Susan Rice was miffed, all right. Her frequent foil, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin — an outsize personality whom she might be yelling at one moment, then laughing with the next — was at it again. This time, he was mocking her pet project to let youths from around the world ask the U.N. Security Council questions via video link-up.
If Churkin was going to play goad the ambassador, Rice would, too.
A Rice staffer superimposed Churkin’s face on the cartoon body of the Grinch — the one who stole Christmas. Rice loved it. This, she had to share. And so the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations decided to plop the doctored image onto the big screen in the Security Council’s consultation room for all to see.
But first, a bit of diplomacy. She showed it privately to Churkin. The “huge bear laugh” that staffers heard through the closed door signaled that this wouldn’t become a nuclear incident. Eventually, the Russians backed off their objections.
Still, Rice’s prank in December 2010 annoyed some in this ever-cautious, often-cryptic, inscrutably-polite-yet-clandestinely-rude ministerial universe. Was she being undiplomatically inappropriate or unconventionally charming?
Every little thing about the 48-year-old Rice matters now that she’s the presumptive front-runner to replace Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. Every question large and small demands answers. This child of Washington finds herself in the capital’s vise, a pressure point between Congress and the White House.
She got here by pinch-hitting for Clinton one tightly scheduled Sunday morning in September, five days after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Racing through five Sunday talk shows in a matter of hours, she parroted intelligence-community talking points that the attack was a spontaneous response to a film that mocked the Muslim prophet Muhammad; a group of Republican senators and conservative commentators accuses her of intentionally misleading the public to hide intelligence assessments that it was a terrorist attack.
Senators crowd before microphones to condemn her. President Obama talks tough, saying her critics should come after him — not her. At times, the whirling drama takes on elements of a theater of the absurd. Read the cable news chyron! “Sticky Rice.” Read the reporters trade quippy headlines on Twitter! “McCain throws Rice in the cooker.” “Rice on Ice.” “Obama wants Benghazi, Rice on Back Burner.”
It’s Susan Rice’s home town in its fullest flower, a swirling drama for the woman who described herself in an interview Thursday as “a D.C. girl through and through.”
She grew up minutes from the nexus of her present-day political saga, in Shepherd Park in Northwest Washington. Her father, Emmett Rice, was an economist who in 1979 became the second African American appointed to the Federal Reserve Board. Her mother, Lois Dickson Rice, was a corporate executive and a longtime member of the College Board. Rice’s parents divorced when she was 10.
They circulated among the city’s elite. Rice attended fancy schools — Beauvoir and the National Cathedral School. Rice, who played point guard on the basketball team, was such a jock that her family called her “Spo,” short for sport, a nickname that some family members still use. (Rice says she has not played hoops with Obama. “I know I can’t hang with him,” she says in an interview.)
Her parents’ friends were people such as Madeleine Albright, the future secretary of state, who served on school boards with Rice’s mother, and whose former husband played tennis with Rice’s father.
Albright became a mentor, helping to elevate Rice to assistant secretary of state for African Affairs when Rice was 32. They have been so close that people assumed Rice was her godchild, Albright said in an interview. She isn’t. But Peggy Cooper Cafritz, a wealthy D.C. art patron, was a kind of surrogate godmother. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton took Rice to lunch when she was deciding whether to attend law school.
When asked, Rice estimates that only 10 percent of her high school graduating class was African American. But race was something that her parents didn’t want her to dwell on. “They taught me never to use race as an excuse or a crutch,” she said Thursday.
She took her father’s death last year hard, friends say, and worries about spending so much time away from her family in Washington, as well as her mother, who has battled health issues. She has remarked that “somebody can take your place at the Security Council, but nobody can take your place in the hospital room.”