Political science professor Condoleezza Rice’s recently published book, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People” carries the subtitle “A Memoir of Family” – an apt way to describe a work by a major political figure that evades pressing and contentious political questions. The memoir follows the lives of Condoleezza Rice and her parents, Angelena Ray Rice and John Wesley Rice Jr., until just before the beginning of George W. Bush’s first term as president, paying particularly close attention to race, education and the central role that Rice’s parents played in her growth.
Rice begins the memoir with an overview of her family history and the origins of the Rices’ dedication to “educational evangelism” – the founding of schools and faith in the power of education. Both parents were teachers in segregated Birmingham, where the family lived until Rice was a teenager; her father also served as a Presbyterian preacher. Rice recounts her upbringing in Birmingham against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and efforts to integrate the segregated South. After moving to Tuscaloosa for several years, the Rices relocated to Denver in order for her father to work at the University of Denver. Rice herself obtained her undergraduate degree and her doctorate from the same school. Her key decision to stop studying music and begin studying Soviet politics ultimately led to Stanford, the National Security Council and her position of secretary of state.
Rice is at her most compelling when she describes her early life in Birmingham and the monumental impact of the civil rights movement. Beyond the massive changes brought about through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, she had personal connections to many important activists as a result of her father’s involvement in preaching. She also adeptly shows how her family’s experiences in Birmingham both before and during the civil rights movement shaped her political beliefs, describing the roots of her views in such a way that even those who oppose her politics can understand her ideology’s origins.
What’s curious about the book, however, is what Rice omits: George W. Bush’s presidency, which began after her father’s death. Although it is a logical place to end this “memoir of family,” at times it seems more like an easy way out, enabling Rice to dodge more difficult questions about her roles as national security adviser and as secretary of state. Her most controversial decisions in the memoir may well take place during her time as provost at Stanford from 1993 to 1999, clearly outside the realm of politics.
Yet it is Rice’s choice to avoid the most hotly debated parts of her career that also makes her a surprisingly relatable narrator. The book reads quickly, thanks in no small part to her efforts to inject humor into her writing. On one particularly memorable occasion, she refers to her disbelief during her first meeting in the Oval Office with George H. W. Bush as a “Condi-in-Wonderland moment.” Although generally an asset to the narrative, her sense of humor does have the occasional effect of confusing the overall tone of the memoir, which never strikes a perfect balance between the serious and the light-hearted.
A fundamentally political book would have been bolder than this one, but it certainly would have had the adverse effect of limiting the memoir’s audience to those who share Rice’s conservative views. Even the brief section of the book describing her involvement in George Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign is remarkably weak in contrast with the memoir as a whole. “Extraordinary, Ordinary People” may not be a masterpiece – and it leaves critical questions about Rice’s career unanswered – but in the end, it does achieve its goal, offering a largely relatable, open and intriguing glimpse into the early life of a powerful and influential woman.