The Condi Rice Version of History
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Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the chapter "Sweetness and Light: Condoleezza Rice" from Laura Flanders' new book Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species (Verso Books). For more information about the book, visit www.lauraflanders.com.
Condoleezza Rice became George W. Bush's national security adviser, having directed an oil company, managed a multi-million-dollar university and served as a Soviet expert in Washington during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
She was assuming a post in her second Bush administration, the top national security position in the cabinet; but when The New York Times ran a story on the 46-year-old professor, it didn't discuss her views on national security until the twenty-seventh paragraph. The subject cropped up near the end of the Times's long feature, which was dominated by talk of her dress-size, her hair, her hemline, and her place of birth.
Los Angeles attorney, Connie Rice, a second cousin of Rice's, says such coverage is simply sexist: "You don't hear the press asking where Dick Cheney likes to shop."
No Times story so far dwelt on the VP's youth as a white man in pre-civil rights Nebraska, but the Times dedicated fully half of their feature on Rice to her childhood. In that, the paper was hardly alone. Read a dozen features on Condoleezza Rice, and you're likely to read twelve almost identical stories about her family and her childhood and almost nothing about just what's she done since she rose from there to here.
Kiron Skinner, a former dissertation student and friend of Rice's, thinks the fascination with Rice's personal narrative smacks of racism. It's no wonder why U.S. media are interested in Rice's background -- American "trailblazers" are inherently newsworthy, and Rice is certainly one of a kind. But "I think there's a kind of racism going on to keep puzzling about why she's doing what she's doing at this point," says Skinner. "I think she's exactly where she should be, given her background, her education and her experience."
But the public mostly doesn't know about that Rice's experience in politics and business. And that's because somehow it seems to have been decided that the National Security Advisor's professional career makes for less heart-warming spin than her firecracker rise out of "Bombingham."
The daughter of two African-American teachers in the South, Rice was born in 1954, in Birmingham, a city Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was to call "by far the worst big city in race relations in the United States." Children in '50s Birmingham learned to recognize the sign "colored" even before they could read. Their lives depended on it. The town featured white-only schools and white-only cinemas and white-only libraries. The local police commissioner - "Bull" Connor had a habit of driving through black families' neighborhoods in a freaky white metal tank and announcing on the radio when a "nigger family" moved into a "white" part of town. So common were bombings of black homes in one area that it earned the name "Dynamite Hill." (A third of Connor's police force was said to be in the Ku Klux Klan.)
Rice's childhood coincided exactly with the make-or-break years for multi- racial America. In the year she was born, the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, ruled public school segregation unconstitutional. A year later, the Montgomery bus boycott led the Court to ban bus segregation too. By the time Rice turned eight, the Birmingham city government had yet to implement either ruling. That spring, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues came to town and subjected themselves to multiple arrests to protest, but local papers studiously kept them off the front page.
To up the ante, thousands of students and high school children organized and took to the streets themselves. Forty years later, still the most famous -- and horrifying -- pictures of the civil rights struggle tend to be pictures of what happened next in Birmingham. When Connor's men loosed dogs and water cannon on the nonviolent demonstrators, the images of children beaten, bitten and washed down the Birmingham's streets were seen around the world. Repulsion at the events in Birmingham helped draw a quarter of a million people to Washington that August. People who'd never heard or seen Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. watched his "I Have a Dream" speech live on all three TV networks. ("He's damn good" President John F. Kennedy is said to have told an aide.)
But the defenders of white supremacy in Birmingham weren't about to concede. In the months after the youth marches, bomb attacks had increased. A gas bomb was thrown into the house of the Rices' across-the-street neighbor, civil rights attorney Arthur Shores, and just two weeks after the March on Washington, bombers targeted Birmingham's 16th St. Baptist Church, the hub of the local civil rights movement.
The device in the church was planted precisely to target the city's rebellious youth. The explosion took place just as Sunday school began. The four murdered children were all girls, downstairs, fixing their clothes before joining the service. Eleven-year-old Denise McNair, and 14-year-olds Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Adie Mae Collins were high achievers, popular in town. One attended Rice's school, a second lived on her street.
Rice wrote about the event for Time magazine in 2000. "I remember being at a church which was a few blocks away from the 16th St. Baptist Church, and just being completely shocked by the sound. It was almost like a train coming -- I don't remember being frightened at that moment although it was a terrifying time. I just felt sad."
One reason that personal biography has come to dominate the media coverage of Condoleezza Rice is that Rice herself appears happy to place her family's history in center stage.
At the Republican National Convention in 2000, speaking in prime time, George W's foreign policy guru dedicated fully half her precious slot to talk about her father and her grandfather. "My father was the first Republican I knew," said Rice. "My father joined our party because the Democrats in Jim Crow Alabama of 1952 would not register him to vote. The Republicans did. I want you to know that my father has never forgotten that day, and neither have I. (Cheers, applause.)" She told a story about her father's father, John Wesley Sr., a sharecropper who converted from Baptist to Presbyterian to get a free education. "The Rices" she said, "have been Presbyterian -- and college- educated -- ever since."
In September 2001, just before the attacks on Washington and New York, the Washington Post magazine ran a long Sunday feature in which Rice talked in depth about family beliefs. "My father was not a march-in-the-street preacher," she said. Rather than agitate, Rice's parents stressed self-improvement.
Her mother Angelina and her mother before her were music teachers. Her father, John Wesley Rice Jr., preached at the weekends in the local Presbyterian Church, and worked as a guidance counselor in Ullman High School. "My parents were very strategic" Rice told the Post's Dale Russakoff. "I was going to be so well prepared, and I was going to do all of these things that were revered in white society so well, that I would be armored somehow from racism. I would be able to confront white society on its own terms."
Rice says it didn't take a movement or the government to open doors for her. "Black Americans of my grandparents' ilk had liberated themselves," she told the Post. The family strategy was to ignore racism, she said: Racism in Birmingham was so routine, "you ceased to notice its existence." She was conditioned to succeed: "My family is third-generation college-educated -- I should've gotten to where I am."
To a party-political spinmeister, this is spine-tingling stuff. Used to justify extremely conservative, anti-government beliefs, personal biography is gold in the political economy. Usually uncontested, often uncontestable, any carefully selected detail can be deployed for broad political effect. Ronald Reagan, the son of an alcoholic shoe salesman, had his story. Bill Clinton, fatherless child of a single mom -- the "man from Hope" -- had his. Verisimilitude matters less than the power to melt hearts, make good media and cast a negative light on those who talk about structural discrimination and want the government to act to change.
The up-from-oppression narratives of powerful people of color pack a particular punch; they can cast liberal complainers as bigots. Those who bemoan discrimination against groups -- so goes the argument -- underestimate the power of one.
The Yale men of the Bush dynasty are hard up for hard-luck stories, but the first and second Bush presidents have kept people around them who aren't. Linda Chavez, Reagan's anti-civil rights, Civil Rights commissioner points to her own success as a Hispanic in America. She wasn't held back by bias, she says. Bush's Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has no end of stories to illustrate how she overcame the obstacles faced by Chinese immigrants.
The most famous and contentious African-American narrative belongs to Clarence Thomas. Judge Thomas would never have been confirmed to the Supreme Court if it hadn't been for his supposedly "inspirational" life story. Born to a destitute teenage mother in segregated Georgia, Thomas edited out that part of his history that involved getting help from government programs like welfare and affirmative action, and claimed he'd graduated by dint of determination alone, "from the outhouse to the courthouse." It wasn't entirely true, but it worked.
With Condoleezza Rice's story, the Republicans hit the rhetorical jackpot. Here was an African-American who grew up in the middle of the most brutal period of anti-equality backlash, and yet her parents kept her out of the movement for government intervention -- and her father registered with the G.O.P., the party that opposed the Civil Rights Act.
Call it "up-by-the-boot-straps version 8.0," Rice articulates a new model of an old program. Years after Thomas, her story depicts not a single miraculous individual who fights against racist odds, but an entire group of middle class African-Americans -- the children and even grandchildren of industrious souls who were never beaten down by the legacy of slavery. From a Republican strategist's point of view, Rice's story contains the potential to challenge the whole notion that African-Americans as a group are the "natural" constituents of Democrats, (the party that passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)
The Act was a historic advance, Rice has said, but she bristles at any suggestion that she was ever held back on account of her skin color. To hear her tell it, her success was assured, virtually predetermined -- not by federal laws or the civil rights movement -- but by her family heritage. Her love for the Bushes is a family thing and it goes both ways she added: "George W. Bush would have liked Granddaddy Rice," she gushed to the GOP.
Romanticize U.S. race history and this is the cozy picture you can end up with. It works because people want it to, and because the nation's memory tends to be fuzzy and short.
By way of reality-check, George W. never met Granddaddy Rice, but while John Wesley Sr. was trading his church for an education, Bush's grandfather, Prescott Bush, was running a Wall St. bank. Prescott's son, the first President Bush, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when he ran for the U.S. Senate from Texas that year. George W. grew up in Midland Texas, a de facto segregated place, where the Bushes' black maid recalls being banned from wearing anything but work clothes downtown.
Rice's rosy picture conveniently glosses over the past. Generations of smart young African-Americans "should" have risen to the highest places in US society as she has, but the fact is that legal discrimination shut them out. In the case of Rice, a child born on the after-side of a slew of measures outlawing discrimination, we will never know where she "would" have ended up if there had been no Rosa Parks, no Dr. King, no Southern Christian Leadership Council, no March on Washington and no Congressional and Presidential support for the end of American Apartheid.
Laura Flanders is an author, journalist, and host of Your Call, broadcast live in San Francisco every weekday, 10-11am on KALW, 91.7FM.