Book of the Month: Tough Love by Susan Rice

Let's not talk about why there was no Book of the Month last month because there was supposed to be, but then I became ill and that was that. More importantly, let's talk about the book of this month: Susan Rice's brilliant memoir. I love memoirs and I LOVE Susan Rice. No really, I do. So that meant I had to read this book. The truth is, sometimes memoirs drag on and on and on. Especially when it's by someone who was in political leadership, it can get too nitty gritty on the policy side of things [which I like anyway but] which discourages others. I'm happy to say this book was not like that. It was a good read.

Susan Rice is the former U.N. Ambassador and National Security Advisor under our forever president, Barack Obama. It's an incredibly candid book and she tells her story in the most personal way, while narrating significant moments throughout her journey from being conceived in Nigeria to being a child in D.C's most prestigious schools to Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton administration and to one of President Obama's most trusted advisors and friends. As someone who has been bullied by the rightwing media, who is constantly vilified, and is basically their bogeyman, this book was a chance to clear up a lot of things while accepting culpability when necessary.  She owns up to her decisions, personal and policy-wise.  This type of introspection came across widely throughout the book and more importantly, it felt like the chance to clear the air on a lot of things. Case in point: Benghazi. Whew chileee. After those [now famous] Sunday interviews where she used talking points from the intelligence committee (which was THE INFORMATION THEY HAD AT THE TIME) that turned out to be incomplete (not altogether false),  she basically became a chew-toy for Republicans and Fox News. And boy, did they harass her?! But then, piece by piece, decision by decision, accusation by accusation, and point by point, she addresses them.

She was harassed so much that her child started to hallucinate. That's a story everyone should read. I  think it's so easy to throw attacks at people, especially political figures and celebrities, under the assumption that it's bouncing in the air and there are no victims. But make no mistake, malicious attacks have victims: the targets, their families etc.

I also can't get over the fact that she was never Secretary of State because Republicans wanted to be vindictive.

One interesting part that I hope gets the attention of readers is when she spoke with a Fox News producer asking why she of all people was so targeted regarding Benghazi (the truth is her part in all of it was relatively minor so it was confusing). The answer is not so much a revelation as much as it's unfortunate: basically, the Republicans wanted an enemy. They wanted a villain in the story. They knew she could be used to stoke anger and ratings. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the very disgusting, very vile nature of American politics. Her brother viewed it differently, he said she "fought like a girl". He insisted that she did not defend herself the way a man would.

In the spirit of being forthright and introspective, she was willing to admit some of the foreign policy failures of the Obama administration without really castigating anyone. That's what she does best in the book: the ability to tell stories as they happened without really painting anyone as the villain even when we can see for ourselves that such people treated her unfairly. This is whether it was McCain's prejudice and vindictive pettiness, or members of the Obama administration  (EXCLUDING OBAMA Himself) who were slow to come to her defense throughout the fiasco. The latter is painful because we see from her memoir that going for the Sunday interviews was basically a favor she did her colleagues, against her mom's advice (because mothers always KNOW). Hilary and the others kind of anticipated what Susan Rice, either because of naïveté or plain ignorance, had not yet known:  it was a minefield. Yet, with the exception of Obama, they all took their sweet time in coming to her  defense. That struck me as cold and calculated, and of course unfair. Yet, Rice doesn't paint herself as the victim or villain.

Apart from all the above, I learnt a lot about grit, assertiveness, brilliance, and courage from Susan Rice. I love how she argues. I love how she does not run away from a fight. She is blunt and unapologetic, and seems like someone who walks in a room (whether the Situation Room, Oval Office, or the United Nations) and acts like she belongs there. This does not mean they did not try it with her. It means she always responded in kind. There is an interesting story of former UN ambassador Holbrooke trying to emasculate and undermine her in a room full of her male subordinates, and when she was out of options on how to respond, exasperated, Susan Rice gave him the finger. I laughed so hard at the pettiness, which of course she came to regret.  I loved the insider details on some of the most complex challenges and wars our world has experienced.

But something else that struck me, or was reinforced in me was how much privilege and parental background play huge roles in our life trajectories and destiny. Susan Rice was basically a protege to Madeleine Albright (her mom was very good friends with Albright). So of course, it's not particularly difficult to understand her very fast rise (she was already an Assistant Secretary of State in her twenties!). Let that sink. I do not mean to undermine Susan Rice's brilliance. Far from it; she is formidable and one of the smartest women in this country by any measure. Yet, I can't think of any way it would be humanly possible to achieve that kind of meteoric rise without access, privilege, and personal connections. The point is, a lot of times people simply think hard work is all it takes to be successful, but that's untrue.

In telling her story, of course, we see her roots as a grandchild of slaves on the one part (paternal) and immigrants on the other (maternal). Most devastating of all was the bitter and fierce divorce and eventual custody battle between her parents. It scarred her in more ways than one can imagine, and I think it also empowered her in other ways. It made her rational, almost to a fault, logical, and gave her an uncanny ability to compartmentalize, but most of all, it gave her those unbeatable skills in diplomacy which she would of course wield in her future: whether in Syria, Libya, Rwanda, South Sudan or while presiding the Security Council at the UN.

I love the bond she shares with her brother, Johnny. I love her bond with her husband and best friend, Ian, whom she met with college. Theirs is a true partnership, worthy of emulation. The incredibly funny interaction they had when they first met was hilarious.

She ends the book in what seemed like a call to action, reminding us that there are more that unite us than divide us in America, and that we must learn to bridge the deep divide that persists in American politics. She is optimistic about the soul of this nation; an optimism that is almost enviable. But I'm not surprised she is: get this, her son is a well known conservative Republican and served as the president of College Republicans at Stanford. They differ on so many values, and she readily admits that it has led to several arguments in their home. Nonetheless, their love never wanes. We see this in a VERY lovely email her son sent after she left office. It got me thinking so hard.

We (by we, I mean me) always say we can never marry someone whose values differ vehemently from ours. It matters to me that I marry someone who is on the moral side of issues not because I want us to think alike but because empathy, kindness, justice are values I treasure. But the one thing we never think about is what happens when we give birth to someone who is sooooo different from us. On most everything, Susan Rice and her husband differ from their son. It occurred to me that this is not so new because a lot of conservative parents have deeply liberal children. It's only this shocking because this is the first time EVER I am seeing the reverse. Luckily for her, their daughter is as liberal as they are, maybe even a little bit farther left. And while her son and daughter have clashed in the past, they have learned to embrace their differences. It is for this reason she thinks America can do the same.

There is sooooo much to unpack in these pages that I didn't even mention: like how we are reminded over and over again that often times Obama was always the smartest guy in the room. But this is already too long, so pardon me.

Susan Rice is many things, but most especially, inspirational. I love love love her! Lol. So I am biased here, but I know this is a great book so you should check it out. I did not want to put this book down at all; it was that captivating, and memoirs are hardly ever that captivating.

At the very least, I hope this books provide a welcome distraction from everything happening in the world.



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