WASHINGTON — As a hard-driving star point guard on her high school basketball team, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice wasn’t afraid to use sharp elbows to reach her goal. It’s a style that’s carried from the court through a meteoric career as a U.S. diplomat, and one that’s earned her as many detractors as supporters along the way.
As President Barack Obama’s presumed choice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Rice’s style, temperament and her role in explaining the Sept. 11 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed, have come under scrutiny. Questions have arisen about whether she is too undiplomatic to be America’s top diplomat.
“She does have that point guard mentality: the driver, the catalyst. She wants to be the one out front pushing the agenda and driving the body forward,” said Ed Luck, dean of the University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, a former special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general and a Rice fan. “I’m sure, through the years, her more abusive side has stuck with some people.”
From Washington to New York to world capitals, there are varying views of the 48-year-old Rice: Is she the blunt, ambitious diplomat who, as a 28-year-old National Security Council aide questioned whether President Bill Clinton should use the term “genocide” about the deadly situation in Rwanda because it could negatively impact the mid-term elections; the person who reportedly made an obscene gesture toward Clinton-era diplomat Richard Holbrooke during a State Department meeting; or the U.N. ambassador who took to Twitter to call out Russia and China in plainspoken language for deep-sixing a resolution condemning the crackdown in Syria?
Or is she the self-assured high school valedictorian, Stanford University graduate, Rhodes scholar and child of inner-circle Washington who rose to assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Bill Clinton; vowed to never again be a bystander when a Rwanda-style genocide occurs; and helped convince Obama to intervene militarily in Libya last year while helping push through a strong U.N. resolution giving the administration political cover to do it?
Rice, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has acknowledged that patience hasn’t always been her virtue and that she can be a tough customer when crossed. She makes no apologies for that.
“I’m straightforward. People know when they talk to me that what they see is what they get – that I’m not playing games,” Rice said in “How Great Women Lead,” a book by Bonnie St. John and Darcy Deane released in April. “They see me as pretty open and collaborative, tough when I need to be, but not confrontational for its own sake.”
She told the authors, “I think people know not to mess with me,” adding, “And if they haven’t learned … and they try, they will learn.”
That warning hasn’t prevented a flow of Republican lawmakers from trying to mess with her chances of becoming secretary of state. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. – whom Rice mocked during the 2008 presidential election for wearing a flak jacket while touring a Baghdad market – is leading the charge against her, calling her unqualified for the job. Other Republicans joined McCain’s chorus by branding Rice an Obama political toady who besmirched her diplomatic title by going on Sunday news shows so close to a highly contested presidential election and firmly, but incorrectly, stating that the Benghazi attack was the outcome of spontaneous demonstrations and not terrorism.
“I don’t think people around here want in the secretary of state’s office someone who’s a political operative,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said Tuesday. “But I’ll give her a fair hearing. It could well be that my perceptions are different than reality.”
Further complicating Rice’s potential path to Foggy Bottom is the fact that Rice and her Canadian-born husband own millions of dollars worth of stock in Canadian energy and pipeline companies that would profit from the construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Rice violated no laws and properly revealed the stock on government financial disclosure forms, according to government watchdog groups. But if she becomes secretary of state, she could face a potential conflict of interest, as one of her first acts may involve the pipeline’s permit.
Despite what seems to be heavy Republican resistance, Obama is staunchly defending Rice, even though he hasn’t officially nominated her. In an interview with Bloomberg TV Tuesday, the president called Rice “highly qualified” and said she’s done “a great job as U.N. ambassador.”
Rice also is fighting on her own behalf. She personally met with McCain, Corker and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and explained that the information she conveyed in five talk show appearances five days after the Benghazi attack were provided by the intelligence community. She told the lawmakers that the initial assessment on which they were based was incorrect and that there was no protest or demonstration in Benghazi.
A U.S. intelligence official told McClatchy Newspapers that the talking points were written, upon request, so members of Congress and senior officials could say something preliminary and unclassified about the attacks.
The senators said they came away from the meeting with more questions than answers about Rice and appear more resistant to her than before.
“Frankly, I found her to be very defensive and not very forthcoming,” Collins said on Fox News last week. “I walked out of the meetings with a profound sense of disappointment. I actually presented Susan Rice to the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate when she was first nominated to be U.N. ambassador.”
Even Moscow has weighed in. A Russian Foreign Ministry source told the Kommersant business daily that the country prefers Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., over Rice because she is considered “too ambitious and aggressive.”
Rice’s backers say some of the opposition to her potential nomination seems more personal than professional. They point to her clash with McCain in 2008 and suggest that Graham is using the Benghazi issue to tack more to the right as he faces re-election in South Carolina in 2014. Another factor: Senators could prefer that Kerry, a colleague, get the post.
The battle is personal as well for some Rice supporters. House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina was good friends with her father, the late Emmett Rice, a Tuskegee airman who was born in Florence, became an economist and rose to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Her mother is Lois Dickson Rice, a Maine native who’s a former vice president of the College Board and former advisory council chairwoman of the National Science Foundation.
“I think it’s absolutely a shame for this young lady, whose roots are deep in South Carolina soil, to get sullied like this by my senior senator,” Clyburn said on MSNBC in reference to Graham.
Clyburn and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus have suggested that some criticisms of Rice have racial overtones. Others, including conservative pundit Kathleen Parker, have suggested that sexism is at play, arguing that hot-tempered men in diplomatic and political life haven’t undergone the scrutiny that Rice has.
“People who talk about her temperament haven’t been in meetings with (the late) Larry Eagleburger and Richard Holbrooke,” said former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who replaced Rice on the National Security Council when she shifted to the State Department. “Those who think she’s tough haven’t been in meetings with other secretaries of state. She’s bright, very tenacious, very skilled, and has as much experience as anybody in the foreign policy establishment.”
Still, some who’ve dealt with Rice in the past say that she’s left them feeling cool toward her.
“She always seems to be thinking, ‘Which path will get me to state? Is it this one or that one?’ ” said one Democratic member of the House of Representatives, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about a fellow Democrat. “She would do whatever it took to get there.”
Luck, the former diplomat at the University of San Diego, said he initially worried when Rice was appointed to the United Nations, a body where diplomacy often moves at a snail’s pace.
“I didn’t know if it was a good fit. I wasn’t sure she had the patience for the U.N., which can be a trying place to build consensus,” he said. “She had more diplomatic skill than people expected and turned out to be an articulate spokesperson for the U.S.”