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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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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?”

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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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