Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family

I have long admired Condoleezza Rice. I first saw her on the “Donahue” show, where she made several appearances as a leading expert on the Soviet Union. Since I myself am fascinated by the Soviet system and the old Eastern Bloc, I clung to every word she said. When she later became part of the George W. Bush administration, I knew exactly who she was. However I may not have been able to recall who she was if it wasn’t for her distinctive first name, or if Phil Donahue had not made such a big deal about her having read War and Peace in the original Russian. Since I myself am a student of European literature, I don’t think it’s out of the ordinary to read texts in their original language, especially so for a PhD as Dr. Rice. Back when Rice made these and other early TV appearances, she was always introduced as having read Tolstoy’s mammoth work in its original Russian. At that time, I thought that there was some understated prejudice at work, and from Phil Donahue no less. Would he have been less impressed if a white male had been his Soviet expert? Would he have even introduced a man this way? Perhaps I am looking for discrimination when there isn’t any, as I am sure all of us have used War and Peace as a metaphor for an extremely long piece of literature. And if one happened to tackle that colossal novel in another language, one that doesn’t even use the Roman alphabet, it does seem impressive. In Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family, Condoleezza Rice tells the story of her family, up until the death of her father, right before she joins the Bush administration as National Security Advisor. Rice has appeared on various talk shows promoting this book, and has said that she will tell about her eight years in the Bush administration in a separate work.

Rice grew up in segregation-era Birmingham, Alabama to middle-class parents who were both academics. Her mother was a high school teacher and her father a guidance counsellor as well as Presbyterian minister. All her life Rice was given the opportunity to try anything she liked, and was enrolled in figure skating lessons, piano classes, ballet classes and anything else she had the time for. Her parents felt that education and enrichment were power and the way out of segregated Birmingham, and Condoleezza was a high achiever from an early age.

Rice has adopted a no-nonsense, no-victim approach to life. Her family had taught her to take personal responsibility for her own success, and to blame no one, not even the whites who imposed segregation, on keeping her down. She could have anything if she worked for it, and was told “even if I couldn’t have a hamburger at Woolworth’s lunch counter, I could grow up to be President of the United States”.

Extraordinary, Ordinary People is as much a biography of Rice’s parents as it is about her own life. Condoleezza’s mother Angelena was a beloved teacher who imposed order yet commanded respect from her students, all of whom towered over her since Mrs. Rice was diminutive in stature. Mrs. Rice battled breast cancer yet lost her life to a brain tumour in 1985. John Rice was a teacher, preacher, guidance counsellor and college dean who became a mentor to hundreds of youth. He, like his own father, was an educational evangelist. Both Condoleezza’s father and paternal grandfather established schools for marginalized children, a role carried on in her own way by Rice herself, in establishing freshman and sophomore seminars at Stanford University.

Rice has been criticized for being against affirmative action, and even being anti-black. She addresses these issues in this book. Her own Republican partisanship has been criticized by many blacks. Rice addresses her reasons for not supporting the Democrat party, and why Ronald Reagan’s policies made her shift party allegiance from Jimmy Carter’s Democrats in the 1980 election. She also states that she is not interested in holding public office, and has no drive for the cut-throat world of politics.

In Extraordinary, Ordinary People Rice eulogizes her parents, both of whom died before she assumed her role as National Security Advisor in Washington. Her tributes to her mother and father are indeed touching and I reread her loving words several times over. Extraordinary, Ordinary People gave me new reasons to love Dr. Condoleezza Rice, American scholar and patriot.

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