Susan Rice talks diversity, sports and night fears
Obama’s national security adviser sits down with The Undefeated
Like most of her colleagues in the world of national security, Susan Rice is brainy, charming, and canny. But she also has a reputation for being brusque and unafraid to use a little rough language to make a point.
Rice honed that mixture of smarts and combativeness as a high school point guard and tennis player growing up in Washington, D.C. Those traits continue to define her now as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser.
One of the president’s most trusted aides, Rice, 51, dispenses advice on issues ranging from failing governments to climate change to homegrown terrorists. That last threat was made agonizingly real once again recently when Omar Mateen, who may have been an ISIS sympathizer, slaughtered 49 people and wounded more than 50 others at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
It’s a crucial job, but one that came as a consolation prize. Rice was Obama’s choice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in 2012, but she withdrew from consideration after Senate Republicans accused her of misleading the public about the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in four deaths, including that of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Speaking from administration talking points, Rice had gone on several news shows and called the attack a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic video — which later proved to be wrong. With her path to Foggy Bottom blocked, Obama named her national security adviser, which does not require Senate approval.
A black woman operating in an area overwhelmingly inhabited by white men, Rice is a seasoned Washington veteran. A Rhodes scholar who earned a doctorate from Oxford, she was still in her 20s when she served as director for international organizations and peacekeeping for the National Security Council during President Bill Clinton’s first term. After serving as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, she moved into the think tank world before returning to government service as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations when Obama was elected president.
Rice grew up dreaming of becoming a U.S. senator, although at the time no black woman had ever served in the Senate. Her late father, Emmett, was an economist and the second African-American to serve on the Federal Reserve. Her mother, Lois, was an education policy maker who helped create the Pell Grant program.
Rice’s younger brother John, went on to ball at Yale and was an NBA executive for four years. Rice was always athletic — and highly competitive — which earned her the moniker “Spo,” short for sport, among friends and family members. Although she was known to organize the occasional pickup game while she was at the United Nations, she since has backed off from basketball in favor of tennis.
The Undefeated recently caught up with Rice for a wide-ranging conversation in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building near the White House. (This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)
Let’s start with you growing up in Washington. Where did you find the audacity to think you could be a U.S. senator given that there were no role models at the time? And for that matter, no Senate seat from Washington, D.C.?
First of all, I was fortunate to be raised in a family that was very interested in and very focused on current events, whether local, national, or international. I had a family where we discussed and debated these issues around the dinner table. So, I grew up in that environment, and then I also went to schools here in Washington, D.C., very elite private schools, where, frankly, some of my classmates’ parents, in most cases fathers, were in fact members of Congress or senators. So it wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. I grew up in an environment in which my peers and my education were sort of steeped in the business in Washington. So, to have that ambition, however short-lived, wasn’t entirely out of the realm of the conceivable.
How did you make the shift to the national security establishment?
So you are putting me in the establishment now. First of all, I discovered probably sometime between college and graduate school that I was actually much more interested in policy-making than in being a politician. I discovered after graduate school and after my first job as a management consultant that I could work on policy in the executive branch. My first job was right here in the White House in the early days of the Clinton administration, without getting into politics. So I could be a professional policy maker, and that is what interested me the most.
Does your race and gender come into play as you do your job, both in how people see you and in how you think about issues?
I’m sure that at different times and at different stages in my career, it’s probably influenced how people see me. That’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about. I figure how people see me is their concern. I need to figure out who I am and what it is I’m trying to get done. I’ve always had a pretty clear sense of that. Undoubtedly, being a woman, being African-American, growing up in Washington, D.C., being 50-some years old, all of those things, including also my family and my experiences growing up, they all have an impact and a bearing on how I think and who I am. So yes, obviously, those are two important components of who I am. They’re by no means the sum total. But they matter.
Why is it important for the national security establishment to be less white, less male and less Yale, as you put it in a recent commencement address?
I was quoting [former] Sen. Bob Graham, but I thought that was a very good phrase. I think it’s important that our national security workforce, not necessarily the establishment, but those people who are diplomats, are civil servants, military officers and enlisted personnel, are intelligence professionals, look like and represent who we are as America. We are a very diverse country these days, and that’s one of our extraordinary strengths on the world stage. We can bring to bear the perspectives, the insights, the cultural and historical, linguistic fabric that is the diversity of the United States and the diversity of the world. We have it all here. There are very few countries in the world that have that comparative advantage. To the extent that we are not encouraging and supporting people of diverse backgrounds to enter the fields of national security, we are, in essence, acting on the world stage with one hand tied behind our back.
Why haven’t we done better?
I’m not sure we’ve ever made it a conscious priority. … For many years, particularly our State Department, but I think our intelligence community, too, have been a bastion that has attracted some of the most well-qualified and well-educated of our talent, but very much male, East Coast, and predominantly white. That’s just historically been the way it’s evolved, and I think as we become a more diverse nation where our engagement on the world stage is greater and greater, in many respects, it’s important that we change.
What keeps you up at night?
Obviously, we spend a great deal of time and effort trying to protect the American people from the threat of terrorism, whether it is in the homeland or abroad. Dealing with ISIL, dealing with al-Qaida and its remnants, or whatever terrorist organization could come next is a critical and enduring responsibility that we all have. We also need to worry about something I think may be less on the radar screen of the average American, and that’s the challenge of weak and failing states, which we see all over the world, from Latin America to Africa, to Asia, and indeed, arguably, in parts of Europe and the Middle East, states that don’t have the ability to defend their territory and can be exploited in ways that are detrimental to our security.
Weak states can be incubators, not only for conflict, for terrorism, for all kinds of illicit trafficking, but they’re also places where disease can easily arise and manifest itself, and not be contained before it becomes a threat to the region or, indeed, to the international community. As a parent and a mother, I’m deeply concerned about climate change and what world we are preparing to leave to our children and grandchildren if we aren’t able to take the steps that President Obama has led the world to take.
As President Obama’s time in office winds down, many African-Americans are almost in mourning because of the historic nature of his presidency. How do you think about that as the final months of his administration tick away?
Stepping back and thinking about what this presidency means, I think first and foremost, I would speak as an American about a president who has turned around the economy, taken it from the worst recession since the Great Depression into an era of sustained growth. I’d look at the opportunity that has been available to young people: Higher high school graduation rates than we’ve ever seen. We are living in a world where American leadership is welcomed and respected. We are, in many ways, safer than we have been, even as the world becomes less predictable. And yet, that has nothing to do with the fact that he’s African-American. That has to do with the fact that, in my humble judgment, that he will go down as having been a great president of the United States.
For those of us who are African-American, obviously, I’ll speak for myself and say 10, 15 years ago it was inconceivable to me … that, before I was 50, or even in my lifetime, that we’d have an African-American president. I think it says an enormous amount about the American people in this country that they not only elected Barack Obama, but re-elected him with an overwhelming margin, and I think that’s fundamentally because he’s served the American people well. So I think we all as Americans have a great deal to be proud of. I certainly am very proud to have had the opportunity to serve under him. I think we will look back on this period of this administration as Americans and as African-Americans with a great deal of pride. And maybe even nostalgia.
Coming up, I understand you were a very good athlete, maybe even outstanding.
That’s highly exaggerated.
You were a point guard?
I played point guard in high school. I played point guard in graduate school, but my basketball ability has been overhyped. I am actually a much better tennis player than I am a basketball player.
Oh, really? Did you play tennis in high school as well?
Tennis and basketball, primarily. A little bit of softball, and hacking around with other things here and there.
What got you started down that path?
I just grew up in an environment where sports were encouraged and valued. I grew up playing basketball on neighborhood courts. I had a brother who’s almost two years younger than I am, a very good athlete, and he and I played everything together from football and basketball and tennis. My dad was quite a good tennis player, and he got us out on the courts early in our childhood, hitting the ball and sending us to get some real instruction. So it’s always been part of my upbringing. I was fortunate to go to an all-girls high school, where even back in the ’70s and ’80s, they valued women’s sports. I had some excellent coaches and the opportunity to play on some really fun teams that molded my … competitive nature and my desire to work collaboratively in teams, my readiness to throw an elbow and receive one when necessary.
Who were your sports heroes?
I would say, quite honestly, growing up, some of the most powerful women tennis players. Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King. Later in life, I’ve admired enormously the Williams sisters as just incredible athletes who took the game in each of their times to a different level and showed what the strength of a woman’s body can be when fully harnessed. The other thing is, I was a serious football fan growing up, and I confess to being, as a young person, a great devotee of the Washington Redskins. My enthusiasm has waned in recent years, but the teams of Larry Brown, and Charley Harraway, and Sonny Jurgensen were big deals for me growing up.
Do you still play?
One thing I do do as religiously as I can, is try to play some real tennis on the weekends.
Basketball is more complicated because it requires a whole lot of other folks and gym time, and everything else. And actually, I’m not that good, and I am probably too old to be out there.
You said you could not hang with the president out there.
But what about in a skills competition or a game of H-O-R-S-E?
No. No. I’ve seen him shoot. He’s got a much better shot. All he’d have to do is stay outside the 3-point line and keep going around the ring shooting and he’d smoke me any minute.
Can you say whether your experience as an athlete has helped you with your career?
Enormously. I think my experience as an athlete has shaped who I am in more ways than I can describe. It’s made me strong. It’s made me not fear competition or bruising here and there. But it’s also made me willing to take risks, willing to see the whole court and try to lead the team as I do now as national security adviser to get as much done as we possibly can.
The Undefeated’s name comes from a Maya Angelou quote. She said you may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. Can you describe when you’ve felt undefeated?
Every day. In the work that I’ve chosen, I’ve found myself in the public arena and become, for better or for worse, a subject of public praise or public ridicule. I’ve had to learn over the years to understand that as being somebody else’s challenge and drama. I do my job as best I can. I know what I’m trying to get done, and I really don’t let the hype or the criticism get in my way. So, my way of being undefeated is to stay in my lane, keep my head down, and run the plays as best I can.
What is next for Susan Rice?
Susan Rice is going to lie on a beach someplace very nice. I’m not telling anybody where I’m going. I’ll take my husband with me, and when I come back you’ll find out where I’ve been.
Will you bring your tennis racquet and a basketball?
I’ll absolutely bring my tennis racquet.