“Tough Love” is a warm and personal memoir from one of the most outstanding women diplomats of our time, Susan Dickson Rice.

Cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

When you read her candid views on her experiences as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as President Obama’s National Security Advisor, recent history comes alive. Her insights about many of the great events America has had to face in the last two decades – including Benghazi, ISIS, and the role of the Central Intelligence Agency – reveal her character, maturity, stability and leadership qualities.

Rice, who has long ties to Maine, doesn’t limit her book to the political events of the period, however. She also writes about her extended family’s struggles as newcomers to this country and her own struggle to successfully combine a career, family and marriage. Her family story is a remarkable one of immigrant and African-American success, against difficult odds.

Rice’s maternal grandparents, Mary and David Dickson, emigrated from Jamaica to Portland in 1912. They brought up five children here, Rice’s four uncles and her mother, Lois. The boys all graduated from Bowdoin College. Rice’s mother was valedictorian of Portland High School and went on to Radcliffe; at the time, she was one of just three women of color there. After college, she worked in education, helping other African Americans get into college and find scholarships, and lobbying tirelessly for the creation of Pell grants. Rice’s uncles went on to careers as doctors, and one, David Dickson, became the first African American president of Montclair State College in New Jersey.

Rice’s love for her mother and father and deep respect for her family heritage is moving. Her father was trained as a Tuskegee pilot, one of the famed group of African-American World War II airmen. Instead of flying, he worked as a staff officer, running the newly created statistics department in Tuskegee. Although he was serving his country, whenever he went off the Air Force base in Alabama, he was refused service in whites-only restaurants. Needless to say, it was a humiliating – or, as Rice writes, a “searing” – experience. After the war, he earned a PhD in economics.

It also seems needless to say that Rice came from a family of extraordinarily high achievers. They were trained early in life to care, to overcome adversity, to be responsible and resilient. “My sincere hope in telling my story is that others may find it an inspiration and a source of empowerment, a source of strength and fearlessness,” Rice writes.

Each chapter of “Tough Love” opens with a personal reflection of the historic events that took place during the period. Rice writes with dignity and clarity, showing a personal side of history, including her observations and opinions about the many famous people she worked with, such as the late Sen. John McCain; Sen. John Kerry; senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton; and Madeline Albright, the former Secretary of State who Rice says offered her good advice seasoned with compassion and insight.

And, of course, President Barack Obama. In the prologue, Rice describes her last day in the Obama White House. The blue drapes in the oval office are being replaced with gold ones, the choice of the next administration. Cleaning out her desk, she feels terrible. As she prepares to leave with a small coterie of other Obama staffers just before ceremonies for Donald Trump are about to begin, Obama reminds the small close group that “Our jobs are not over. Democracy is not the buildings, it’s not the monuments, it’s you being willing to work to make things better and being willing to listen to each other and treat people with respect, and that doesn’t end here. This is not a period, it is just a comma in the story of building America.”

Rice is cheered. “This was the height of democracy,” she writes, “as the last goodbyes were said.”

Throughout “Tough Love,” Rice writes with candor and humility: “What you see is what you get,” she says of herself. It’s a treat to read about the rise of a woman of exceptional executive ability, intelligence and enormous experience with the inner workings of democracy. I think Rice would make a great senator, or even the first female president of the United States.

Meanwhile, “Tough Love” would suit all sorts of people who may be on your Christmas gift list – the reader, the history lover, the news junkie, the woke family member, the memoir fan, the feminist, or anybody at all who could use a cheering reminder in this difficult and divisive time in American politics that a single individual can make a huge positive impact on our nation.

Pat Davidson Reef taught English and Humanities at Portland’s Catherine McAuley High School for many years and has reviewed art and books for more than 25 years in Maine newspapers. The author of two children’s books about artists, Reef is writing a third, on the artist David Driskell. 


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