for us. They weren’t stern; it was more like, “You’re damn lucky. We––your parents––and your grandparents, and everybody who came before you, have worked very hard to give you these opportunities, and don’t blow it.” It was a remarkable balance they struck between not making me feel pressured but also making me understand that I had a responsibility.
AW: We’ve been best friends since Beauvoir, where we bonded over our love for sports and disdain for anything prissy. Next was NCS, which clearly played a major role in shaping who you became.
SR: As ostensibly successful as my time at NCS was, I have some mixed feelings about it. On the good side, I got an extraordinary education that has served me extremely well. Truly, nothing has been very hard since NCS. I made some of my best friends in life, who are thankfully still my friends. I felt hugely supported and encouraged by teachers and coaches. NCS built my confidence, but there was a lot of pressure. The down side is that I just felt so exhausted afterwards. I literally took my first year of college at Stanford University to recover, and thankfully that year I met Ian [Cameron], who became my husband.
AW: Your early government positions in the Clinton administration were mainly focused on Africa. It seems like it was nonstop crises.
SR: At the National Security Council, where I first served from 1993 to 1997, it was like drinking from a fire hose; there was Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and other places blowing up, often simultaneously. But the job in which I learned and grew the most and also faced the biggest challenges was when I became assistant secretary of state for African affairs in 1997, at age 32. Not only was I young, but I was also a brand new, breastfeeding mother of our firstborn, Jake. I was confronted with a lot of skepticism, even hostility at the State Department, but I also benefited from powerful tough love, as I describe in the book.
AW: During your tenure leading our relationship with Africa, what was the most challenging time? And what were some of the positive highlights?
SR: The summer of 1998, which culminated in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, was the toughest. We had war break out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, intensified fighting in Sudan, Angola, Liberia, and Congo, and then al-Qaeda blew up our embassies. That period was the most testing in the Clinton administration, in terms of pressure and human costs.
Still, ultimately, there were lots of positives. We were able to negotiate the end of the war in Ethiopia and Eritrea. We helped support the transition to democracy in South Africa, and from military rule in Nigeria. We passed the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a landmark initiative that remains the centerpiece of our economic relationship with Africa.
AW: You served as President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013. What was a standout moment during your time in New York?
SR: I’ll give you two. One was the adoption of Iran sanctions in 2010, which was hard-fought and deeply impactful and which led to the opening that got us the nuclear deal. The other, which was a diplomatic triumph at the time but the aftermath wasn't good, was the Libya vote. Getting that Libya vote to authorize the protection of civilians was a minor miracle.
AW: In September 2012, you appeared on the Sunday TV talk shows to explain what the United States knew at the time about the attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. How did you deal with the personal attacks afterwards?
SR: The hardest thing was to watch what it did emotionally to my 9-year-old daughter, Maris, and my mom; that was the most upsetting. For me, it was also hard. But I had two stark choices: quit—which, why would I do that because I didn’t do anything wrong––or stay and do my job to the best of my ability. So I just sucked it up. I had taken other knocks, but this was by far the most public and sustained takedown. I couldn’t have done it without the incredible support of Ian and my brother, Johnny. Through the ups and downs, they have each been my rocks.
AW: There’s a lot of great material from the Obama years in your book. What are you most proud of?
SR: Honestly, a lot. The things that were the longest in gestation and the hardest to accomplish stick out as the things I take particular pride in. The Iran deal, which involved many people and was a collective accomplishment, took years. Normalizing relations with Cuba was years. The thing that was great about Cuba, which to this day I still can’t believe—it didn’t leak. Had it leaked, it would have been game over.
AW: What’s your view of Trump’s efforts to roll back many of Obama’s policy initiatives?
SR: We’ve never before had a president whose primary objective was to undo his predecessor’s legacy out of spite, without offering reasoned policy alternatives. Climate, Iran, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Cuba –– pretty much on every issue.
How we recover from Trump’s wrecking-ball leadership, is really the $64,000 question. In my view, it depends enormously on whether we’re talking about 18 months from now, or 5½ years from now. If it’s the latter, I am doubtful we can recover our leadership role in the world.
Still, I have strong faith in the long-term resilience of our democracy and the wisdom of the American people, especially the rising generation. I remain an optimist, however hardened. That’s how I managed to do these stressful, sometimes scary jobs and stay mostly sane.
Andréa Worden ‘82 is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.