He wanted a boy

Deborah Friedell

  • Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family by Condoleezza Rice
    Crown, 342 pp, $27.00, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 307 58787 9

A month after she left the State Department, Condoleezza Rice signed a three-book deal, reportedly for more than $2.5 million. The first volume is the story of her childhood, about the parents who raised her with ‘high expectations and unconditional love’. What emerges is a kind of parenting how-to guide, if your goal is to raise a child like her – which she assumes it would be.

Every night when she says her prayers, she begins by saying: ‘Lord, I can never thank you enough for the parents you gave me.’ She was an only child, and her parents were devoted to her. When her father first saw her in the hospital nursery ‘the other babies,’ he always claimed, ‘were just lying still, but I was trying to raise myself up.’ They expected her to be a prodigy – they just weren’t sure what kind. What they earned went into lessons for their daughter: music, French, ballet, gymnastics, tap-dancing, ice-skating, ‘even baton twirling’. They took out a loan to buy her a $13,000 piano, but they wouldn’t try to buy a house until she was grown up: ‘Condoleezza is our house,’ they would say. They tried enrolling her in school when she was three, in a class with children twice her age, but she cried too much. Her parents ‘thought that I was a genius; they even arranged for me to take an IQ test to prove it’. It didn’t, so ‘they were convinced something was wrong with the test.’ She insisted on sleeping in her parents’ bedroom until she was eight. Afterwards, in a small apartment, she would be given the master bedroom.

Her ancestors were slaves and slave owners. She dislikes the term ‘African American’ because it makes black people in America sound like any other immigrant group, with a pure link to their ancestors, even though most African Americans are also European Americans. She thinks that one of her great-grandfathers may have been from Italy, hence a family preference for Italianish names: her mother derived Condoleezza from con dolcezza. One of her biographers, Elisabeth Bumiller, says that Rice likes to joke with friends about whose white ancestors were the most aristocratic. In segregated Birmingham, Alabama they weren’t quite blue bloods (‘yes, there were blue bloods who were black’). Her father was ‘very dark skinned’, an obstacle when there was a paper-bag test for membership to the ritzier black clubs (‘if you were any darker than a paper bag, you needn’t bother to apply’); but her mother was fairer skinned and had straight hair, which her father found attractive. He was disappointed that Condoleezza’s hair was coarse, like his. In 1952, Dixiecrats would let Angelena Rice register to vote, but not her husband; Republican clerks, trying to build the party in the South, would register anyone. They became Republicans.

John Rice and his father were Presbyterian preachers, and Condoleezza retells, almost word for word, the story from her 2000 Republican National Convention speech about how her grandfather became a Presbyterian as a college student:

Granddaddy Rice … had no way to pay his tuition. He was told that he would have to leave. Thinking quickly, he pointed to some of his fellow students. ‘How are those boys going to college?’ he asked. He was told that they’d earned a scholarship and that he could have one too if he wanted to be a Presbyterian minister. Without missing a beat, Granddaddy Rice replied: ‘Well that’s exactly what I had in mind.’

Over the delegates’ laughter and applause she’d added: ‘And my family has been Presbyterian and college-educated ever since. This is not just my grandfather’s story – it is an American story.’ An American story, but not how it’s usually told. He lied, he got ahead. She’s proud that his sermons were ‘intellectually sound and biblically based’, delivered to a quietly devout congregation, with no call and response, ‘not even a stray “amen”’. Where for Barack Obama the sound of a gospel choir from the back row of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church was a ‘fleeting glimpse of that thing which I sought’, she’ll have nothing to do with ‘whooping and hollering’. She has never known a crisis of faith: ‘I have always believed, fully and completely.’

‘Daddy wanted to go into the army,’ Rice writes, but his father insisted that he avoid fighting in World War Two, and he did chaplain’s work for returning soldiers without leaving the United States. Afterwards he’d idolise men who’d seen action. The closest he would come to battle was playing American football, and eventually he would leave the ministry to become a coach and school administrator. He prepared for Condoleezza’s birth by buying her a football: he knew that she would be a boy, to be called John. ‘John was going to be an all-American running back or perhaps a linebacker.’

She told Oprah:

My dad … wanted a boy in the worst way. So when he had a girl, he decided he had to teach me everything about football. Starting from when I was about four, we would sit on Sunday afternoons and watch football, and the day after Thanksgiving we would play the ‘Rice Bowl’ in the backyard. I find football so interesting strategically. It’s the closest thing to war. What you’re really doing is taking and yielding territory, and you have certain strategies and tactics.

So the man who couldn’t be a soldier raised a daughter who couldn’t play football, but could wage war. ‘Daddy wanted me to really understand football and would analyse the plays, explaining what the defence was doing to counter the offence and vice versa.’ Now that she’s not the busiest woman in the world anymore, she’ll sometimes watch football games on television from ‘ten in the morning until nine at night, game after game’. What she doesn’t seem to do is read, which – though she admits it’s peculiar for an academic – she never seems to have enjoyed. She’s talked to interviewers in the past about how proud she is to have read War and Peace in Russian, but there’s no mention of Tolstoy here. Indeed nowhere in this memoir does she mention any writer who has meant anything to her. ‘My parents were especially concerned that I did not love to read,’ she writes. ‘They enrolled me in every book club known to man, but the books would just pile up unread.’ Instead, she lists the television shows she loved: Popeye, Mighty Mouse, The Mickey Mouse Club, I Love Lucy, the gothic melodrama Dark Shadows. Her knowledge of great literature, she admits (or boasts; the tone is unclear), largely comes from Classic Comics. She realises that this distinguishes her from some of her ‘intellectual friends’, who ‘don’t watch TV or pretend they don’t. Some go so far as to refuse to own one.’ Her aunt, Theresa Love, earned a doctorate in English literature from the University of Wisconsin, one of the first black women to do so; Rice is proud of this, but the ‘drudgery of reading the same book 25 times’ seems to her a ‘terribly boring way to spend one’s life’. How could it compare with the delight of taking and yielding territory?

Angelena Rice tried to offer her daughter a different path. She began putting Condoleezza’s fingers on piano keys when she was a few months old, intending her daughter to have a career as a pianist – a soloist, a superstar. But when Condoleezza was a teenager a summer at the Aspen Music Festival convinced them that she couldn’t compete with younger musicians. She feared ending up as a school music teacher, ‘teaching 13-year-olds to murder Beethoven’: an inglorious end for John and Angelena’s daughter, a waste of all those lessons. This passes in a page, and seems not to have been as upsetting as it might have been. ‘I don’t do life crises. I really don’t. Life’s too short. Get over it,’ she once told the New York Times. When she did so poorly on her college boards that her school guidance counsellor suggested she should consider going to a junior college, ‘I just laughed at her, thanked her for her advice, and left.’

She remembers how cosy her world had seemed, a ‘relatively placid cocoon’, and then the strangeness, age eight, of watching the Cuban Missile Crisis unfold. Her usually implacable father ‘was worried, and I realised that this was something my parents couldn’t save me from. It was the first time I remember feeling truly vulnerable.’ (Half a lifetime later, she would say that Castro had unforgivably put American lives at risk by allowing the missiles to come so close: ‘“He should pay for it until he dies,” I said.’) And she remembers that she felt safe from Ku Klux Klan night-riders – whom she calls ‘terrorists’ – because her father had a gun. (All Americans should be allowed to own guns.) John Rice was one of the few local black religious leaders not to join Martin Luther King’s marches, for which his daughter offers a few explanations: he thought the Children’s Crusade put children at risk, and he was anxious that his church might be firebombed and if it were, the Presbyterians – less flush than the Baptists – wouldn’t be able to rebuild it. But his principal concern seems to have been that he ‘didn’t believe in being non-violent in the face of violence’: if provoked by policemen with a billy club or a dog, he thought it ludicrous to turn his cheek. She assures us that this wasn’t unusual at the time, and quotes her father saying that ‘if everyone who says he marched with King actually did … there wouldn’t have been any room on the streets of Birmingham.’ He thought political protests weren’t worth the chaos they caused. During the Vietnam War, he voted for Nixon, hoping for order.

She admits to nostalgia for the way ‘segregation provided in some ways a kind of buffer in which they could, for the most part, control their environment’. They ‘kept their distance from the white world’, but also from the poorer black one: Condoleezza’s mother thought the downtown black neighbourhood was too rough for them to visit, though her husband would sometimes go on his own. When out, Condoleezza was told not to use the inferior public toilets and water fountains set aside for her: just wait until you get home. Angelena made sure her family was expensively and elegantly dressed when they left the house, putting her daughter in starched dresses and ironed socks, no matter the southern heat. Her philosophy, Rice says, was that ‘if you are overdressed, it is a comment on them. If you are underdressed, it is a comment on you.’ Years ago, a Washington Post profile of Rice included an account of her trip to Yad Vashem, where she’d studied a photograph of ‘immaculately dressed’ Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. She told a reporter: ‘I know what that’s about. That’s about control. Your outward image is critical to reminding people that you still have control. They’re not diminishing your humanity.’ In her memoir, Rice tells of going dress-shopping with her mother:

At the Canterbury Shop for Children they didn’t seem to care what colour you were as long as you were willing to pay the exorbitant prices they charged. But on this day … a clerk whom Mother did not know said that I would have to try the dresses on in the storeroom. Blacks were not permitted in the fitting rooms. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Mother looked her dead in the eye. ‘Either she tries them on in the fitting room or we don’t buy a dress here,’ she sternly replied. ‘Make your choice.’ The poor woman shooed us into the dressing room and stood guard outside, hoping that no one would see us.

In a more recent story, reported by the Washington Post but not told here, she went to the jewellery counter at Macy’s and asked to see the ‘better earrings’. When she was shown costume jewellery, she said: ‘“Let’s get one thing straight. You’re behind the counter because you have to work for $6 an hour. I’m on this side asking to see the good jewellery because I make considerably more. And I’m asking to see the good jewellery.” With that, the department manager appeared, apologised profusely, and showed Rice the good jewellery.’ The national security adviser, soon to be secretary of state, had triumphed over a shop assistant.