From nuclear proliferation to genocide in Darfur, Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice has more than a few balls to juggle. Jonathan Van Meter sees her in action.
It is a cold, rainy night in mid-April, and hundreds of people have packed a ballroom at the Millennium U.N. Plaza Hotel in New York to meet the new United States ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.
It is the kind of obligatory happy-hour event that most people in the diplomatic community usually dread—cheese cubes and shoptalk. But that is not the mood tonight. First of all, there is a record turnout, with more than 100 ambassadors in attendance. There is also a sprinkling of New York society and the media elite mixed in among the eggheads and policy wonks, a rare occurrence at these things.
As everyone waits for the guest of honor to arrive, there is a building sense of excitement; the women are dressed up, drinks are being downed, and there is a loud roar—the sound of people actually enjoying themselves. Perhaps because there is finally something to celebrate: President Obama has only just begun to put into action his sweeping changes in foreign policy, but the shift is already palpable here. This crowd has endured a long drought—eight years of the Bush administration, a group that had no use for diplomacy and viewed the United Nations as, at best, an impediment to their go-it-alone goals. When Bush nominated John Bolton—the man who famously said, “There is no such thing as the United Nations”—to the ambassadorship in 2005, indifference seemed to turn into outright hostility. It is not hard to understand why Obama and his team—especially Susan Rice—are a more-than-welcome relief. And so far the message is crystal clear: The United Nations is back.
Ambassador Rice finally arrives and takes a spot in a receiving line outside the ballroom next to Timothy Wirth, the former senator from Colorado who is now the president of the United Nations Foundation (a public charity founded in 1998 with a billion-dollar grant from Ted Turner to support U.N. causes). Rice, a former high school jock who favors black pantsuits and often has her hair pulled into a short ponytail, is looking particularly glamorous tonight: Her hair is down, her face is made up, and she’s wearing wide-leg black trousers, pointy black-and-silver mules, and a dramatically long black jacket. I am standing off to the side watching her greet the throng flooding in when a woman sidles up to me and says, “Has the ambassador arrived?” Yes, I say, pointing her out. “Oh, my,” she says. “She’s so young.”
At 44, Rice is, in fact, the second-youngest U.S. ambassador to the United Nations since its inception in 1945. (Donald McHenry, appointed in 1979 by Jimmy Carter, was a hair younger.) But Rice is used to being the youngest person at the table. As someone who went to high school with her puts it, “She was always highly respected by adults and seen as a future force to be reckoned with.” A Rhodes scholar who earned a doctorate in international relations at Oxford University, Rice joined President Clinton’s National Security Council staff in 1993, at the tender age of 28. Within a few years she catapulted over several more senior staffers to become, at 32, the youngest-ever assistant secretary of State. Her accelerated résumé notwithstanding, she seems to be at the beginning of the public phase of what may very well turn out to be one of the more substantial careers in politics.
Moments later, Senator Wirth is onstage introducing Rice to a packed house. Everyone is rapt. “We knew that we had a wonderful scholar and a diplomat and activist and athlete,” he says. “We did not know that we were also getting a rock star.” The room erupts in laughter and applause. Rice steps up to the microphone and gives a feel-good mini-speech (“We must seize this unique moment to overcome the shrill voices of cynicism…”).
When she comes down off the stage she is mobbed. Rice is a first-class charmer, a gracious and consummate host who knows exactly whose hand to shake firmly, whom not to touch at all, whose cheeks to kiss twice, and whom to simply throw her arms around. Her special assistant and her security agent look a bit panicked as people close in. As soon as the first round in the crush clears out, there is another layer to take its place, and around and around she goes for nearly an hour. Pleasure to meet you…what an honor…how wonderful to see you again. Suddenly, two women she knows appear in front of her, and she gives them both real hugs. After a few moments with them off in a corner, she looks up with a big smile and plunges back into the party.
Young, exceedingly bright, and ambitious, Rice is the first woman of color to hold her position: a perfect symbol of everything that is so exciting about the Obama administration. She is also, as one former State-department official put it, “a great example of Obama’s gamble: which is that by engaging an organization like the U.N. you can actually get better results than simply trying to marginalize and ignore it.”
If it seems that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been circling the globe, tripping over themselves to restore America’s reputation—shaking Hugo Chavez’s hand in Trinidad and Tobago; opening up diplomatic relations with pariah states like Syria and Iran; showing Cuba some love, for Pete’s sake—then Rice, too, has been rolling out the red carpet for the world from the moment she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on January 22. In an effort to change the perception of how the United States is viewed by the U.N. as quickly as possible, Rice hosted an unprecedented series of Wednesday-evening receptions in groupings defined by the U.N.: Africa; Asia, which includes the Middle East; Latin America and the Caribbean; and finally Eastern and Western Europe. In just one month, she thinks, she may have met all 192 permanent representatives to the United Nations, either in a social context or in “one-on-one meetings with the people from the member states and many of the senior officials inside the U.N. I’ve way lost count of how many of those I’ve done.” (This is one reason, as one of her aides tells me, Rice is in the office much earlier than her predecessor and stays much later.) After the U.N. Foundation event, Senator Wirth observes, “it was interesting how many of those people she knows and how many relationships she already has with a number of the ambassadors. They were saying, ‘Oh, I talked to you yesterday’ or ‘Thanks for coming over for dinner the other night.’ She’s obviously in a very short period of time created a pretty strong network.”
Since the United Nations was founded in 1945, it has survived through dramatically shifting geopolitical climate changes. The fact that nearly every recognized independent state in the world is currently a member is a testament to its enduring relevance.
As the representative of the U.S. delegation in the General Assembly (where all 192 states are members), Susan Rice is also the only woman on the Security Council, the fifteen-member body within the U.N. that does the most substantive and controversial work in the organization: peacekeeping and security around the globe—endlessly complicated at any time, but particularly at this moment in history. The Security Council, which is always in session, has the power to authorize military action, and its members often have to meet at a moment’s notice—as they did on Sunday, April 5, after North Korea launched a test missile in violation of a Security Council resolution.
Rice moved into the U.S. ambassador’s residence (awesome perk: the forty-second-floor penthouse at the Waldorf-Astoria) the day after she was confirmed. But because President Obama restored the U.N. ambassadorship to a White House Cabinet position (as it traditionally is in Democratic administrations), Rice also has an office at Hillary Clinton’s State department and is a member of the National Security Council Principals Committee, which means that she essentially has three jobs in two different cities and is more often than not on her way to or from an airport.
She is married to Ian Cameron, the Canadian-born executive producer of This Week with George Stephanopoulos, a political talk show on ABC; the couple has two children, Jake, eleven, and Maris, six. Asked if she’s enjoying her fancy new spread in the city, she says, rather unenthusiastically, “It’s nice. But I don’t really feel like I’m living in New York, because I’m at the Mission or I’m at the U.N., running from place to place. I haven’t had one weekend when my family was up here to enjoy the city outside of the work life.” It is only then that I realize she is often alone at night, like an Eloise in that big penthouse at the Waldorf.
On the fifth day of the North Korean missile crisis, I ask how she balances the professional and the personal. “This is the wrong week to ask that question,” she says, laughing. “I’ve got the greatest husband on the planet.” She knocks on the wooden table. “If I didn’t, I would have been smoked a long time ago. He’s a very accomplished professional, he’s a tremendous dad, and he’s got enormous patience for me and for what I do. He’s been incredibly supportive of my professional endeavors. I don’t want to go off and sound sappy, but he really is extraordinary. And he’s cool, too. He comes up on occasion for things like the Security Council spouses’ luncheon, which is sort of above and beyond the call. He tries to be part of this and be here, but he’s also managing the kids: He’s getting up with them in the morning, driving them to school; he’s there doing homework duty in the evening, getting ‘em to bed. That is not easy. And he’s doing it without at least showing any frustration or anger toward me.”
It is not hard to imagine that being married to such a person would be, uh, difficult when simply making an appointment with her presents so many special challenges. One of our interviews was cut short after less than 20 minutes when she was suddenly whisked into another meeting. Others were canceled outright. Sometimes I would get a call from one of her press aides telling me to come now, as she was about to speak at the Security Council. Another time I went all the way up to the U.N. and was told she wouldn’t be there because of a last-minute crisis.
For his part, Cameron prefers to emphasize the positive. “I think that’s another thing about Susan as a role model,” he says. “She’s very strong in her own right as an individual, and I think that really helps with the kids as well.” Although he admits that there are times when he has to watch his wife on television like everyone else to know what she’s doing, he is very sanguine about it all. “We’ve always had a policy that her work is her work and mine is mine. So we’re very used to living in this situation in terms of our professional lives.”
Cameron was drawn to Rice from the moment they met at Stanford at a social. She was a seventeen-year-old freshman, and he was a senior. “I just went up and started talking to her. She asked me where I was from, and I said British Columbia. And she said, ‘South America!’ And I said, ‘Uh, no, Canada.’ We always laugh at that.”
Then he sums up, as only a husband can, what he loves about her, which just so happens to explain what makes her a great diplomat: “She’s got the greatest smile in the world. And she’s tough. I have always loved that in a woman.”
Rice is nothing if not a creature of Washington, D.C. She grew up on Northwest Sixteenth Street in an affluent neighborhood called the Gold Coast, which her parents helped to integrate; her father, Emmett, who grew up in South Carolina, was a governor for the Federal Reserve, and her mother, Lois, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants who settled in Maine, worked for the College Board and is a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, where Rice would one day work, too. She knew from the time she was “ten, eleven, twelve that I was very much interested in public service. I was interested in policy, politics, and I thought when I was a kid about that age that I’d like to grow up to be a United States senator.” One of her mother’s best friends is Madeleine Albright, herself the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. from 1993 to 1997 and secretary of State until 2001.
“Lois Rice is a very, very dynamic, brilliant woman,” says Albright, who was on a school board in the seventies with Lois and worked with her to integrate Washington’s schools. “She was a very dedicated activist. She is just one of those truly remarkable people. When Obama won, the first person I thought of was Lois. I called her in the middle of the night because it was such a triumph in so many ways for everything that she had worked for.” Albright has three daughters who are around Susan’s age, and the families spent countless Sundays together. “Susan was a very funny and confident little girl,” says Albright. “Exceptionally smart and well adjusted.”
Rice attended the National Cathedral School. I have a friend who was a couple of classes behind Rice and remembers her as valedictorian and president of the student government: “Bottom line,” she says, “it was a high-powered school with lots of high-powered young women, and Susan stood out, even in that environment, even then.” According to Stewart Patrick, a D.C. policy wonk who shares Rice’s expertise in weak and failing states and has known her since they were twelve (he attended St. Albans, the boys’ school at National Cathedral), “These sorts of environments can breed people with a grandiose sense of their place in the universe. She never had that. On the other hand, she always had the expectation that she was going to lead at some stage and that she would be involved in public service.” For all her golden-girl promise, Patrick says, Rice had an appealingly rounded personality. “She was quite social, and she has a wicked sense of humor. She can be a riot. She was hardly just a paragon of seriousness.”
One Thursday I arrive to interview Rice at her office at the United States Mission, which takes up four floors of a nondescript high-rise on East Forty-fourth Street. Despite the fact that there are some framed family photos and an Asian rug, the office feels like an anodyne suite in a mid-range hotel chain.
Rice is wildly sleep-deprived today, as she has been in near-constant meetings with her colleagues about the North Korean missile crisis all week. Despite how tired she looks, she is cheerful. Punchy, even. “Frankly, the time lag to Asia is killing us,” she says. She is in her customary black pantsuit with a turquoise cashmere sweater and gold jewelry. When she takes off her jacket, I am startled by her biceps. (Not surprisingly, she is still trying to figure out a way to squeeze her usual four-to-five-day-a-week workouts into her new schedule.) “Nearly every hour of every day since Sunday has been devoted to finding a way forward,” she says of North Korea. “A lot of it has been happening outside of public view with the Chinese, Russians, Japanese, South Koreans, the Brits, and the French. We have had more iterations of these discussions than I can count.”
Rice has been standing her ground through some tough interviews on television this week. When I ask her if she feels that she has taken this job at an especially complicated moment in history, she says there is no doubt that the number and seriousness of the challenges and crises the world is facing are “pretty historic.” And then she rattles off the list: “two wars; persistent Al Qaeda threat; serious nonproliferation set of challenges in Iran and North Korea; Middle East peace that is increasingly elusive, it seems; a global financial crisis, which is aggravating instability; genocide in Darfur exacerbated by a man-made humanitarian crisis. I could go on, but you get the picture: It is a conflicts-fraught period in time.”
Through much of this conversation she has been sort of slouched down in her chair, talking in a quiet monotone, perhaps trying to conserve energy. Suddenly she sits up and becomes animated. “On the other hand,” she says, “it’s a very exciting time to be the American ambassador to the U.N. because the amount of hopefulness that much of the world has for the new administration is really palpable here. And it’s not infinite, it’s not unconditional. But it does grease the skids for some things.” How do you capitalize on it before it dissipates? I ask. “With concrete policy shifts,” she says. “This is not smoke and mirrors and rhetoric and fairy dust. The change is reflected in many ways that matter to people: in our Iraq policy; in our Afghanistan/Pakistan policy; our approach to Guantánamo and torture. It’s a set of policy choices that not only shows some break from the recent past but together combine to manifest a very different philosophy about the nature of American leadership.”
One late Friday afternoon in March, I watch Rice from the media gallery in the Security Council on a day when the United States delegation has forced a meeting on Sudan, much to the consternation of several of Rice’s colleagues. The president of Sudan, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, recently kicked several nongovernmental relief organizations, or NGOs, out of the country, thereby worsening an already appalling humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Just a few days earlier, a group of peacekeepers was ambushed, and one was killed. Rice is an Africa expert, and when it is her turn to speak she delivers her remarks with a forcefulness that occasionally verges on sarcasm. “There are things upon which we can and will disagree,” she says in conclusion. “But surely saving the lives of desperate civilians being deliberately deprived of water, food, and medicine is not among them.”
“I was pissed!” she says when I ask her about it later. “That’s a classic case where people’s interests are completely not in alignment. And where, you know, we really are working at cross-purposes and we’re really locked in a frustrating way while people are dying before our eyes. And I wanted to be forceful in making the case both against the leadership of Bashir and the choice he made to starve his people. And to express America’s outrage and intolerance of that. And to frankly make it uncomfortable for those of my colleagues on the council who want to protect him.”
One of the criticisms consistently leveled at Rice is that she can be a bully. “She can come off as a real bulldozer in policy discussions,” says Patrick. “She’s not afraid to go to the mat; she’s got extremely strong convictions. If there’s one thing she has to watch out for it’s that tenacity and desire to be on the winning side, which holds the risk of her either losing sight of the big picture or not recognizing shades of gray.” There are stories about her battles during the Clinton years with then-U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke, in particular, that are the stuff of legend. Patrick tells me an anecdote about one of Rice’s colleagues at the State department in the nineties going to a consultation with a congressman who asked, “Can you get Susan Rice under control?” To which he responded, “Honestly? I don’t think so.”
When I run this idea of Rice as intimidating, inflexible—indeed, a “bulldozer”—by Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, she shoots back, “I consider that a strength! You want your U.N. ambassador to be good at making a case, although I would not call her a bulldozer. I don’t find her rigid at all. But she sees through nonsense very clearly. You’ve got to be really cognizant of the fact that when Susan Rice is present she’s going to be the most prepared, the most clear-thinking person in the room, so don’t come in the room unless you have done your homework.”
Even if you wouldn’t want to wind up on the wrong side of an argument with Rice, it is clear that she is not just all toughness and ambition; a big vein of sensitivity runs very close to the surface, and she is not afraid to show her emotions. Once, while talking about meeting Obama and her children’s future in the same sentence, she choked up. Another time, a couple of weeks after her remarks on Sudan, Rice was delivering a speech on the fifteenth anniversary of the day Rwanda descended into genocide; it was a completely different Rice than the one I had seen before. She spoke softly, her voice quavering, tears in her eyes. I could not help reading it as a kind of Susan Rice mission statement: “We believe that even in war, there are rules. We believe that even in pursuit of power, there are limits. We believe that even in a violent world, there are rights.” Then she spoke about the day in 1994 when, as a director of the National Security Council staff, she visited Rwanda and the site of a massacre on the grounds of a churchyard. “For me, the memory of stepping around and over those corpses will remain the most searing reminder imaginable of what our work here must aim to prevent.”
There must be something strangely comforting to Rice about the fact that Madeleine Albright has her back. I ask Albright if Ambassador Rice has called upon her for advice. “Actually, a lot,” she says sweetly. “We’re on the phone quite often.” It’s great that she has you, I say. “It’s terrific,” Albright says. “First of all, despite the fact I knew her when she was four or five years old, we have had a, so to speak, grown-up relationship with one another. And on a whole host of very complicated substantive issues, and so our conversations range over everything, frankly. I know what it’s like to sit behind a sign that says UNITED STATES. And I have a sense of great pride in thinking that now Susan is sitting behind that sign.”
I ask Rice if she thinks it takes a special kind of person to do this job. “You know, I don’t know,” she says, and looks out the window for a moment. “That’s a good question.” Another pause. “For as long as I can remember I’ve had a job that requires me to juggle multiple balls. The number and the weight of the balls may be a little greater now. It’s a skill. I guess you can learn it, but I think it’s pretty intuitive. You can’t always catch every single ball. So you gotta know which ones are not going to explode like a grenade but will just sort of fall quietly.”
Not surprisingly, Rice, who played basketball and tennis at school, likes ball metaphors. At one point, while describing how she thinks of her job, she surprises me with a burst of salty basketball jargon before reverting to a more formal tone. “It’s a head game, and it’s about visualizing the whole court and seeing one or two steps ahead and making your body conform to that,” she says. “So the older I got, the better I got because I think those things clicked, and there was a greater correlation between what I intended to do and what I was able to do.”
Rice’s ability to not let balls drop extends to her social life. Despite her meteoric rise, she has remained very loyal to her private school girlfriends and insists on a yearly retreat to someone’s vacation home no matter how busy she is. She has a legendary Christmas party every year at her big, beautiful home in Kent, a neighborhood in northwest Washington—a party that has become increasingly packed with political superstars. And Jarrett tells me that Rice threw a house party in January at the very beginning of the administration: “She is totally relaxed and fun-loving,” says Jarrett. “She plays as hard as she works. There was one point during the party where a few of us were clearly talking about work and she came over and broke it up and said, ‘You didn’t come here to work,’ and she pulled us out onto the dance floor.” There was a dance floor? “She put down a real dance floor in her living room! That’s how Susan is: The work is over; come dance.”
“She’s Got Game” has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the June 2009 issue of Vogue.