A reader's guide to Condoleezza Rice: An American Life.

How to read juicy books.
Dec. 17 2007 3:32 PM

The Condensed Condoleezza Rice

Slatereads the new Condi biography so you don't have to.

Elisabeth Bumiller's Condoleezza Rice: An American Life

Elisabeth Bumiller's new Condi Rice biography isn't the first book-length portrait of the controversial secretary of state (two other major bios were published this year alone). But it may be the most comprehensive: The New York Times reporter stalks Condi from Birmingham to Denver to Stanford to D.C., from her tap-dancing stint in grade school to her present-day political maneuvers. It's not beach material, but as usual, Slate's reader's guide will get you straight to the good stuff. So, grab a copy and read along.

Condi as Sheltered Kid 

Advertisement

Condi Rice grew up in Birmingham, Ala. during Bull Connor's reign of terror, and lost a friend in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. But Condi's parents—John, a part-time reverend, and Angelena—did their best to shelter their only child. 

Page 20: As a kindergartner, Barack Obama said he wanted to be president. Condi, on the other hand, was a budding Savion Glover. "For a grade school variety show, Condoleezza was planning to dress up with friends as the Supremes until her parents told her that impersonating the most successful black musical group of the 1960s would somehow be undignified. The Rices decided that their daughter should perform a solo tap dance instead, and went so far as to hire a tap dance teacher and select her costume." Condi told Bumiller: "I had this peculiar outfit, and my father stood there by the stage with his arms crossed to make sure nobody laughed."

Page 18: Angelena was a true helicopter parent. She wouldn't take her eyes off Condi, even when she was playing across the street at a neighbor's house. Vanessa Hunter, a family friend, told Bumiller: "I would have the door open, and the garage door open, and [Condi] said, 'Mrs. Hunter, if you shut the garage door I'm going to have to go home because my mother can't watch me.' "

In Which Condi Deals With Race 

Page 24: When Condi was 6, a saleslady at a downtown department store tried to prevent her and her mother from using a whites-only dressing room. But Angelena wouldn't stand for that. As Condi remembers it, her mother said, "My daughter will try on this dress in a dressing room, or I'm not spending my money here." The saleslady gave in. 

Page 115: During a Black Student Union protest gathering at Stanford (where Condi was provost), a white student challenged Condi's commitment to civil rights. According to Chip Blacker, a Stanford colleague, "Condi's face just got super-hard, and her eyes—I don't know if you've ever seen them, but they can be like lasers—and she said, 'I don't need a lecture from anyone on race. I've been black all my life.' " 

Page 44: More fierce Condi: Bumiller recycles an anecdote from a Washington Post Magazine feature. On a shopping trip in Palo Alto, Calif., Rice asked a white salesclerk to "see the better earrings." Instead of obliging, the clerk pulled out costume jewelry. Rice flipped out: "Let's get one thing straight. … You're behind the counter because you have to work for $6 an hour. I'm on this side asking to see the good jewelry because I make considerably more. And I'm asking to see the good jewelry."

Condi at Denver: Fashion Plate or One of the Guys? 

The most interesting chapters concern Condi's days at the University of Denver, where she was an undergrad and a Ph.D. student in political science. The future Stanford provost wasn't always a star pupil, and (shockingly enough) she knew how to let loose.

Page 69: Arthur Gilbert, a Denver professor, said the future secretary of state "always was perfectly groomed. She knew a great deal about nice-looking clothes. She would come sashaying in, and this would lead to a very mixed response from the students—that she was social climbing." (How'd she get to be so put together? Page 64: At age 19, she enrolled in a modeling school at a Denver shopping center.)

Page 67: Alan Gilbert, another Denver prof, said Condi's thesis on the works of Prokofiev and Shostakovich during the Stalin era was "not a fantastic piece" of scholarship. 

Page 71: Condi spent much of her free time with professional football players for the Denver Broncos. According to Haven Moses, a one-time Bronco wide receiver, Condi "blew a lot of guys' minds, because when she started talking football, she knew formations, strategies." Moses told Bumiller that after a big game, Condi would "give her two cents. 'That was a dumb-ass call! What was the coach thinking about? I could see it up in the stands!' She knew how the ball snapped, how team defenses would move around."

Page 72: For those of you dying to know about the perpetually single secretary of state's personal life (is she, or isn't she?), consider this: Condi had a thing for one Bronco in particular, Rick Upchurch, a wide receiver. Upchurch told Bumiller that the two were engaged, but Rice plays the relationship down: "I did not go out and buy a dress or anything like that."

Page 69: Condi's best friend at Denver was Cristann Gibson, a fellow political science Ph.D. student. They'd study together and hang out at Chili's most nights. According to Gibson, "It was burgers and fries, and margaritas, to be honest."

Condi as Young Republican? 

Condi wasn't always a committed ideologue: Judging from Bumiller's account, she came around to "compassionate conservatism" and realpolitik foreign relations slowly. 

Page 68: Condi voted in her first presidential election in 1976. She was a registered Democrat, and she cast her ballot for Jimmy Carter. She told Bumiller: "I had this narrative about reconciliation of North and South; he was going to be the first Southern president."

Page 75: Jonathan Adelman, one of Rice's advisers at Denver, told Bumiller about his first one-on-one meeting with Condi: "She sat up straight in the chair, she kind of drew herself up, as her mother must have taught her, stared straight at you, and she said, 'I'm going to be a U.S. congressman—and maybe a U.S. senator.' … Then she proceeded to elaborate a plan on how she was going to do it!" But was she a Republican or a Democrat? Adelman said that "she didn't make a big deal out of what party she was going to run on." 

Rummy vs. Condi 

Page 204: How Condi really feels about the former secretary of defense: "Don is a bit of a curmudgeon, all right? … And he can be kind of irascible and short and I'd known Don for years, and that's just Don. It wasn't just Don in the context of my being national security adviser, it's just who Don is. And so I pushed back, and you know, he'd push back and I'd push back." 

Page 178: How Rummy really felt about Condi: According to an unnamed administration official, he would read while Condi spoke at meetings. And Andrew Card, former White House chief of staff, described the one-time secretary of defense as "a little bit sexist" in his dealings with Condi.

Pages 203-204: Rumsfeld withheld Iraq planning information from Condi, so she dispatched three spies: Frank Miller (one-time director of the NSC's Executive Steering Group), Marine Col. Tom Greenwood, and Kori Schake (the NSC's director of defense strategy) to collect intel. Miller said to Bumiller, "We were bringing her vast amounts of information." 

Condi in the Real World: 9/11 and Iraq 

Page 143: Richard Clarke, the pre-9/11 counterterrorism czar, briefed Condi before she assumed her position as national security adviser. She knew shockingly little: "She had heard about bin Laden, but she thought of bin Laden as a guy with a few camp followers. When I said 'Al Qaeda,' she said, 'Stop, what's that?' When I said it was an organization of tens of thousands of followers and millions of dollars in scores of countries, she said she didn't know that."

Page 209: On the first day of the Iraq war, the CIA thought Saddam was hiding out at the Dora Farms complex (southeast of Baghdad) in a bunker. The White House, hoping to "decapitate the Iraqi government in a single air strike," dispatched a couple of F-117 jets to bomb the hell out of the place. But as it turned out, Saddam wasn't at Dora Farms, and there was no bunker. Condi described the situation for Bumiller: "[I]t just seemed like a totally bizarre scene. Because here we are in the Oval Office, this information is literally coming in moment by moment, and people are drawing things on pieces of paper, it must be here, and poor Dick Myers [a war council insider] is running down the hallway trying to get the right coordinates to go after this thing [the bunker], and you know, I thought it was right to take the shot, but there was a … sense of this isn't any way to run a railroad."

Page 213: The day an American tank topped the 20-foot statue of Saddam in Baghdad, Condi had tears in her eyes, and she canceled a scheduled briefing with Jeff Kojac, a Marine officer. Why? Kojac says she "thought the war was over. … It was incredibly unsettling."

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.