Review: 'Tough Love' by Susan Rice

SPOILER ALERT: She's not running for president

October 15, 2019

The 2020 Democratic primary has been such an underwhelming affair that few would be surprised to see another candidate throw her hat into the ring at this late stage in the race. Unfortunately for Susan Rice fans, if they exist, the Obama administration's former United Nations ambassador and national security adviser does not appear to be interested in running for higher office, at least not as a Democrat.

That's one of the main takeaways from Rice's new memoir, Tough Love, available now on Amazon for $17.99, down from its pre-sale list price of $27. If Rice wanted to score easy points with members of her own party, which to be fair has evolved considerably since she started advising Barack Obama in 2007, she would have refrained from boasting, for example, about how she "spearheaded efforts to prevent Palestine from being admitted prematurely to the U.N. as a full member state," or describing her visit to an Israeli town where "Hamas rockets from Gaza regularly and cruelly rained down on Israeli homes."

In contrast to Hillary Clinton, to pick a random example, one gets the sense that Rice actually believes what she's written, even if it doesn't poll well with Democratic primary voters. She laments that "civil discourse has suffered" from the prevalence of "trigger warnings" in the classroom, and "efforts to constrain conservative or pro-Israel groups on college campuses." Edward Snowden is a "self-righteous" traitor who "deserves a full reckoning with the U.S. justice system." She supports "high-standards free trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership." She once expressed a youthful desire to "turn Mogadishu into a parking lot." She wasn't a fan of the Soviet Union's "ruthless" system, and so on.

A breezy beach read it is not. An absolute brick at more than 500 pages, Tough Love will appeal to readers who enjoy extended, jargon-filled riffs on the obscure machinations of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus, such as the momentous implementation of Presidential Policy Directive 25 (PDD-25), and Hillary-esque bromides about how "Motherhood ... has also made me a better policymaker." Right off the bat, Rice declares her intention to be as boring as possible, because, "Tell-all books, which sell copies at the expense of others, are tacky and not my style."

That's not to say Tough Love is totally devoid of titillating gossip. Rice recalls, for example, her daughter Maris's introduction to French U.N. ambassador Gérard Araud, who "looked down contemptuously at her and sneered, 'I don't like children.'" Iran-deal guru Ben Rhodes was frequently "teased about being one of the girls, given his sensitive side," but also famous for being "a demon on the dance floor, flipping partners over his back and shoulders." There is the unnamed 22-year-old White House staffer who years ago "told me how he planned to do unprintable things to me with his tongue" on the Capitol South Metro platform and is "now an elected official."

The White House Correspondents Dinner, accurately described as a "pretentious mass gathering of the press," is a font of traumatic memories. Like the time in 2014 when her dinner companion, the disgraced Charlie Rose, "took every opportunity to put his hands all over my bare shoulders." Or the time in 2015 when Donald Trump gave her an "unsolicited hug," and whispered in her ear about how she had been "very unfairly treated" over the Benghazi scandal and was "doing a great job for the country."

Tough Love documents two genuinely interesting lives, those of Rice's parents. (Three, in fact, if you count Rice's son, Jake Rice-Cameron, who "declared his political independence from the family" to become president of the College Republicans at Stanford.) Rice's mother, Lois, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who sought and realized the American Dream in Portland, Maine, was Phi Beta Kappa at Radcliffe College and played a major role in the creation of the Pell Grant program. Her father, Emmett, was a descendant of slaves who attended segregated schools in South Carolina before getting a college degree and serving with the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.

Rice's life, by comparison, is a tale as old as time. Born and raised in The Swamp. Educated at the elite all-girls National Cathedral School. Rice's circle of family friends included Bill Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan, White House budget director Alice Rivlin, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D., S.C.), and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright—even Van McCoy, the famed music producer who wrote the 1975 mega-hit "The Hustle." Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, Watergate villain G. Gordon Liddy, and former NPR president USAID administrator Douglas Bennet, father of presidential candidate Sen. Michael Bennet (D., Colo.), sent their children to Rice's school. Her "other mother," D.C. socialite Peggy Cooper Cafritz, hosted Rice at dinner parties in the Hamptons, including on one occasion where Rice berated Paul Simon for recording Graceland (1986) in South Africa and bringing "tax revenue and legitimacy to the Boers."

Class president, multi-sport athlete, Rice determined "at the age of ten ... I wanted to become a U.S. senator," and bonded with her high school besties over "an enduring interest in China and human rights issues." Rice does her best to wring drama out of uniquely elite predicaments. Her surprise at winning more awards than she'd expected to at her high school graduation. Her agonizing decision to shun Harvard in favor of Stanford and graduating with honors despite not finishing her thesis. Her trepidation at meeting her fellow Rhodes scholars for the first time. Her engagement to her husband, Ian, whose wealthy father, a Canadian plywood magnate, worried that his son's "share of the family's wealth would be diminished under U.S. tax laws."

In other words, Rice is precisely the sort of person who, until recently, Americans have put in charge of running the government and conducting U.S. foreign policy. How has that worked out? A list of the interventions (or lack thereof) in which Rice was professionally involved—Rwanda, Somalia, Libya, and Syria—does not inspire confidence. Her chapter on the now-defunct Iran deal is ironically called "Putting Points on the Board." On the other hand, fans of war and alpha moves will appreciate her decision to decamp to the Caribbean after securing U.N. support for military action in Libya, prompting an irate phone call from White House chief of staff Bill Daley: "You start a fucking war and then you go on vacation ... ?"

What about Benghazi? As promised, Rice is not interested in selling books, so there is little of interest in her recounting of the most infamous episode of her career in public service. She won't publicly say she was "set up" to fail by the acutely ambitious Hillary Clinton and Tom Donilon, the former national security adviser who suggested she make her controversial appearance on the Sunday talk show circuit in the wake of the 2012 terrorist attack. Rice's mother knew the drill. "Why do you have to go on the shows? Where is Hillary?" she said. "I smell a rat. This is not a good idea."

Could Rice have possibly been so naïve? To not have appreciated, as Hillary did, that "the first person to tell the public about a highly political tragedy was likely to pay a price"? One strains to believe it, and is tempted perhaps to read too much into Rice's cryptic passage toward the end of the Benghazi chapter: "In a different context, Hillary Clinton once advised me, 'Remember, revenge is best served cold.' My revenge was simple: to continue serving my country undaunted and unbound."

Of course, Hillary's service to the country did not continue as planned. Rice, too, must now confront the challenges of former public servants struggling to find fulfillment in extreme wealth and corporate board memberships. Neither will be missed.