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Let us, for the moment anyway, consider the task of a biographer to be the construction of a tripod--the first leg being to detail where his subject came from; the second being a depiction of what they did along the way; and the third being who they became in the process. The first two legs --"where?" and "what?"--are obviously vital. No biography that fails to provide them can even be thought of as competent. Meanwhile, a biographer who provides intelligent context and analysis for these basics can succeed in writing a good book. The final sticking point, and what ultimately separates the merely good from the truly great biography is the degree to which the author is able to grasp himself and convey to the reader the answer to that final "who?" question. There is, of course, an undeniable sense in which we can never say that we genuinely know another human being, but it is also the case that we can often learn enough about someone that they do not remain a complete enigma. Marcus Mabry's new biography of Secretary of State Condi Rice stands upon two admirably sturdy legs but wobbles quite a bit on that third.
Mr. Mabry's presentation of Ms Rice's background--growing up surprisingly middle class in segregated Birmingham, Alabama; then pursuing an academic career that, even more surprisingly for a young black woman at the time, ended up focusing on Sovietology; and rising to positions of prominence in both the halls of academia (at Stanford) and of power (in the White Houses of both presidents Bush)--is quite thorough. As just a record of her life and work, this first major biography seems unlikely to be bettered.
However, Mr. Mabry's attempts to come to terms with who Ms Rice has become and the meaning of much of what she has done stumble over three issues that are largely the product of his own personal concerns. Because he can not answer the questions he raises in a fashion that would suit his own political predilections, he makes judgements about Ms Rice that many readers are unlikely to share and spends more time discussing them than most will find necessary. The three things he ends up dwelling on are: (1) what we might call the blackness question--is Condi Rice "sufficiently black"?; (2) the sexuality question--is Ms Rice gay, straight, or bisexual?; and (3) the intellectual question--is Ms Rice a Realist, like several of her mentors, or is she an idealist, like her patron of the last decade, George W. Bush?
On the blackness question, Mr. Mabry seems particularly bothered by the fact that Ms Rice is rather diametrically opposed to the sorts of racial politicking that characterizes the modern civil rights movement and the Black Caucus and others. Rather than accept the view that American society is so constituted as to prohibit or mitigate black advancement:
Rice puts the power with the individual: "Individual will" is "the locomotive of human progress." [...]One hardly knows what to make of the assertion that this rather core American belief in the power and responsibility of the individual makes her an ideologue. If she is one, she's in pretty good company, including at least Socrates, Jesus Christ, Ben Franklin, Horatio Alger, Booker T. Washington, Ronald Reagan, etc.. Indeed, she appears to be in the mainstream of Western/American thought on the matter.
As to the question of Ms Rice's sexual orientation, the subject inevitably arises in regard to a single woman of her age. But Mr. Mabry's research makes it look very unlikely that she is anything but straight. If anything, the most surprising revelation in the book is her taste--physical but, quite explicitly, not intellectual--for football players. It does not go much too far to call her something of a football groupie and the closest she apparently ever came to marrying was to Rick Upchurch of the Denver Broncos.
On the last question, of Ms Rice's foreign policy theory, Mr. Mabry ultimately arrives at a fascinating conclusion. As a threshold matter, we live in a moment where the Realist school of foreign policy--which essentially holds that America abroad should pursue only those policies which serve its own narrow interests, without reference to morality--long a preserve of the Right, has become more or less the default position of the increasingly isolationist Left. This may have more to do with the fact that the commander-in-chief happens to be a Republican than with any great strategic thinking, but at any rate informs things like Democratic opposition to the liberation of Iraq. Given her central position in the administration that removed Saddam and has made democratization such an emphasis, Ms Rice obviously falls afoul of liberal orthodoxy here too. As well, she has ended up in opposition to the men of the Right she trained under, like arch-Realist Brent Scowcroft--who helped to keep Saddam in power at the end of the first Gulf War.
Mr. Mabry concludes that Ms Rice has evolved into what he calls a "practical idealist" or, "a realist who had been mugged by 9/11." That is to say, she became a forceful advocate of democratization/liberalization in the Middle East because:
[I] think one of the most important fundamentals to get right is that the Middle East has suffered for 60 years from a freedom deficit. It has suffered from the absence of legitimate channels for political expression. It has suffered from the absence of democratic change at a time when the entire rest of the world, in a time, a timeframe in which the entire rest of the world has moved to democratic structures. And the absence of that democratization in the Middle East led both to the kind of gap in human development that was noted in the Arab Human Development Report and to the maturation of extremist political forces at the expense of moderate political forces who had no legitimate channels. That means that as we address the future of the Middle East, the importance of the democratic reforms, the importance of empowerment of women, the importance of giving people a voice in their own futures continues to be very important and will continue to be a centerpiece, or perhaps the centerpiece, of the Administration's foreign policy.At a minimum, such passages from her speeches and writings suggest that Ms Rice has indeed chosen to dress up the traditional Idealist approach to foreign policy in the clothing or Realism, though it is not clear whether she would support democratization in the abstract, in situations where others would not draw a direct connection to our parochial security interests. Since her constituency is made up of foreign policy professionals and diplomatic elites, her practical idealism may be as much, or more, a selling point as a personal philosophy.
One interesting angle not much pursued by Mr. Mabry is that on all three of these questions Ms Rice can be said to have come down on the side that her oft-spoken of religious faith would tend to dictate. A future biographer may find it productive to pick at this moral thread, which seems to run through issues that may appear unconnected if it is ignored.
In the end, Mr. Mabry has produced an eminently useful biography, though one that does leave its subject as something of an enigma than the reader would wish.
See also:Presidents (George W. Bush)
-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (US Department of State)
-ARCHIVES: Condi Chronicles (BrothersJudd Blog)
-The Promise of Democratic Peace: Why Promoting Freedom Is the Only Realistic Path to Security (Condoleezza Rice, December 11, 2005, Washington Post)
-PODCAST: with Marcus Mabry (Written Voices)
-ESSAY: THINK AGAIN: CONDOLEEZZA RICE: (Marcus Mabry, Foreign Policy) She is viewed as the ultimate team player, a woman of intellect and poise whose loyalty to the president is unwavering. But a closer look reveals that Condi is less intellectual, politically savvier, and far more formidable than people realize.
-EXCERPT: from Twice as Good: Condi's Rescue Mission: In his forthcoming biography of Condoleezza Rice, NEWSWEEK's Marcus Mabry explains the roots—and the consequences—of her loyalty to the president. (Marcus Mabry, Newsweek)
A Resolute Condoleezza Rice (Maria Bartiromo, 7/14/07, Business Week)
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been at George W. Bush's side since he was sworn in as President in 2001, first as National Security Advisor and now as the nation's top diplomat. Like the President, she has been pilloried for not adequately recognizing the al Qaeda threat before September 11 and for helping to lead America into a quagmire in Iraq after the attacks. But her resolve has never wavered, and her poise has rarely been pierced. Both those qualities were on display during a lengthy and compelling discussion at the State Dept. What will your legacy be? It's too early to think about legacies. Today's headlines are rarely the same as what history's judgment is going to be. If I look back, though, what I'm most glad we did is to put the promotion of democracy at the center of American foreign policy. I'm a firm believer that unless America stands for the fact that every man, woman, and child deserves to live in a system that permits them a say in who governs them, that permits them to educate their boys and girls, to be free from the knock of the secret police at night—unless we stand for those very basic human rights, no one will. But in the Middle East, we had a policy of exceptionalism. We somehow argued that stability was what mattered. And I know when you look at the Middle East today, you say: "Whoa, it's not very stable." Well, it wasn't very stable before, either. It was a false stability in which dictators like Saddam Hussein put 300,000 people in mass graves, where Syria occupied Lebanon for decades, where healthy political forces were squeezed out because authoritarian regimes gave them no place to develop. Instead, al Qaeda become the expression of politics in the Middle East. So I am very proud that this President has put democracy at the fore.
-ESSAY: Straight at State? (The Dish, July 06, 2007, Washington Blade)
Secretary of State CONDOLEEZZA RICE might not be a lesbian, and no one is more depressed about this than Dish.
-REVIEW of Twice as Good by Marcus Mabry (The New Yorker)
-REVIEW: of Twice as Good (Amy Alexander, Washington Post)
-REVIEW: of Twice as Good (The Economist)
-REVIEW: of Twice as Good (Jonathan Freedland, NY Times)
-REVIEW: of Twice as Good (Stebbins Jefferson, Palm Beach Post)
-REVIEW: of Twice as Good (Alec Harvey, Birmingham News)
-REVIEW: of Twice as Good (Joe Conason, Salon)
-REVIEW: of Twice as Good (A.G. NOORANI, Frontline)
-REVIEW: of Twice as Good (W. J. Rayment / ConservativeBookstore )
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