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Before she was U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a national security advisor under President Barack Obama or on the shortlist to be Joe Biden’s pick for vice president, Susan Rice was a child growing up in Washington, D.C.
In “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For,” Rice explains how her family history — one side descending from Jamaican immigrants, and the other from slaves in the South — and her D.C. upbringing shaped her views on public service, race and the American Dream. The daughter of two accomplished professionals, Rice attended Beauvoir and The National Cathedral School, which was a markedly different experience from many Black Washingtonians.
But her parents also made sure she and her brother were acutely aware of local and national news, including the 1968 Washington riots following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The Rice dinner table was often filled with animated discussion on current events and politics.
Rice’s life was influenced by known D.C. figures: her godmother Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and family-friend Madeleine Albright.
Rice sits down with Kojo to talk about her memoir and how local Washington shaped her career.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Susan Rice Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; Former National Security Advisor under President Barack Obama; @AmbassadorRice
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Before she was a diplomat, national security adviser, or a contender to be Joe Biden's running mate, Susan Rice was the daughter of two successful parents, growing up in Washington, D.C. Rice's childhood was filled with animated debates about current events and politics, family friends included future secretaries of state and big-name D.C. figures.
KOJO NNAMDIJoining me now to talk about how her D.C. upbringing shaped her career and her memoir, "Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For" -- which, by the way, is out today in paperback, with an all-new afterward -- is Susan Rice, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser under President Barack Obama. Ambassador Rice, thank you so much for joining us.
SUSAN RICEThank you for having me, Kojo. I'm a huge fan. I'm really glad to be with you.
NNAMDIThank you again. You start your memoir well before you were born, by outlining your family's history. You're a descendant of Jamaican immigrants on your mum's side, and generations of African-Americans on your dad's side. Tell us first about your mom's side of the family, and what you learned from the political debates you heard around the table with them in Portland, Maine.
RICEWell, my grandparents on my mother's side came to Portland, Maine in 1912, from Jamaica. As you can imagine, there weren't many folks who looked like us who came from Jamaica or were in Portland, Maine, in 1912. And my grandparents had no formal education. My grandfather was a janitor. My grandmother was a maid and a seamstress.
RICEAnd like so many immigrants to this country, they came in search of a better life for their children. And my grandfather worked for literally 80 years, until the -- I'm sorry, not 80 years, until he was 80, as a janitor. They saved and they scraped and they sent all five of their kids to college.
RICEMy mother was the youngest. She had four older brothers. Two became doctors; one an optometrist and the other a university president and English professor. And then along came my mom, who was the baby, who went on to spend most of her career working to make college accessible for low-income Americans.
RICEShe was known as "the mother of the Pell Grant program," which has enabled 80 million Americans to go to college. And then she spent her latter years working in the private sector. But at that dinner table, when I was privileged to visit my grandparents and hang out with my cousins and uncles, my dad and my uncles -- who, by the way, served together during World War II at Tuskegee, with the Tuskegee airmen -- would get into the most robust arguments about race, about politics, about all of the issues of the day.
RICEAnd when I was growing up, that included Vietnam and Watergate and all those issues -- civil rights era. So, it was a fascinating experience, and they didn't hold back. I mean, they yelled and they cursed, (laugh) and the arguments got really hot and heavy.
NNAMDIYou know, I grew up in a similar household in Guyana, and when I was nine years old, there was this furious argument going on with my parents and their friends in their living room about this guy called Mosaddeq, who had been overthrown in 1954 in Iran --
NNAMDI-- and replaced by somebody called the shah. But they were furious about what was going on. It's amazing. How about your dad's side of the family?
RICESo, my dad's family came from South Carolina, and my dad was born around 1920, in the heart of segregation and Jim Crow, and at the height of lynching. And his family was really interesting. His grandfather, my great-grandfather, was a slave who, after Emancipation, fought in the Union Army, and then, after the Civil War ended, was able to get an education up at Lincoln University. And then he came back to South Carolina to be a school teacher during Reconstruction. But he was driven out of South Carolina by the Ku Klux Klan, and he fled to New Jersey, where he started a school called the Borden Town school, which, from the late 1880s until the 1950s, educated generations of African-Americans in vocational and technical skills like Tuskegee, but also in college preparatory skills.
RICEAnd, you know, Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt came to this campus. So, my father's side of the family had college educations from, you know, the end of slavery, to the present. My dad came along -- he, as I mentioned earlier, served at Tuskegee, with the Tuskegee Airmen.
RICEHe went on to get his PhD in economics at the University of California at Berkeley after the war and became one of the early African-American economists who taught at Cornell, and then came to Washington right before I was born to work in the Treasury Department and at the World Bank. And he ultimately became a governor of the Federal Reserve system.
NNAMDIYou've said that your parents gave you "tough love." What is that, and how do you translate it to your work?
RICEWell, tough love to me means loving fiercely, but not uncritically. In other words, Kojo, as you know as a West Indian, when your parents are not happy or they think you can be doing better, they don't hesitate to tell you. That, to me, is tough love.
RICEAnd that's how I've tried to raise my kids, but it's also, frankly, how I've tried to serve the country. You know, we're a wonderful country, and I love it fiercely, but we make mistakes, and we can do better. And when you love your country fiercely, you're always wanting to see it become more perfect. And we're at a moment where that's more important than ever.
NNAMDIWhen you were about seven years old, your parents' marriage began to deteriorate. You became a mediator of sorts between them during their arguments, which could get heated. How did that role shape you?
RICEWell, they were two great, wonderful people, but they really had no business being married. And they had a very contentious, and at times violent relationship. And I would be -- I was the older of two kids. My little brother's about two years younger. And when I heard them fighting when I was asleep, or trying to go to sleep at night, it was terrifying. And I would find myself having to come downstairs and kinda spy on them to make sure that it wasn't getting out of hand.
RICEAnd when I thought it might be getting out of hand, I would intervene, and try to talk them down or separate them, if necessary. And, you know, that wasn't what you would hope for a kid to have to experience in childhood, even though many people experience much, much worse.
RICEBut in my case, I learned to run into the fire to try to put it out, rather than hang back. Because I feared if I didn't, that nobody would. And so I guess this experience of trying to prevent and resolve conflict and mediate (unintelligible) age, even though I had no idea that it would translate into my professional future, was sort of some early experience with diplomacy.
NNAMDIOne of the things I like about your Washington life was that one of the people who helped you greatly during your parents' divorce was your godmother, Peggy Cooper Cafritz, known in D.C. as the founder of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, an art collector, former head of the schoolboard. But tell us about your relationship with her, and how she was able to help you and your brother, Johnny.
RICEOh, my. Peggy was a godsend, and we met her rather by accident. Her nephew, who lived with her in the summer, became good friends with me and my brother when we went to tennis camp together. And through her nephew, I got to know Peggy, and Peggy, for anybody who knew her, collected people.
RICEShe adopted young people of all different circumstances, 30, 40 over her lifetime, and helped them in some ways. For me and my brother, her help wasn't so much financial as it was emotional and personal. And the most important thing she did early on was to give us the idea, when our parents were going through a very bitter custody battle, and the judge was trying to figure out what to do, and the lawyers that my parents had were really nasty, mean divorce lawyers.
RICEAnd they wanted me and my brother to testify, as young people, before the judge to say which parent we wanted to live with. And we didn't want to have to choose between our parents. And Peggy had the brilliant idea that if my brother and I wrote letters to the judge explaining that we loved both of our parents and we didn't want to testify, that maybe that would work, and it did.
RICEAnd so we, for once, surprised the lawyers, and Peggy -- who, by the way, was herself a lawyer, even though she never really practiced -- became somebody who, separate from my parents, was probably the most important person in my life.
NNAMDIWow. Now, from political conversations around the dinner table to navigating your parents' divorce, what did you learn about being able to handle differences of opinion from a very young age?
RICE(laugh) Well, first of all, I learned that you can't be shy about expressing your opinion -- at least not in my household -- and survive. You have to stand up for yourself. You have to have the courage of your convictions, and you've gotta formulate a well-crafted argument and stand your ground. But you also need to listen and hear from others and learn from others.
RICEAnd so these dinner table discussions and debates that I grew up with were really huge learning opportunities. And even though my parents had their extreme differences, they loved us both dearly, and they wanted us to have the best in the way of exposure, education and a recognition of what was going on in our city, in our country and in the world.
RICEAnd so when we were very little, when I was just four years old in 1968, after Dr. King was assassinated and we had the riots that burned down the 14 Street Corridor, as some will remember, my parents took me and my little brother down, right after the riots ended, to see what had happened and try to understand, to the extent we could, at that young age what the issues were, and why it mattered, and to give us a sense of connection to this city and to the issues that our country was wrestling with. So, they gave me a huge amount, but most of all, a great deal of wisdom and exposure.
NNAMDISpeaking of dealing with issues and having opinions and dealing with differences of opinion, which you have dealt with in your family all your life, your son Jake is a Republican. You and he get into heated arguments about politics and policy. And when he says that the two of you should stop talking about politics, you say, "No." Why?
RICEWell, God bless my little son, who's not so little anymore. He just recently turned 23. I've got two wonderful kids, a daughter who's the youngest, and our son. My daughter's very progressive. My son is very conservative.
RICEAnd, in our household, we get into it. And the reason why I say we can't afford to stop talking about politics -- even though we can't do it constantly, because it would drive us both crazy -- is because we have to understand each other's perspectives.
RICEAnd I believe firmly that if people of differing views in this country, particularly family members, can't be willing to listen and try to understand alternative perspectives, then we're really doomed as a nation. And I worry enormously about our domestic political divisions, which as I write in "Tough Love" is, in my judgment, our greatest national security vulnerability, because our adversaries have figured out -- particularly Russia -- that they can weaken us and diminish us as a global rival if we turn against each other and fear and hate each other and disintegrate from within.
RICESo, whether it's at the family level or the community level or the national level, we have got to be willing to hear and try to understand differing perspectives, and when we disagree, to try to do so far more civilly and constructively than we seem to be doing at the moment.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Theresa, who writes, "Susan Rice interned at the Committee on Education and Labor and has many admirers among those who remember and her mother, Lois Rice." So, you are remembered from way back by a lot of people, clearly.
RICEOh, that's awesome. (laugh) Kojo, I worked on that committee as a summer intern when I was in high school, when Congressman Augustus Hawkins was the chair. And it was, you know, an extraordinary early education in how Congress works. So, wow. That's cool.
NNAMDICongressman Augustus Hawkins from California, the late congressman who crafted the first full employment bill that we had here in this country. Another family friend growing up was Madeleine Albright, who, of course, you worked with in a professional capacity later in your career. What influence did she have on you when you were younger, and later when you worked with her when she was secretary of State during the Clinton administration. And did she ever stop calling you "Little Susie Rice"?
RICE(laugh) She still calls me little Susie Rice when she's trying to wind me up. She and my mother had this extraordinary alliance to comment critically on my hairstyle and wardrobe, and Madeleine carries on that tradition now that my mother has passed.
RICEI first met Secretary Albright when I was a kid. I went to school with her daughters, and my mother and then Madeleine Albright, not yet Secretary Albright, served together on the board of my elementary school, and our families became friends.
RICEHer former husband and my dad played tennis on most Sundays, and often, after they played tennis, the two families would get together for lunch at a place some of our listeners will remember called Hamburger Hamlet, near Friendship Heights.
RICEAnd that was how I first got to know Secretary Albright, as a mom and as a family friend. And then her career progressed. She worked on the Hill. She worked in the Carter White House, and eventually became U.N. ambassador and secretary of state.
RICEAnd during the Clinton administration, when she was serving in those roles, I was starting my career as a junior policy staffer on the National Security Council staff. And my first job on the NSC staff was the portfolio that was responsible for the United Nations.
RICESo, I actually worked with her and her team when she was ambassador at the U.N., and she's always been an extraordinary mentor. She's been a great supporter, given me extraordinary advice and wisdom. And then I got to serve under her when she was secretary of State. I was the assistant secretary of State for African affairs, responsible for all of our embassies and operations and policies for sub-Saharan Africa.
RICEAnd we remain very close to this day. I say, in all candor, without my parents, without Peggy, Madeleine Albright is, in many ways, the closest thing I still have to a mother.
NNAMDII was going to ask you about statehood, but it'll start with a more personal story, because I know as a native Washingtonian that you're a supporter of statehood. But a lot of people may not know, unless they've read your book, that there was a point in your life when you were considering going to law school, and you had a conversation with our now-D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton about that. Tell us about that conversation.
RICEIt was one of the most important decision points in my life. I had just finished my master's degree in international relations at Oxford in England, and I'd come back to the United States for several months to work on the 1988 Democratic presidential campaign, which some will remember as the Dukakis-Benson campaign.
RICEAnd I was trying to decide, do I go on to law school -- which had been my original plan since really childhood -- or do I stay and get my PhD at Oxford and continue my focus on international relations? And she took me out to lunch -- this would have been '88, so long before she was in Congress.
RICEAnd she sort of sat me down and said, well, in a very Socratic way, do you love what you're studying when you do international relations? And I said yes. And she says, "Well, how many black lawyers do you know?" And I said, "More than I can count." And she said, "And how many black PhDs in international relations do you know?"
RICEAnd I said, "I can't think of any off the top of my head." And so she says, "Well, you love this work that you're doing. Why don't you consider going on, completing your PhD? And when you finish, you're going to be how old?" And I said, you know, "Twenty-five."
RICEAnd she said, "And that's not too old to go to law school if you still want to do it." And I said, "Now, this makes perfect sense." (laugh) And so she really was the one that made me realize that I should follow my passion. I wanted to complete my studies in international relations. And by the time I finished, I'd lost my appetite for further school, and law school, in particular. And one thing sort of led to another. But I blame her for my course correction into international affairs.
NNAMDIYeah, that sounds so Eleanor. As a high school student at National Cathedral, you played basketball. And for those who don't know, you're 5'3", so naturally, you played point guard. (laugh) You write --
NNAMDI-- about how playing basketball taught you about leadership. Tell us about how basketball and other sports like tennis have shaped your approach to work.
RICEWell, I'm a huge believer, Kojo, in the value of sports for one's personal development, particularly for girls. And what I learned from basketball is, first of all, not to be scared of taking an elbow or throwing an elbow. Not to doubt my physical capacity, to be fearless. But also, how to play on a team.
RICEAnd you know, and all of our listeners know, that basketball -- unlike so many sports -- really requires all five players on the court to be working in unison. And as a point guard, obviously, my job was to see the whole court and make the plays, and hand it off, most of the time, to the superstars who are going to put the ball in the hoop.
RICEBut I think that basketball taught me teamwork, it taught me fearlessness and discipline and competitiveness. And then I liken the role of being national security adviser. When you lead the team of National Security Council Cabinet-level principles -- the secretary of State, Defense, chairman of the joint chiefs -- to playing point guard.
RICEYou sit at the head of the table. You're seeing the whole field, and you're often not the one in the spotlight hitting the three-pointer, but you're often the one helping to formulate the strategy and figure out how to make the players on the team shine.
NNAMDIAnd now I have to move quickly to the contemporary. Here's Steve in Adamstown, Maryland. Steve, you only have about a minute, but go ahead, please.
STEVEYes, good morning, Ms. Rice. It's quite an honor to speak with you. Quickly, given your background and experience and your long relationship with the vice president. I'm wondering, if at this point, you've had an opportunity to discuss a differentiation between your two roles.
RICE(laugh) Well, first of all, I appreciate the question. I can't share, at this point, the nature of my conversations, if any, with the vice president, but let me say this: I have known and respected Joe Biden for many, many years. I hope very much, for all kinds of reasons critical to our country, that he's our next president.
RICEIf I can help him in whatever capacity he thinks best to win and to govern, I'd like to do that. But I think having been vice president, he understands, as well as anybody, the importance of a close and trusting working relationship between the president and the vice president. I saw Barack Obama and Joe Biden up close, and they were a great team together.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Susan Rice is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser under President Obama. Her book is called "Tough Love," and it's out in paperback today. Susan Rice, thank you so much for joining us.
RICEThank you, Kojo. Great to be with you.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, this pandemic has changed many aspects of our lives, including how we get around the region and nearly every method of travel, from driving to cycling. Our traffic patterns look much different. So what has the pandemic meant for the transportation industry?
NNAMDIThis segment with former U.S. ambassador Susan Rice was produced by Cydney Grannan, and our conversation about developing a coronavirus vaccine was produced by Kurt Gardinier. Join us tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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