Condoleezza Rice hates the outdoors. She
does not fish, make camp or chop wood. She is nonetheless a pioneer, a hero of America’s
racial and gender frontiers. Determined and persistent, she has blazed a path
through the badlands of American segregation, liberalism and sexism. A
twenty-first century Johnny Appleseed, Rice has cleared large swaths of deadwood
from American academia and politics, planting the seeds of her own legacy and
those of opportunity for future generations. Her story is truly an all-American
tale.

In her new book, Extraordinary, Ordinary People, Rice tells the tale of how she rose
from a middle-class neighborhood in Bull Connor’s segregated Birmingham all the
way to Secretary of State in George W Bush’s White House. The key to her
success, and the book’s focus, were her parents John and Angelena Rice. Through
extraordinary love and sacrifice, Mr and Mrs Rice raised their only daughter in
a no-nonsense, no-excuses household, telling her that although she could not
eat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, she could grow up to be President of the
United States.

The book is as much about Rice’s family as
it is her. Those hoping for details about her eight years in the Bush
administration and revelations concerning weapons of mass destruction or
enhanced interrogation techniques, will be disappointed. Extraordinary, Ordinary People ends abruptly with her father’s
death in December of 2000.

What readers will find is an intriguing account
of the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. From 1989 to 1991,
as Rice served on President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council, she
had a front-row seat to the events in Eastern Europe and the rise of colorful
personalities such as Boris Yeltsin and the decline of Mikhail Gorbachev. For
hawkish politicos, this section of the book is all too short.

Returning to the book’s central theme, her
family, Rice details how her grandparents, the Rices and the Rays, were
industrious landowners adept at navigating the tumultuous seas of the
Reconstructionist South. To spare themselves and their families the degradation
of separate but unequal Jim Crow facilities, the Rices and the Rays refused to
use the “colored only” drinking fountains and bathrooms which were, Rice
recalls, often putrid. If you were on a long family trip and really had to go,
you went, as the French say, en plein air.

Her maternal grandfather, granddaddy Ray,
worked in the coal mines of Alabama, and as a result, was determined that his
children would receive an education whether they wanted one or not. Twice, once
with a son and then with his daughter, grandpa Ray put down his tools, boarded
a train and dragged his children back to college after they had quit.

On her father’s side, grandfather John
Wesley Rice graduated from Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, as a
Presbyterian minister, a career that Rice’s father would also pursue. Grandfather
Rice traveled throughout the South founding churches and schools for poor black
children, often financed with money from wealthy whites. “White guilt,” said
Rice, was “his best ally in funding his schools.”

Rice’s parents were both teachers who, she
recalls, were convinced that education was “a kind of armor” that would shield
her “against everything – even the deep racism in Birmingham and across
America.” Rice believed them and they were right. She enrolled in first grade
when she was three-years old, the same year in which she took up piano. She
began learning French when she was eight, and at 16, was simultaneously
matriculating her senior year in high school and her freshman year at college. On
any given day, which started around 4.30 a.m. for the teenage Rice, she
practiced figure skating, went to high school and college, and then returned
home for a relaxing three-to-four hour stint at the piano.  

Rice describes her academic prowess with such
matter of fact language that it does not, as one might expect, sound braggadocious.
“You are a Rice,” was the mantra recited by family members, teachers and church
leaders. This high level of expectation, Rice notes, helped her develop a
strong sense of self-confidence that saw her break through racial and gender
barriers.

Rice writes of how she had a particularly
close relationship with her father, who had hoped that Rice would be born a
boy. From this relationship she developed a life-long love of sports and
politics. “My father was a political junky,” she writes, recalling how together
they followed the drama of the Cuban missile crisis as well as the twists and
turn of the civil rights movement.

These two events made a lasting impression
on Rice, shaping her into the iconic conservative she is today. Concerning
Cuba, she admits to feeling that Fidel Castro “should be punished until he dies”
for threatening the U.S. Concerning civil rights, she writes unapologetically
that if the men in her community had been prohibited from arming themselves
with guns and forming neighborhood militias, the bombings and burnings
perpetrated by the Klu Klux Klan would have been much worse. Rice’s father had
little patience with Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent tactics, and she in
turn has little use for the American left’s constant push to restrict Second
Amendment gun rights. For the Rices, politics were personal. One of the four
girls killed in the 1963 Birmingham
Baptist Church
bombing was Denise McNair, Rice’s schoolmate and friend.

In Extraordinary,
Ordinary People
Rice also discusses her views on race relations in the
United States.  Here her otherwise
intellectual narrative goes fuzzy and what emerges in its place is a muddled
mixture of emotion and rationalization. Rice eschews terms like
“African-American,” preferring instead “black” and “white,” and writes that, “I
hate identity politics and the self-satisfied who… cannot see beyond color to
the individual.” In a direct contradiction to this she writes that she is a
“fierce defender of affirmative action”, especially at university as a means to
diversify the faculty.

The problem with her position is that
affirmative action is identity politics in practice. Affirmative action is a
world view which holds that for a society to be “balanced” and “just” all ethnic
and gender groups need be represented in positions of power roughly in
proportion to the percentages that those groups are found in the society at
large. Failing this diversification, so goes the theory, members of various
minorities (such as blacks) will not aspire to these high positions, and what
is worse, the “voice” or “experience” of a given group will not be heard by the
whole. That Rice was an affirmative action hire as a professor at Stanford University and later went on to become
Provost in a similar manner, highlights the inconsistency of her position.

Minor problems aside, Extraordinary, Ordinary People is a warm and enjoyable book, one
that moves in a simple, chronological fashion. It is a pity the work had not
been released in May or early June. With little flash, flare or mental complexity,
it would have made an ideal pool-side read.

Jeff Garner is an American journalist, broadcaster and co-founder and CEO of Catholic Radio International. He can be contacted at jgardner@catholicradiointernational.com