Review: 'Extraordinary, Ordinary People' by Condoleezza Rice

Rice's loving memoir of her parents traces family values against the backdrop of segregation

"Extraordinary, Ordinary People" by Condoleezza Rice; Crown Archtype, New York; 342 pp.; $27

One of the defining moments in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's childhood came during a visit to Santa Claus when she was about 5 years old.

Living in Birmingham, Ala., known as the most segregated big city in America in the 1950s and early 1960s, Rice almost didn't get a seat on Santa's lap because she is black, she wrote in her autobiography/homage to her parents, "Extraordinary, Ordinary People."

"The Santa in question had been putting the white kids on his knee and holding the black children away from him, keeping them standing," she recalled.

But her father, John W. Rice Jr., gave his daughter a firm lesson that day in values that guided the rest of her life: No matter how society strives to pigeonhole you, you're still as worthy as everyone else.

"If he does that to Condoleezza," her father told Rice's mother, "I'm going to pull all of that stuff off him and expose him as just another cracker."

Rice did sit on Santa's lap, but she never forgot how racially charged that moment felt, she said.

Rice's autobiography is an extraordinary tale, not only of race but also of hope, determination and parent-and-child devotion.

Most of all, it is the story of how a little black girl from the Jim Crow South was taught to become arguably the most powerful woman in the country.

Written in clean, direct prose, the book is a fast-paced read most of the way through.

The peek into Rice's characteristically private life through her family relationships and her childhood is fascinating and inspiring.

She is the first to say that her success has much to do with her upbringing, although intelligence and her extraordinary drive played major roles in her success.

The young Condoleezza would arise at 4:30 a.m. each day to practice ice skating before going to school, attend classes at the University of Denver and high school concurrently (at age 15), practice the piano, study, skate again and practice the piano again before bedtime.

Rice's parents -- John, a minister and teacher, and Angelena, a teacher who instilled a love of music in her daughter -- doted on their only child. Her name, meaning "with sweetness," was derived from a musical notation, con dolcezza.

Rice's parents sacrificed buying a home in order to give her a rich life and good education, and she was raised in a middle-class neighborhood where parents sought to shelter their children from the surrounding segregation.

But inevitably, that hatred seeped in.

Bitter reminders of America's apartheid were handed to the young Rice, even when attempting to take part in the most basic, American cultural experiences.

In one incident, the family went out to enjoy dinner at a newly integrated hamburger stand. But when Rice bit into her hamburger, she discovered the white chef had deliberately filled the bun with nothing but onions.

Indelible images of life in "Bombingham" are processed through a child's eyes: Incendiary devices were thrown into neighbors' homes; fathers and uncles sat on porches with shot guns or guarded entrances to neighborhood streets to keep out white "night riders" bent on terrorism.

The massive explosion at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which was two miles away, sounded as though it was next door. Rice recalls the funerals of four little girls killed in the 1963 blast, two who were her playmates.

In her roles as national security advisor and secretary of state, Rice would take those images with her. She would later liken the early racist violence she experienced in the South to terrorist bombings, complete with shrapnel and nails.

Rice became a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment -- the right to bear arms -- because of her experiences, she said.

But Rice's confidence, instilled by her parents, helped deflect the degrading messages about her blackness and not succumb to those negative attacks.

Generations of her family would not bow to segregation. Her grandparents did not allow their children to drink from the "colored" drinking fountains or use the "colored" restrooms.

Rice's parents became educational evangelists. Later in life, she and her father worked to improve educational opportunities for children in East Palo Alto through the Center for a New Generation, which they helped found.

Her parents believed that one could alter the equation of inequality through education, hard work, perfectly spoken English, and an appreciation for the "finer things" in white culture.

"If you were twice as good as they were, 'they' might not like you but 'they' had to respect you," she wrote, noting there was nothing worse than being a helpless victim of your circumstances.

There are few moments of self-doubt in Rice's book.

Instead, there is a wonderful photograph of Rice as a child standing outside the White House during a family trip. It is perhaps more telling than any words about the kind of adult she would grow up to be: serious, resolute and confident.

"My father said that I proclaimed, 'I will work in there some day.' I don't remember saying that, but my parents did have me convinced that even if I couldn't have a hamburger at Woolworth's lunch counter, I could grow up to be President of the United States," she said.

But she underwent a crisis in college after deciding she wasn't good enough to become a concert pianist. The rigors of music school and its insularity were stifling, she said.

A class with former Czech diplomat Josef Korbel (the father of Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Bill Clinton) changed her career path to international politics with a specialty in Soviet and Eastern European affairs.

But here the book at times begins to read like a curriculum vitae, where Rice's early adult years beginning at Stanford University and serving in George H.W. Bush's administration seem cursory. She does delve a bit deeper into her controversial tenure as Stanford provost, where hard decisions were made to slash the budget. Here Rice becomes reflective, at one point wondering if she was too hard on the student body. She does come out in favor of affirmative action, from which she says she benefited.

Readers expecting deeper insight into the events and decisions that shaped her political career will be disappointed. The book ends with the death of her father and George W. Bush's inauguration. Rice has said a second book addressing the years starting in 2000 is planned for publication in 2012.

Readers might wonder how Rice became a conservative, given her roots in the civil rights struggle. But she was also deeply affected by broader crises in 1960s American life. The Cuban missile crisis affected her in ways that still elicit visceral responses that surprise even her, she said.

Rice's father was also a lifelong Republican, after Southern Democrats in 1952 kept him from registering to vote after he "failed" a poll test: guessing how many hundreds of beans were in a jar. Republicans seeking to make inroads into the South readily signed him up, she said.

Rice's own choice to switch from registered Democrat is less concretely defined, although she said it came because of President Jimmy Carter's handling of the Iran hostage crisis.

But one suspects that a deeper answer lies in her early experiences. Her career of expertise in military affairs seems less one of chance and more deliberate, or at least informed, when viewed through these early lenses. And that leaves the reader wanting more.

If Rice's second book on her career and post-9/11 decisions delves deeper into how her thought processes might be informed by her early experiences, it could make fascinating reading.

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Like this comment
Posted by andreas
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 8, 2010 at 8:00 am

A flattering review of Rice's book only serves to draw attention away from her active participation in an illegal war that killed over 100,000 people.

Rice should stand trial for war crimes.

Like this comment
Posted by ten18
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2010 at 8:45 am

It's so easy to "armchair quarterback" when you don't have a clue. I'm sure if you were in the same position, you would have handled the situation much better! I'll take my chances with GWB and Condoleeza, thanks.

Like this comment
Posted by A real patriot
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 8, 2010 at 8:55 am

"I'll take my chances with GWB and Condoleeza,"
You mean break our laws regarding treatment of prisoners? Disclose the identity of a CIA agent, thereby putting her contacts abroad at risk and put our country at risk.
It appears that Condi and Bush did not have a clue either. the good thing is that she destroyed any future career she had--she will spend the rest of her life, alone, at the Hoover Institute.

Like this comment
Posted by Valerie
a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2010 at 9:07 am

The University of Denver, Rice's alma mater, published a great interview with the former secretary of state that offers many insights about her years in the White House. You can read it at Web Link.

Like this comment
Posted by A real patriot
a resident of Stanford
on Nov 8, 2010 at 9:19 am

You call that a great interview--the interviewer sounds almost worshipful in her questions and the whole interview comes across as a fluff piece designed to make a former alumnus, who has fallen on hard times, look good.

Like this comment
Posted by Brian
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 8, 2010 at 10:48 pm

On May 30, 2001, and on July 10, 2001 Condi got urgent warnings from CIA officials who were, in Richard Clarke's words, running around with their "hair on fire", of impending terrorist attacks. Richard Blee and George Tenet later agreed that had she acted on those warnings, 9/11 might have been prevented. Cofer Black said "We did everything but pull the trigger to the gun we were holding to her head."

Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief, had the decency to apologize to the family members when he testified before the 9/11 Commission, saying “Your government failed you, those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you.”

National Security Advisor Dr. Condoleezza Rice did not apologize. Instead she lied to the widows' faces when she told the 9/11 Commission that the "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" memo was not a warning. It warned of preparations for hijackings and planned attacks inside the US.

See the video "Condi Lied Under Oath to the 9/11 Widows"
Web Link

Here is the transcript of Dr. Rice's statement to the 9/11 Commission and her answers to questions:
Web Link

Here is the text of the "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US" memo
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by bj
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 11, 2010 at 5:09 pm

Does anyone know when she'll be signing books locally?

Like this comment
Posted by Gary
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 11, 2010 at 8:23 pm

"A flattering review of Rice's book only serves to draw attention away from her active participation in an illegal war that killed over 100,000 people"

andreas, are you talking about the Liberation of Iraq? If so, GWB and Condi will be seen very favorably by history. The leftists, especially including the European socialists, were completely wrong about this, if only on a moral basis. I sometimes wonder how lefties can look themselves in the mirror...they should at least lose sleep over their defense of tyranies.

I salute Condi for standing up for liberty. Stanford should be very proud of her.

Like this comment
Posted by Brian
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 12, 2010 at 1:06 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2010 at 10:16 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by hypatiaa
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2010 at 11:23 am

Condi Rice is a hero, for women, for black people... nothing is going to take that away from her.

Washed up... hardly. She's a rock star with a 2.5 million dollar book contract and can name her price on speaking engagements. I'd take that sort of "washed up" anyday, thank ye :)

Like this comment
Posted by Brian
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 14, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Condi a hero?

She has the potential to be a hero if she blows the whistle on the crimes of the Bush administration and sends Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Addington, Bybee, and John Yoo to the Hague.

There was nothing heroic about perjuring herself before the 9/11 Commission and the victims of her negligence.

Google: Condi lied ideo

Like this comment
Posted by Patrick Christofer Riley
a resident of another community
on Dec 3, 2010 at 9:05 am

Though I have serious policy differences with Dr.Rice, I am a huge fan of hers. Her determination, intelligence, beauty and commitment to improve the life of those least fortunate are simply admirable. And what I've read about her father, makes him a hero of mine. I'd love her to run for president (those Republicans who support Sarah Palin would do well--extremely--to convince Dr. Rice to seek the nomination. Dr. Rice would easily gain the nomination and more than likely become the first woman President of the United States. As someone who is not of fan of politics (and not a consistent voter; though I do vote for both parties), I'd vote for her.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Dec 3, 2010 at 11:19 am

Run for President? Omigawd - PLEEEEASE!

First question: Ms Rice: Please explain why you referred to the Presidential Daily Briefing of August 2001 as a "historical document"?

Y'all know which one, the titled: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US"

Worst National Security Advisor ever. To keep faith with current GOP strategy, that means she should be promoted to President!

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