Extraordinary, Ordinary People

Condoleezza Rice’s memoir is largely a loving tribute to the parents who were "anxious.... perhaps a little too anxious" to give her a head start in life.

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    Extraordinary, Ordinary People:
    A Memoir of Family
    By Condoleezza Rice
    Crown Publishers
    352 pp., $27
    View Caption

The lovely but atypical name “Condoleezza” is a phonetic spelling of an Italian musical term. The Rices fiddled with the idea of naming a first child – who would, as it happened, be their only child – “Andantino” or “ Allegro” but her mother settled upon con dolcezza when she learned it translated “with sweetness.” In keeping with Condoleezza Rice’s birth name, her memoir focuses on the sugary side of her life and work. Though politically, Rice may be a moderate to conservative hawk, Extraordinary, Ordinary People is the work of a dove – an ode to her parents, with sweetness and love.

Remember, too, that Condoleezza Rice is a Southerner by birth. “Extraordinary, Ordinary People” exhibits a Southern belle’s exaggerated sense of propriety by abhorring those politically indelicate subjects: Iraq, Guantánamo, Colin Powell’s resignation, the Patriot Act, 9/11, and ensuing events are not discussed in this nostalgic commemoration to her parents. But while the Iraq is off the table in a book that abruptly closes in 2000, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People” still offers glimpses of insight into a question which many will find equally as compelling as the controversial war: How did a black woman from Birmingham, Ala., rise in the Republican ranks to become George W.’s national security adviser and then secretary of State?

The book’s thematic answer is pat and simple. “My parents were anxious to give me a head start in life, perhaps a little too anxious ... but somehow they raised their little girl in Jim Crow Alabama to believe that even if she couldn’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, she could be president of the United States.” Fortunately, Condoleezza Rice is not too coy to portray both the ups and downs of her early years as the daughter of two educators who stretched their incomes to allow Condoleezza to study classical piano and ice skating. The Rices enjoyed a high social standing (probably higher than they would have had as members of a desegregated middle class America) and they prohibited Condoleezza from visiting the homes of “rough” lower class children. In Rice’s enclave of community, school, and church named Titusville, she was taught by “excellent teachers.” But the 9-year-old Condoleezza was terrorized by the Birmingham church bombing. “Birmingham isn’t that big and everyone knew at least one of those little girls.”

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Rice’s family avoided the protest marches. Her father supported Martin Luther King in principle, yet preferred status quo order to revolutionary chaos, and made a choice to restore order by voting for Nixon in 1968. “It is true that few adults in my community marched with Martin Luther King,” Rice concedes. She was not so much influenced by a social activism and the protest tradition – from which she was markedly separated from by class and family persuasion – as she was impressed by lasting memories of civil self-defense. The night of the Birmingham bombing, Titusville armed itself against intruders and Klansmen.

Because of this experience,” writes Rice, “I’m a fierce defender of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. What better example of responsible gun ownership is there than what the men of my neighborhood did in response to the KKK and Bull Connor?”

The indelible influence upon her development was not her socially refined mother, but her athletically inclined father. John Rice was a basketball coach, a football fan, a black Republican, a high school guidance counselor, and then an assistant dean at the University of Denver. He instilled in his daughter his love of competition and his impatience with objects of pity. Rice herself finds it ironic in reflection that her basically conservative father preferred Stokely Carmichael-style 1960’s black militancy to King’s beatific nonviolence. It was her father’s lasting imprint that explained his daughter’s sudden decision while a student at the University of Denver to switch her major from music to political science, with an emphasis on Soviet studies. John Rice was a contrarian who believed both in obedience to the law and the militant self-defense of his community; Condoleezza trained to become an expert in the defense of her country.

Rice is candid about the fact that her “rapid ascent from a PhD at the University of Denver to one of the world’s best universities” (a professorship at Stanford) was an affirmative action hire. “Stanford traditionally found its faculty at peer institutions such as Harvard and Yale – not the University of Denver. I am a fierce defender of affirmative action of this kind.” Citing her own extraordinary career as proof that affirmative action in academia can work, Rice veers briefly into the subject of the Bush administration to express her discomfort with the administration’s gambit to end affirmative action through a lawsuit at the University of Michigan.

But for the most part, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People” avoids in-depth politics. Rice’s mother dies of breast cancer in 1985. Throughout the following years (which included a period working under George Bush Sr. as an adviser on Soviet affairs during the years of glasnost) Condoleezza Rice, who is unmarried, grows closer to her father, who finally succumbs in 2000, at age 77. Rice is demonstrably proud of every aspect of her involvement in the fall of the Soviet Union. Whether she feels the same about her years spent in George W’s cabinet remains part of Condoleezza’s sphinxlike mystery.

Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a writer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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