Looking for a blow-by-blow account of Condoleezza Rice’s years as George W. Bush’s secretary of state? You would do well to find one of the many Rice biographies already on the shelves. In this remarkably clear-eyed and candid autobiography, Rice focuses instead on her fascinating coming-of-age during the stormy civil rights years in Birmingham, Alabama.

Extraordinary, Ordinary People is Rice’s love letter to her fiercely proud and supportive parents. An only child, Rice grew up in an age and place where middle-class black children were told they had to be “twice as good” as their white peers to succeed. As a result, young Condi was an excellent student, a competition-level ice skater and a concert pianist. “Ironically, because Birmingham was so segregated, black parents were able, in large part, to control the environment in which they raised their children,” Rice writes. “They rigorously regulated the messages that we received and shielded us by imposing high expectations and a determined insistence on excellence.” But Rice did not escape some of the harsher reminders of Birmingham’s bitter racial struggles; as a child, she played with one of the girls later killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.

The book ably chronicles Rice’s years of higher education and her first experience in Washington, D.C., when she worked on the National Security Council and met future mentors and colleagues Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft. Rice also relays her sometimes stormy tenure as Stanford provost with clarity and humor, though she avoids delving too deeply into her romantic life. She casually mentions a couple of boyfriends over the years, before dispensing with the entire subject in a single paragraph: “In the back of my mind, I had always assumed that I would get married and have kids. . . . But as I told (and still tell) my friends, you don’t get married in the abstract; you have to want to marry a particular person.”

Perhaps it speaks to Rice’s character that in this salacious age of celebrity tell-alls, she chooses to focus on her many public accomplishments. Extraordinary, Ordinary People is a rich, insightful examination of Rice’s successes and their deep roots in her childhood.

 

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