When Susan Rice was seven years old, her schoolmates’ parents pegged her to become the first African- American president of the United States.
She went on to punch the tickets of a striver -- as valedictorian, student-council president and varsity tennis player at Washington’s elite National Cathedral School, Phi Beta Kappa at Stanford, and then, as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.
Her professional rise has followed a similar trajectory. President Barack Obama made her U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and today, Rice, 48, is a front-runner to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State or serve as national security adviser.
That ascent may be derailed by critics who say she gave misleading information about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and failed to assuage their concerns in later face-to-face meetings. And, with a style that can occasionally be confrontational and off-putting, Rice sometimes wins at a cost, fellow diplomats at the UN say.
"How else would someone get to be in that high-level government position if you weren't tough, aggressive, didn't have ambition? You can't be effective if you're demure."
“Abrasive, blunt, aggressive. If she were a man, these same qualities would be seen as positive or they wouldn’t need to be discussed; they would be taken as a given,” Andrea Worden, Rice’s best friend since age 4, said in an interview. “How else would someone get to be in that high-level government position if you weren’t tough, aggressive, didn’t have ambition? You can’t be effective if you’re demure.”
Still, even in her earliest foray into government as student-council president, Rice “led by example, didn’t grab power and didn’t try to get ahead at the expense of others,” Worden said.
Objections among Senate Republicans to making her secretary of state have spread from the trio of Arizona’s John McCain, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte to more moderate senators such as Maine’s Susan Collins and Tennessee’s Bob Corker. That may force Obama to spend more political capital on a confirmation fight at a time when his first priority is seeking a tax and budget deal with Congress.
If the president instead picks her to become his new national security adviser, Rice’s relationship with and proximity to Obama, coupled with White House control of major defense and foreign policy decisions, would position her to dominate Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry, who’s 20 years her senior, or any other secretary of state, said two administration officials who’ve been part of the second-term personnel planning.
In that role, Rice might follow in the footsteps of predecessors such as Henry Kissinger under former president Richard Nixon and Zbigniew Brzezinski who served Jimmy Carter, the two officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity ahead of any presidential announcement.
Rice was an early Obama supporter -- they met in 2004 when she was an adviser on Kerry’s campaign and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington public policy group -- and helped mold the foreign policy of an inexperienced Illinois senator during his first presidential bid.
The largely partisan attacks on Rice present what friends and administration colleagues say is a caricature of her as a blind Obama loyalist. In reality, they say, she advocates her positions, even if she disagrees with her bosses, displaying the intellect and integrity she’s shown since childhood.
For his part, Obama said in a Dec. 4 Bloomberg Television interview that Rice has done a “great job” at the UN.
“When she has a strong view, it doesn’t matter if every single person in the room has a different opinion,” including the president, Tony Blinken, national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, said in an interview. Rice speaks her mind “forcefully and, more often than not, persuasively,” said Blinken, who’s known Rice for more than 20 years.
“If she thinks something can be changed, she tries to change it, even when other people say ‘that’s in the too-hard category’,” Richard A. Clarke, former national counterterrorism chief and Rice’s colleague on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, said in an interview.
The scene of one of her greatest successes, though, is now the focus of opposition to her advancement. She pushed Obama to approve U.S. support for Libyan rebels fighting then-dictator Muammar Qaddafi, then helped persuade the UN Security Council to authorize North Atlantic Treaty Organization air strikes to prevent the slaughter of civilians.
The rebels’ victory is considered one of her triumphs. During a November 2011 visit to Tripoli, Rice was told that Libyan women were naming their children Susan. Another success was her long campaign to overcome Russian and Chinese objections to tougher UN sanctions on Iran.
Since then, though, the legacy of Qaddafi’s fall has been clouded by the turmoil in its wake and the Benghazi attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Moreover, the Western-led military action has made Russia and China, veto-wielding powers in the UN Security Council, unwilling to go along with U.S.-advocated measures against Syria they say may presage similar intervention.
When asked during a Dec. 5 interview about her biggest disappointment at the UN, Rice replied: “I would say one word: Syria.”
Critics, including senior diplomats from allied nations on the UN Security Council, said her victories sometimes come at a cost. During the recent Gaza crisis, Rice frustrated even close allies such as France by resisting attempts to pressure Israel. At the same time, she couldn’t derail the Palestinian campaign to win non-member observer state status in the General Assembly, an overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian body.
The next secretary of state, including possibly Rice, would face a tall order in succeeding Clinton, who enjoys approval ratings approaching 70 percent.
“You’re not going to win every single negotiation, but experience of engaging in so many of those is important in itself,” said Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, who met Rice during the 2008 campaign.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state and a close friend of Rice’s mother, said criticism is inevitable.
“Your job is you sit there behind a sign that says ‘United States’ and your job is to pursue American national interests,” not to win a popularity contest, Albright, who’s known Rice since the younger woman was 4, said in an interview.
Rice’s sharp tongue has been evident for years. In 2008, she mocked then-Republican presidential nominee McCain for “strolling around the market in a flak jacket” in Baghdad, saying he “demonstrated a surprising lack of understanding of critical issues on Iraq.”
Four years later, McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, kicked off Republican opposition to her potential nomination as secretary of state, calling her account of the Benghazi attack “not very bright.”
On Sunday interview shows on Sept. 16, she described the assault as a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim video that was “hijacked” by extremists, based on unclassified talking points supplied by the U.S. intelligence community.
The controversy over what happened in Benghazi would follow Rice to the State Department or the White House, where she also would inherit a lot of unfinished business. Near the top of Obama’s second-term agenda will be preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and managing the U.S. response to the political changes in the Middle East known as the Arab Spring.
Even as reform movements pave the way for democracy and more-accountable institutions, Rice sees risks.
“I am very sober and realistic about the challenges” in the Middle East, she said in the interview.
Rice’s greatest strength may be her long-term vision, said one administration official who works with her frequently. While she doesn’t publicly challenge the popular notion of American exceptionalism, colleagues say she understands that the U.S. needs to adapt to technological, economic, demographic and environmental changes sweeping the globe.
Rice has embraced the Twitter Inc. social-media service, and has 229,000 followers, more than twice as many as any other Cabinet member. On her BlackBerry, she’s known to blast off 140- character missives.
In February, after Russia and China delivered the first of three vetoes to block intervention in Syria, Rice said in a Twitter message she was “disgusted,” going further than the White House’s criticism. On a trip to Libya last year, she said in another message: “Libyan women kick butt,” during a meet- and-greet with potential female candidates for a new government.
In some respects, Rice is a product of America’s evolving establishment. Though she may lack the star power of Clinton or the gravitas of Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she was groomed for stardom from an early age.
Her late father, Emmett Rice, was an economics professor at Cornell University and a former governor of the Federal Reserve System. Her mother is an education policy researcher and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution. Her parents divorced when she was 10, and she has a brother.
Though her mother came from humble origins as the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Rice was raised in privilege, attending elite private schools in Washington.
In 2009, Rice’s net worth was between $23.5 million and $43.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The money is a combination of her husband’s family’s and her own family’s assets, as well as investments.
Rice and her husband own stock in TransCanada Corp. (TRP) valued at $300,002 to $600,000, according to her most recent financial disclosure report. If she became secretary of state, the holding would pose a conflict of interest as the company has filed for a State Department permit to build the Keystone XL pipeline to carry crude oil from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. If Rice were nominated, a team of ethics lawyers would advise her on which holdings to sell.
Fifteen former classmates, colleagues and subordinates interviewed described her integrity and devotion to family, friends and employees. These qualities, they say, have been obscured by her blunt public persona and her aversion to dealing with the media.
“I guess you could say I’m plainspoken,” Rice told the Stanford University alumni magazine in January 2000. “I can be diplomatic when I have to be. But I don’t have a lot of patience for B.S.”
Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin has said of Rice that her “Stanford dictionary of expletives must be replaced by something more Victorian.” Despite her clashes with Churkin, she shares a friendly relationship with him outside the UN.
Rice commutes home from New York to Washington weekly to be with her family. When her father had a stroke while in Washington for the Christmas holidays two years ago, he stayed there for a year to convalesce. He died in 2011.
Friends say Rice doesn’t let her UN duties force her to miss birthday parties, a long-planned girlfriends’ weekend or memorial services for teachers and friends’ parents. Her husband, Ian Cameron, left his job as an executive producer at ABC News in 2010 to be more available to their school-aged son and daughter.
“When I am with my family, I try to be in the present, especially with the kids,” said Rice, who called herself a “soccer mom” and likes to relax by playing tennis and having a glass of California wine. Her favorite food is sushi. People who go to her annual Christmas party should come with extraordinary stamina, Blinken said, because “she is as relentless on the dance floor as in the Situation Room.”
Three former staff members said Rice urged them to put their families first in times of crisis, even if it meant more strain on the office. One described Rice insisting she take a leave to be with a dying parent. Another said Rice blessed his decision to move across country to be with a girlfriend and allowed him to telecommute. A third said she insisted that he take as much time as needed when his wife had a baby.
As a student at Stanford, Rice joined the anti-apartheid campaign, which drew the largest protests that campus had ever seen, eclipsing those during the Vietnam War.
Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute at Stanford, was one of Rice’s advisers on her thesis on the divestment campaign in white minority-ruled South Africa. He recalls Rice was focused on what would work most effectively to change South Africa’s apartheid policy, such as urging Stanford donors to insist that their contributions not be invested in companies active there.
“You knew she was going to make her mark,” Carson said in an interview.
As a Rhodes Scholar at The University of Oxford in the U.K., Rice wrote her doctoral dissertation on the end of white minority rule in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, ferreting out primary sources and original documents, according to two Rhodes Scholars who studied with her.
Rice worked for McKinsey & Co. in Toronto as a management consultant from 1990 to 1993. In 1992, she married Cameron, her college boyfriend, who’s a Canadian-born American.
The next year, not yet 30, she joined President Clinton’s National Security Council staff. In 1997, she became the youngest assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
The failure of the U.S. to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed 800,000 people has weighed on Rice, who was then on the National Security Council staff. Alison des Forges, an authority on Rwanda who died in a 2009 plane crash, criticized Rice in a 2003 interview with public television’s Frontline show.
“It was a meeting where I recall more the role played by Susan Rice than anyone else,” des Forges said. “My sense was of a person determined to be absolutely crisp and firm and hard- nosed about the situation, as if, as a young woman in the company of middle-aged males, she had something to prove; and what she was going to prove was that she could deal with this in as hard-nosed a manner as anyone else.”
Albright, who was UN ambassador at the time of the Rwandan genocide, and Clarke, who was Rice’s boss and then her colleague on the NSC, said blaming her for Rwanda is unjust. Rice’s title was director for international organizations and peacekeeping.
“All of us starting with President Clinton and on down, including myself, have said that it weighs very heavy on our soul,” Albright said.
Rice, too, has expressed regret and said that history influenced her advocacy for intervention in Libya. Visiting Rwanda with her family, she said, “Many of us heard strong echoes of 1994 when Muammar Qaddafi promised that he would root out the people of Benghazi.”
As she finished delivering a speech on the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, she cried.
-- With assistance from Julianna Goldman and Laura Litvan in Washington. Editors: Terry Atlas, John Walcott, Michael Shepard
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org