‘Tough Love’ from Family Led Susan Rice to a Life of Public Service and the White House


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Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice discussed her memoir “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For” with Michael McFaul on November 12 at Stanford University. Photo: Rod Searcey

In front of a crowd of more than 750 people, Susan Rice, national security advisor in the Obama administration, sat down with Michael McFaul to talk about her new memoir “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For.” McFaul, the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, is also a  former member of the Obama administration, having served as the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Together they discussed her service under President Obama, the political divisions in the U.S., and her book’s focus on family and the importance of learning from your mistakes.

Rice devoted a significant portion of the book to describing the experiences of her family members, including her great-grandfather, a slave in South Carolina who went on to found a private school for African American students; and her mother, who was instrumental in establishing the Pell Grant, which has enabled 80 million Americans from low-income backgrounds to attend college.

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“Their history and experience truly defines who I am,” Rice told McFaul. “As the granddaughter of immigrants from Jamaica who went to Portland, Maine, in 1912 with literally nothing — no education, just the hunger and ambition that so many immigrants bring to this country. My grandfather was a janitor, my grandmother was a maid. They saved and they scraped, and they sent all five of their kids to college.”

Rice explained that her decision to attend Stanford over the east coast Ivy League schools“wasn’t popular” with Rice’s mother, a Radcliffe College alumna.

“For me, the exposure to the west coast, to the Pacific, and to the history and culture of this part of the world was quite eye-opening,” Rice said. “I made wonderful friends that I’ve kept to this day. My only regret, frankly, is that I only had four years here.”

The former diplomats also discussed Rice’s time serving in the Obama Administration. Five days after the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Rice was tasked with representing the administration on political talk shows, an experience for which she felt she was “characterized and mischaracterized,” she said.

“I was compelled as a senior administration official and public servant to speak only on behalf of our country and on behalf of the president, which was my job and I accepted it,” Rice explained. “That was the right thing to do. But I couldn’t in any way, shape, or form tell my own story in my own words. So writing this book — it was something I felt I needed to do.”

Rice shared one of her most memorable experiences of “tough love” with the audience, which took place at the end of her first year at the State Department. Howard Wolpe, then a Congressman from Michigan, took Rice out to lunch and gave her some career advice, which included a suggestion that she make more of an effort in listening to the views and experiences of others.

“It was critical in enabling me to learn, to grow, and to change, and to become a more effective leader — to learn that leadership is a team sport, not an individual sport,” she said. “And I got there, but not without making some mistakes along the way.”

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