‘Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For,’ by Susan Rice: An Excerpt

Chapter 1: Service in My Soul

My first contact with Barack Obama came in a phone call from him in the summer of 2004.

At the time, I was serving as a senior foreign policy advisor for the Kerry/Edwards presidential campaign, while on leave from my job as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. My primary responsibilities involved helping craft policy positions, supporting Senator Kerry in debate preparation, and managing our small foreign policy team. I also served as a television surrogate on foreign policy matters and liaised with our senior outside advisors.

Earlier that summer, Tony Lake asked me if I would be willing to speak to Obama, a state senator who was then running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois. Lake had been President Bill Clinton’s first national security advisor and my first boss in government. Both a mentor and a close friend, Tony has a puckish smile, piercing blue-gray eyes, and a quick, dry wit. He may seem self-effacing, in part because he shuns the public spotlight, but he is tough and those people who think they can roll him will be sorely surprised.

[ Return to the review of “Tough Love.” ]

Tony explained that he had been asked by his old friend Abner Mikva, a former White House counsel and member of Congress, to talk to Mikva’s young former colleague on the faculty at the University of Chicago Law School. Behind the scenes, Tony had recently begun advising Obama on foreign policy issues and encouraged him to talk to me about Darfur, Iraq, and other salient issues. This would enable Obama to stay connected to the foreign policy side of the Kerry campaign—so that, as a candidate for Senate, he could make deliberate determinations as to whether he wished to align himself with, or depart from, the party nominee’s positions. Glad to assist, I talked to Obama a couple times that summer by phone.

Like most Americans, my first real exposure to him came on the Tuesday night of the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Stuck at the Kerry/Edwards makeshift office in an unimpressive downtown hotel, my colleagues and I were on deadline, working through the campaign’s response to the just released 9/11 Commission Report, and unable to make it to the convention center for the keynote address. Frustrated by having to miss the action at the arena—which we enjoyed every other night of the convention—we hustled downstairs and pitched ourselves in front of a television in the cramped and loud hotel bar.

When Barack Obama took the stage, we listened intently.

His speech was tremendously powerful and compelling, but for me it was much more. It drew me beneath the television set, where I looked up. As I watched, tears silently streamed down my face. I was amazed. For the first time, I saw an African American political leader of my generation who was passionate, intelligent, principled, and credible. He was neither an icon of the civil rights era nor a “race-man” (as my father used to call those who viewed the world primarily through the prism of race). He was a new American leader—for all. Like my children, he was both black and white, a role model for my son, Jake. Young and visionary, he spoke movingly of one America—“Not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America.” For the first time in my life, I had found a political leader to whom I could completely relate and who excited me.

In September, John Kerry spoke at the annual gala dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation—a must do for any Democratic presidential nominee. Kerry was well-received, but the star of the evening was the magnetic Barack Obama, who was on track to be the next senator from Illinois.

By chance, I was talking with the Reverend Jesse Jackson and other Illinois heavyweights as Obama dutifully made his rounds at the front tables. He stopped by the Illinois crowd to pay his respects and, as I turned from Jackson and stood up to see what the commotion was about, I found myself face-to-face with the senator-to-be. I introduced myself. He said he knew who I was and thanked me again for talking foreign policy with him on the phone back in the summer. I wished him good luck, and he moved on.

Following the election, in early 2005, Obama was sworn in as the junior senator from Illinois and tapped to serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Tony Lake and his dynamic, effervescent wife, Julie, hosted a dinner at their home in Washington to introduce the freshman senator to a small group of Obama generation national security experts, including me and my good friend Gayle Smith, with whom I had worked closely during the Clinton years. At the dinner table, Obama and I sat next to each other and found that our instincts on many issues were closely aligned. He was wicked smart, confident, and well-versed on foreign policy, but also funny and personable. Thereafter, he called me occasionally and invited me to meet with him and his team to discuss policy matters or planned travel.

In 2006, Senator Obama asked me to speak on a panel at his Hope Fund conference in Chicago and to comment on the foreign policy chapter in his forthcoming book, The Audacity of Hope. After reading it, I gave him my unvarnished opinion, saying, “You’re giving too much credit to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, while being comparatively ungenerous to Bill Clinton.”

There was a pause and then he asked me to continue.

As we talked through my critique, he acknowledged the imbalance and ultimately made some minor adjustments, giving greater weight to Reagan’s failings (like Iran-contra) while treating Clinton’s tenure more analytically and less subjectively. Most revealing during our exchange was the extent to which, much like me, Obama was by nature a pragmatist—more a foreign policy “realist” than a woolly eyed idealist. Yet his pragmatism neither rendered him cold nor tempered his high aspirations for America’s capacity to do better at home and abroad. Barack Obama’s fervent belief in our fundamental equality as people and in the goodness of our nation is what I think led him to community organizing, teaching, and ultimately to public service.

This is the same America in which my family, the Dicksons and the Rices, believes. These are the values that my parents and grandparents instilled in me. They raised me to remember where we came from. To honor the richness of my inheritance, value myself, do my best, and never let others convince me I can’t. With good fortune came responsibility, they taught me; therefore, my duty was to serve others, in whatever way best suited my talents.

[ Return to the review of “Tough Love.” ]

My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For
By Susan Rice
Illustrated. 531 pp. Simon & Schuster. $30.
Copyright 2019 © by Susan Rice
Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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