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Condoleezza Rice: An American Life
Release Date: January, 2009
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Condoleezza Rice, one of the most powerful and controversial women in the world, has until now remained a mystery behind an elegant, cool veneer. New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller peels back the layers and presents a revelatory portrait of the first black female secretary of state and President George W. Bush’s national security adviser on September 11, 2001. Drawing on extensive interviews with Rice and more than 150 others, including colleagues, family members, government officials, and critics, the book relates in more intimate detail than ever before the personal voyage of a young black woman out of the segregated American South, and offers dramatic new information about the events and personalities of the Bush administration. In the process, with great insight, Bumiller tells the sweeping story of a tumultuous half-century in the nation’s history.
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A book that convinced me Condi may be unique but not great
Posted by Siriam on 11/1/2008
I bought this book as an English reader who felt that Condi has over the years been given a hard deal by the media. I have ended up concluding that however unique and talented she is (and there is plenty in this book to support that view), her actions and achievements reveal her only aim in life is solely about personally succeeding. While a great first as a black member in the US administrations of George Bush and his son (and ironically paving the possibility of Obama as a black presidential candidate), this is achieved at whatever the cost resulting to others may be and however poor she may be at the job.
This is a very well researched and balanced book by an experienced NY Times reporter that provides many interpretations on events, some of which do need revisiting given how looking back has led to many adaptations, especially her stormy time as Stamford University Provost in the 1990s and the ousting of Rumsfeld from the Bush government.
Her childhood clearly set the scene in a way that you are left feeling Condi was almost placed on a pre-planned path. Parents who ensured she was protected from the rampant racialism in 1950/60s Birmingham she was born into as an only child but also pushed in all ways to show she was ten times better than whites and many of her peers, infused her with lifelong ambition.
Her undertaking of further education led her to accept she could not meet her parents aims of being a classical musician and in showing her one key decision against them chose to engage in political science of the cold war and learn Russian, a fateful choice given she studied with Josef Korbel, the father of Madeleine Albright and the coming Glasnost period. He seems to have been the first of many men, from Brent Scowcroft who provided the basis for her first spell in Washington under the first Bush presidency, through Gerhard Casper as Dean of Stamford to the latest being George W., who in each case having gained entry into their confidence by impressing them then held her job by doing whatever they needed to be done, without question.
Her main claims to fame will be inevitably most linked with the two George W. presidencies. The clear image is that she almost became a sister to that president given their rapport and her access to him and his family with whom she enjoys a very close relationship. The failings to listen to warning signs pre the 9/11 attack while Head of National Security led from the desire to avoid any repeat attacks on the US, to a lack of questioning which moved to open support in pursuing an ambitious neo-con agenda promoting the war on Iraq. That situation has come to haunt her as Secretary of State, where the need was to recover from the US government's lack of a post invasion strategy. A lack of understanding of Iraq's situation and the corresponding morass in Palestine and the disastrous US support for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon against Hezbollah showed her Cold War studies of communism were adrift when dealing with Middle East politics and Islamic radicals.
There is little doubt that Condi is revealed through this biography as a very unique individual and a very ambitious achiever. However while in so doing she may well fully represent the sub title of the book "An American Life" what is shown as sadly missing is the ability to challenge and be a pragmatic defender of realism or freedom.
This book has left me hoping that the author will next write the biography of Dick Cheney, a man whose influence and hidden activities especially in manipulating Dubya pervade the pages of this later period and helped obstruct many of the initiatives Condi attempted.
Posted by David E. Mckee on 1/28/2008
I truly enjoyed this book. This is a great read not only of Ms Rice, her life personally and in politics, but also of the inner workings of the Bush administration. I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for the inside story of an African-American woman who made her way into the power grid of national politics. Well worth the purchase price.
Posted by Lorna Doon on 12/31/2007
Although I've not read a prior biography on Ms. Rice, I found this rendition to be very informative, albeit somewhat biased at times. I learned a great deal of Rice's rise to power and her background, while understanding better the strife we've witnessed in terms of her relationship with Chaney and Rumsfield.
I would recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about how a person of intellect and moderate means can rise to a position of power with little experience to call upon.
Posted by Gary K. Hart on 2/5/2008
Bumiller has written a fine biography of Rice. Her style is efficient (concise and clear)and she has obviously done her homework concerning the various phases of Rice's life: her childhood in Birmingham, her adolescent and young adult years in Denver, her successful yet controversial academic years at Stanford and her time working on national security matters culminating, of course, with President George W. Bush, first as his national security adviser and now as secretary of state.
Rice's life story is intriguing: How could a child of the segregated South, who benefited from the civil rights and affirmative action movements, become a staunch Republican? How could a young woman with a passion for piano suddenly embrace an academic career in the male dominated world of military and Soviet studies? Bumiller doesn't provide definitive answers to these questions but she does shed some valuable light.
And, of course, the most immediate historical question concerns what role did Rice play in the defining moments of the Bush Presidency: 9/11 and the Iraq war. Was she just a foot soldier? Was she asleep at the switch as national security adviser? Or did she play an active role in shaping
Bush national security and foreign policy decisions? Some Bush haters will have no patience for Bumiller's balanced portrait of Rice but Bumilller's restraint actually makes for a compelling case for Rice's shortcomings.
A highlight of this book is extensive interviews Bumiller conducted with Rice, excerpts of which are interwoven throughout the text. Rice naturally always attempts to put her best foot forward but Bumiller sometimes comments critically when she feels Rice is inconsistent or less than forthcoming. Interviews with lots of people who have worked closely with Rice add critical balance as well (too bad George W. and Rummy aren't interviewed for this book).
Since so much has already been written about the Bush Presidency, some of Bumiller's material is repetitive of what we already know. I found the first half of the book about Rice's childhood and years at Stanford the most worthwhile, especially her childhood years in Birmingham. Although the trauma of the Birmingham church bombing in 1963 affected Rice (she was an acquaintance of one of the victims), what is remarkable is how her parents protected her from so many of the indignities of the segregated South. Her mother was a powerful force in contributing to the ambition and remarkable self confidenc Rice has always exhibited.
Bumiller is quite critical of Rice performance as national security adviser, especially regarding her failure to provide Bush with alternative viewpoints in the lead up to war in Iraq. She suggests that Rice's close personal relationship with Bush interfered with her professional responsibilities. She also is critical of Rice breaking longstanding national security adviser precedent and becoming "Karl's Aide-de-Camp" during the 2004 campaign.
My biggest disappointment with the book is that the personal side of the Condoleezza Rice story seems incomplete. In the last chapter the author quotes Laura Bush that because Rice has no close family (no spouse, no children, no living parents) she lacks the emotional support to ever be able to serve as president. One can't help but ask what kind of emotional support Rice had in the high powered positions she has served in with Bush.
Bumiller attempts to penetrate what makes Rice tick emotionally but comes up short. She suggests that Rice's passion for playing classical music provides a valuable respite from the pressure-cooker world of the White House and Foggy Bottom. But is this enough? I wish she had explored further the nature of the relationship between Rice and President Bush.
One other relationship worthy of further examination is Rice's one year relationship with Rick Upchurch, a member of the Denver Broncos. Upchurch's background and interests (except for football) are about as far apart from Rice's as possible. What explains this relationship? Bumiller defers for any serious exploration of Rice and Upchurch.
If journalism is the first draft of history, this biography is a valuable second draft. We need more time for the definitive book on Rice to be written but as the story of Condoleezza Rice continues to unfold, Bumiller has done an admirable job of understanding, especially on the professional side, one of the most intriguing figures of contemporary American politics.