WASHINGTON — Susan Rice was miffed, all right. Her frequent foil, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin — an outsize personality whom she might be screaming at one moment, then laughing with the next — was at it again. This time, he was mocking her pet project to let youths from around the world ask the U.N. Security Council questions via video link-up.
If Churkin was going to play goad the ambassador, Rice would, too.
A Rice staffer superimposed Churkin’s face on the cartoon body of the Grinch — the one who stole Christmas. Rice loved it. This, she had to share. And so the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations decided to plop the doctored image onto the big screen in the Security Council’s consultation room for all to see.
But first, a bit of diplomacy. She showed it privately to Churkin. The “huge bear laugh" that staffers heard through the closed door signaled that this wouldn’t become a nuclear incident. Eventually, the Russians backed off their objections.
Still, Rice’s prank in December 2010 annoyed some in this ever-cautious, often-cryptic, inscrutably-polite-yet-clandestinely-rude ministerial universe. Was she being undiplomatically inappropriate or unconventionally charming?
Every little thing about the 48-year-old Rice matters now that she’s the presumptive front-runner to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Every question large and small demands answers. This child of Washington finds herself in the capital’s vise, a pressure point between Congress and the White House.
A ‘D.C. girl through and through’
She got here by pinch-hitting for Clinton one tightly scheduled Sunday morning in September, five days after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Racing through five Sunday talk shows in a matter of hours, she parroted White House talking points that the attack was a spontaneous response to a film that mocked the Muslim prophet Muhammad; a group of Republican senators and conservative commentators accuses her of intentionally misleading the public to hide intelligence assessments that it was a terrorist attack.
Senators crowd before microphones to condemn her. President Barack Obama talks tough, saying her critics should come after him — not her. At times, the whirling drama takes on elements of a theater of the absurd. Read the cable news graphic! “Sticky Rice." Read the reporters trade quippy headlines on Twitter! “McCain throws Rice in the cooker." “Rice on Ice." “Obama wants Benghazi, Rice on Back Burner."
It’s Susan Rice’s home town in its fullest flower, a swirling drama for the woman who described herself in an interview as “a D.C. girl through and through."
She grew up minutes from the nexus of her present-day political saga, in Shepherd Park in Northwest Washington. Her father, Emmett Rice, was an economist who in 1979 became the second African American appointed to the Federal Reserve Board. Her mother, Lois Dickson Rice, was a corporate executive and a longtime member of the College Board. Rice’s parents divorced when she was 10.
They circulated among the city’s elite. Rice attended fancy schools — Beauvoir and the National Cathedral School. Rice, who played point guard on the basketball team, was such a jock that her family called her “Spo," short for sport, a nickname that some family members still use. (Rice says she has not played hoops with Obama. “I know I can’t hang with him," she says in an interview.)
Her parents’ friends were people such as Madeleine Albright, the future secretary of state, who served on school boards with Rice’s mother, and whose former husband played tennis with Rice’s father.
Albright became a mentor, helping to elevate Rice to assistant secretary of state for African Affairs when Rice was 32. They have been so close that people assumed Rice was her godchild, Albright said in an interview. She isn’t. But Peggy Cooper Cafritz, a wealthy D.C. art patron, was a kind of surrogate godmother. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington’s nonvoting delegate in the House of Representatives, took Rice to lunch when she was deciding whether to attend law school.
When asked, Rice estimates that only 10 percent of her high school graduating class was African American. But race was something that her parents didn’t want her to dwell on. “They taught me never to use race as an excuse or a crutch," she said.
She took her father’s death last year hard, friends say, and worries about spending so much time away from her family in Washington, as well as her mother, who has battled health issues. She has remarked that “somebody can take your place at the Security Council, but nobody can take your place in the hospital room."
‘Not a typical diplomat’
There was never any doubt that Rice would make her home in Washington. She “never wanted to live outside the city," she said. She lives in Northwest Washington, with her husband, Ian Cameron, a television producer she met while attending Stanford University. She was aware that some might look askance at them because Cameron is white and she is black. “But why the hell should I be constrained by prejudices with which I totally disagree?" she said in a 1998 interview with The Washington Post. “That doesn’t mean that I’m less of an African American."
At dinner parties in the couple’s home, the music invariably gets turned up and Rice, whose public persona can be so deadly serious, will laugh and dance, says her former chief of staff, Brooke Anderson. Rhythm and blues will pour out of the speakers. “I like old-school," Rice says.
That smiling, gregarious Rice is the one her close associates like to talk about. But a meme has chased Rice through much of her steep and speedy rise, and it is more present than ever as her name dangles out there as a possible secretary of state. She is the sharp-elbowed one, the brusque one, the one who flipped off the famed diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the one who likes to cuss.
“She’s not a typical diplomat," says Ed Luck, a former special adviser to the U.N. secretary-general. “She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and I don’t see why she should."
Luck said he had his doubts when Rice was named U.N. ambassador four years ago. He wondered whether her style would chafe, but he was pleasantly surprised and, at times, moved, particularly when Rice gave stirring remarks commemorating the Rwandan genocide and acknowledging that the United States did not do enough to stop the killing. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite such a personal and emotional account given by a diplomat at the U.N.," Luck said.
Rice viewed the Rwanda tragedy close up as a young National Security Council staffer and it plays a complex role in her public identity. She often cites her trip to Rwanda, where she saw evidence of unspeakable tragedies, as a major influence on her attitudes toward humanitarian intervention. But in a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article, the journalist Samantha Power — now an Obama administration adviser — seemed to portray Rice as favoring political concerns over humanitarian issues.
“If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November congressional election?" Power quoted Rice saying. In the same article, Rice said she didn’t recall the remark and said it would have been “inappropriate."
At the United Nations, Rice can sometimes startle or annoy with her penchant for showing up at meetings and dominating the conversation. She’s blunt to a fault sometimes, can lecture to her peers and bugs other diplomats by over-scheduling them, leading them on endless excursions during foreign trips, prompting some to derisively refer to her as the “headmistress."
“You’re not our schoolteacher and we’re not your students," a Security Council diplomat remarked in reference to Rice.
Critics and admirers
Rice speaks often about her commitment to human rights, a cause that allies say is central to her worldview. Yet, one of the world’s leading human rights advocates has been a frequent critic. “She tends to be strongest when the human rights violations involved are committed by U.S. adversaries," Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy. “But she is less strong when violations are committed by U.S. friends, like Rwanda or Israel, or by governments more in the middle, like Sri Lanka."
Rice has been frustrated in efforts to get the Security Council to back resolutions calling on Syrian leader Bashar Assad to end that nation’s civil war. But she has been able to help secure U.N. sanctions against North Korea and Iran. And, in the precarious days of the Libyan conflict, she persuaded the Security Council to back a resolution allowing airstrikes. The decision was reached as Col. Moammar Gadhafi was threatening to kill thousands of Libyans and has been touted by the Obama administration as being responsible for saving countless lives.
“These just wouldn’t have gotten done if this caricature of what she’s like was actually true," said Anderson, Rice’s former chief of staff.
In September, Rice gave the convocation address at Howard University in Washington. After her remarks, she walked to a private office trailed by VIPs and a few dogged students. One was a shy but persistent young woman who wanted desperately to meet Rice, says a person who was in the room at the time.
The normal protocol would have been for Rice to give face time to the assembled muckety-mucks. But she sat instead for a long time, listening to the woman tell her story. The VIPs had to wait.