Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations and President Obama’s most visible candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, is being subjected to an immutable law of the Washington power grid: in the rough and tumble of political combat, personality trumps policy.
Government policy, especially foreign policy, is rife with nuance and complication. But personality is easier to grasp and harder to shed.
Recent critiques of Rice’s influence on U.S. diplomacy in Rwanda, Sudan, and Eritrea over the past two decades are endlessly debatable among think-tank elites. Republican Sen. John McCain’s threat to block her (hypothetical) confirmation because she relied on faulty intelligence to mischaracterize the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya—a warning joined by fellow GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (N.H.)—seems emptier by the day. Rice, after all, is African-American and female—two demographics that the Republican Party is not especially anxious to alienate further.
“It is a fact that Susan had no role in determining the security footprint in Benghazi or gathering or assessing the intelligence of what happened before, during, or after,” says National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. “She simply went on TV and gave interviews.”But Rice’s personality—or “temperament,” in the parlance of her Beltway critics—is increasingly front and center. She is frequently described in the press with such adjectives as “brusque,” “aggressive,” and “undiplomatic in the extreme.”
It is highly unusual for someone who hasn’t even been nominated to be targeted in such wounding terms by enemies and detractors. But personality quirks can loom large in the process, says the Senate’s official historian, Donald Ritchie. Presidential nominations have foundered on smaller factors than Rice’s alleged foibles.
Loose-lipped playwright Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Time magazine founder Henry Luce, was confirmed as President Eisenhower’s ambassador to Brazil over the objection of Oregon senator Wayne Morse, but was forced to resign before taking her post when she quipped that Morse’s opposition was because he’d been “kicked in the head by a horse.”
Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss, Eisenhower’s nominee to be secretary of Commerce, “had a personality like a barbed-wire fence,” says Ritchie. “He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.” New Mexico senator Clinton Anderson, who had tangled with Strauss over the Los Alamos National Laboratory, “made it a personal crusade to defeat the nomination,” Ritchie says—and in June 1959 succeeded.
As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Texas Sen. John Tower had shown little patience for colleagues he considered intellectual inferiors; citing rumors about womanizing and alcohol abuse—allegations that might not have been credited had Tower been better liked—the normally clubby Senate rejected his nomination to be the first George Bush’s secretary of Defense. Other nominees whose prickly personalities worked against them include Robert Bork, who was denied a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987, and John Bolton, whose allegedly volcanic temper and penchant for throwing objects at underlings figured in his Senate confirmation hearings to be U.N. ambassador; he was ultimately given a recess appointment, not requiring a Senate vote, by the second George Bush.
Susan Rice’s fate is by no means sealed, but the zeitgeist hardly seems favorable. Monday’s New York Times—which featured a critical news story about her lack of success in settling a bloody dispute between Rwanda, Congo, and murderous Rwanda-backed rebels, plus an op-ed scorching her policy approach to Ethiopia and Eritrea—jolted Rice’s friends and allies.
The working assumption among some well-connected members of Washington’s foreign-policy community is that, in the end, Obama will nominate John Kerry, the easily confirmable chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for State; pick Rice to replace Tom Donilon as his National Security adviser, a post that doesn’t require Senate confirmation; and move Donilon over to the State Department as Secretary Kerry’s chief of staff—the same job he did for Clinton-era Secretary Warren Christopher.
"This town is kind of crazy,” says a White House aide. “There is something going on in which these stories are feeding one another and sensing blood in the water and piling on, one after the other."
Vietor says: “I think what it shows you is how absurd our public discourse can be at times ... Those of us who have worked in the White House with Susan, or on the campaign before that, know her as someone who is kind and funny and a pleasure to work with. She was willing to talk to the most senior people or the lowest person on the totem pole. We’re lucky to have her.”
The 48-year-old Rice, a member of Obama’s inner circle since she joined his presidential campaign as an adviser in 2007, has until now enjoyed a brilliant career, becoming assistant secretary of state for African Affairs under President Clinton at the tender age 32 after overseeing Africa policy on the National Security Council. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, had flouted longstanding tradition and downgraded the U.N. job to sub-cabinet status, but President Obama restored it to cabinet rank for Rice—thus insuring intense bureaucratic rivalry between the U.S. Mission in New York and the State Department in Washington, where various career foreign-service officers view the prospect of Rice’s takeover with suspicion.
“It’s the hallway conversation,” says a longtime State Department staffer. “It’s like, Jesus Christ, woe unto us all if this happens!”
Indeed, Rice has apparently left a trail of bruised egos and injured feelings in the nation’s capital. A veteran of the Clinton White House recalls a junior aide being summoned by Rice, then director of Africa policy at the National Security Council, and returning to his desk in tears. “Colleagues talk of shouting matches and insults,” writes Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. According to Milbank, when she was an assistant secretary of state Rice once gave the finger to her colleague Richard Holbrooke during a fractious high-level meeting, appalling those in attendance. A recent report in National Journal quoted an anonymous Democratic “foreign policy expert” as calling Rice “quite smart but temperamentally unfit for the job [of secretary of state] … Her voice is always right on the edge of a screech.” That demeaning blind quote has since been excised from the online version of the article.
“It has been vicious,” says a Rice loyalist who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There is a strain of sexism in the attacks. She is being described as ‘screeching,’ not simply ‘blunt.’ They never talked that way about Richard Holbrooke.”
The difference, of course, is that the notoriously headstrong Holbrooke, who served as U.N. ambassador under Bill Clinton and was Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan before he died of a heart attack in December 2010, relentlessly courted journalists with flattery and gossip. And when he couldn’t get his way behind closed doors, he famously spun his own version of events for favored beat reporters—a PR strategy that cushioned him from the sort of media criticism that Rice is currently enduring.
“Susan is a total team player, and that's frustrating for journalists—she's not giving the inside story,” notes Samantha Power, who among other duties is Rice’s point person on the National Security Council. “If her view doesn't prevail, she doesn't go and litigate it in The New York Times."
Another colleague, who asked not to be named, says Rice “has some connections in the media, but they are mostly focused on Africa and the African-American media.” This colleague adds: “You have to keep in mind that compared to someone like Hillary, she doesn’t have these networks in Washington.”
As for Rice’s famously sharp tongue, “Susan is tough-minded, but she's not alone in having that kind of personality,” says the colleague. “One of the things that attracts people to Susan is her passion on the issues. She is genuinely passionate, but I don't mean hotheaded."
If Rice is not especially popular at the U.N., it’s largely because many of her fellow ambassadors are "old white men with strong personalities" and "it is off-putting to them that she's a young African-American woman."
Power, one of Rice’s colleagues at the White House and U.N. Mission who were encouraged to speak to The Daily Beast, attributes much of the trash talking to institutional inertia and defensiveness.
“There's a status quo bias across the system, and Susan is not a champion of the status quo if people are hurting,” Power says. “She's always willing to take a tool out of the toolbox and challenge assumptions and not let conventional wisdom cause us to drift from one meeting to the next. She shakes things up, for sure, but she's also phenomenal at building alliances and cultivating relationships … She's not snobby about who she engages with. If there's something she thinks needs doing in the world, she will find the person who is the doer."
Power adds: “Susan brings a very distinct perspective and very assertive presence and voice. She's going to ruffle feathers.”
Christopher Dickey contributed to this story.