Susan Rice talks “Tough Love” at book festival

Illustration by Liv Nicks Turnley

On Nov. 9, Literary Arts hosted the 2019 Portland Book Festival, which featured food trucks, author discussions, readings and book signings throughout the day in and around the Portland Art Museum. The writers in attendance included “Wayward Son” author Rainbow Rowell, “The Bird King” author G. Willow Wilson and New York Times best selling author Malcolm Gladwell. 

One of the day’s most notable participants was Ambassador Susan Rice, who worked in the Department of State under President Bill Clinton, became U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) in 2009 and later served as President Barack Obama’s national security advisor from 2013 until he left office. Now, two years after leaving Washington, Rice is sharing her life story in her new memoir “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For.” She sat down at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with Dave Miller, host of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s daily talk show “Think Out Loud,” to spend an hour discussing her childhood, her career and her decision to write a memoir at this point in her life.

Early on in the discussion, Miller asked Rice about her parents’ rough marriage and eventual divorce. She took the opportunity to first express how great her parents were as individuals. 

“My dad was born in segregated South Carolina around 1920 and  grew up in the heart of Jim Crow when lynching was at its peak,” she said. 

He went on to serve in World War II, earned his Ph.D. in economics and served as a governor of the Federal Reserve. Rice’s mother was the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who arrived in Portland, Maine with practically nothing in 1912. She played an instrumental role in creating the Pell Grant program, which has provided millions of college students with financial aid. After a loud round of applause from the audience, Rice was audibly emotional. 

“Thank you. I get choked up every time,” she said. “These were amazing people who really, truly had no business getting married to each other.”

Rice’s parents would frequently argue and fight with each other, and she would often intervene, at times physically, to protect her younger brother. She explained that she would always do what she could to diffuse the tension and keep the peace in her family, giving her experience in mediation that would later prove useful in the professional world. 

“The Russians and the Chinese were no match for my parents,” she said, which sparked a laugh from the crowd.

Moving on to her career, Rice spoke about working with Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the UN from 2006 until his death in 2017. Rice described him as “wicked smart and extremely funny and very charming and unbelievably obnoxious.” The two disagreed on a vast amount of issues, but they both took their positions very seriously; at the end of the day, the stability of global politics depended on their ability to respect each other and work together well. However, this did not mean that their relationship was always purely professional. On one occasion in a private meeting, Rice projected a picture of Churkin’s face on top of the body of the Grinch from Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” Explaining why she did this, Rice said, “It’s because he was stealing Christmas every day from people all over the world (through) his (anti-democratic) policies and personality.”

Addressing why she chose to write a memoir at the age of 54, Rice spoke about the way she felt after the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans. The weekend following the attack, Rice went on several Sunday morning television shows to speak on behalf of the Obama administration. She ultimately, along with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, became one of the faces of the tragedy and was lambasted by the press as incompetent and unfit for her position. 

This characterization put extreme stress on Rice and her family, and the ambassador felt like she had no control over her narrative. This feeling plagued her for the rest of her political career, and it is only now that Rice believes that she has the opportunity to tell her own story. With “Tough Love,” Rice hopes that readers will get to know who she truly is and maybe learn a thing or two about diplomacy along the way.

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