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Tough Love

My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For


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About The Book

Recalling pivotal moments from her dynamic career on the front lines of American diplomacy and foreign policy, Susan E. Rice—National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama and US Ambassador to the United Nations—reveals her surprising story with unflinching candor in this New York Times bestseller.

Mother, wife, scholar, diplomat, and fierce champion of American interests and values, Susan Rice powerfully connects the personal and the professional. Taught early, with tough love, how to compete and excel as an African American woman in settings where people of color are few, Susan now shares the wisdom she learned along the way.

Laying bare the family struggles that shaped her early life in Washington, DC, she also examines the ancestral legacies that influenced her. Rice’s elders—immigrants on one side and descendants of slaves on the other—had high expectations that each generation would rise. And rise they did, but not without paying it forward—in uniform and in the pulpit, as educators, community leaders, and public servants.

Susan too rose rapidly. She served throughout the Clinton administration, becoming one of the nation’s youngest assistant secretaries of state and, later, one of President Obama’s most trusted advisors.

Rice provides an insider’s account of some of the most complex issues confronting the United States over three decades, ranging from “Black Hawk Down” in Somalia to the genocide in Rwanda and the East Africa embassy bombings in the late 1990s, and from conflicts in Libya and Syria to the Ebola epidemic, a secret channel to Iran, and the opening to Cuba during the Obama years. With unmatched insight and characteristic bluntness, she reveals previously untold stories behind recent national security challenges, including confrontations with Russia and China, the war against ISIS, the struggle to contain the fallout from Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, the U.S. response to Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the surreal transition to the Trump administration.

Although you might think you know Susan Rice—whose name became synonymous with Benghazi following her Sunday news show appearances after the deadly 2012 terrorist attacks in Libya—now, through these pages, you truly will know her for the first time. Often mischaracterized by both political opponents and champions, Rice emerges as neither a villain nor a victim, but a strong, resilient, compassionate leader.

Intimate, sometimes humorous, but always candid, Tough Love makes an urgent appeal to the American public to bridge our dangerous domestic divides in order to preserve our democracy and sustain our global leadership.


Prologue Prologue Farewell to the Moral Universe

JANUARY 20, 2017

It starts like every other day, even though it is the last.

My intelligence briefer waits in the Secret Service vehicle outside my house to hand over the classified iPad containing the last President’s Daily Brief of the Obama administration. We ride downtown together, as usual, but on this day the streets are eerily empty. Gray overcast skies, promising a good chance of rain, weigh on the city as we drive past familiar landmarks—Georgetown, the Kennedy Center, the State Department, and the Federal Reserve.

Outside the temperature is an unseasonable 43 degrees and rising, and I’m relieved to be wearing just a comfortable black, fitted jacket and black pants with a gold short-sleeved top underneath. No heavy winter clothing on what would typically be a frigid day.

There are five of us in the black armored SUV. My briefer and I sit behind two Secret Service agents who man the front seats. Between us is a red and black secure phone that comes in handy when I am on the road and the White House Situation Room needs to reach me. Often it’s Secretary of State John Kerry on the line. Behind me in the back row of seats, where my kids normally ride, is my husband, Ian, who is coming to help me carry away my last boxes and, more importantly, to share in the nostalgia of closing this chapter of our lives.

As we pull into the White House complex, my briefer passes me a gift bag containing a very nice bottle of scotch—a totally unexpected parting present—which he says presciently, “may come in handy some days down the road.”

Because the driveway separating the White House from the Old Executive Office Building is packed with two motorcades—one for President Obama and one for President-elect Trump—we have to jump out of the car and walk through the final exterior gate with Secret Service agents trailing behind, rather than drive up to the door of the West Wing basement to disembark, as we always do.

It’s 9 a.m. on Inauguration Day: Friday, January 20, 2017. It feels more than a little strange.

Almost all of the White House staff is gone. The most senior worked through January 19. Only a handful remain. As national security advisor, I am on duty—until 12:01 p.m. when the forty-fifth president takes the oath of office. If, God forbid, there is a terrorist attack before noon on the Capitol where almost the entirety of the U.S. government is collected, I will be expected to respond as I would on any other day during the prior three and a half years. Assuming that no such crisis will occur, I plan on spending the final hours of my tenure tying up some loose ends, relinquishing the remaining documents that must go to the Archives, packing the last personal items in my office, and saying goodbye to those few colleagues I’ve yet to bid farewell.

My feelings are all jumbled up. I am sad to leave, knowing that I will mightily miss working with such good people and close friends every day. To a person, the senior staff of this White House, Obama’s second-term team, are committed, kind, collegial, and selfless. It is them and my extraordinary National Security Council (NSC) colleagues I will miss the most. For years, through all kinds of trials, we hung together in battle on behalf of what we believed was right for our country, on behalf of a president we respected and loved. I will miss seeing President Obama every day and receiving his customary smart-ass ribbings about my shoes, my short stature, or my tennis game, which he claims without any evidence (and much to the contrary) that he can best. I will miss the thrill and the import of serving my country at the highest levels and working on issues of utmost consequence. I can’t imagine that anything hereafter will compare.

Yet I am also excited to be free. To be back in charge of my life. To be responsible primarily to my loved ones and myself. To wake up when I want, exercise as much as I wish, wear yoga pants every day if I feel like it, spend quality time with my kids, and refresh the romance with the love of my life. Most immediately, I am looking forward in two days to running off to a faraway island with Ian (and no kids) for almost three weeks!

At one point, I might have worried about surviving devoid of the ongoing adrenaline rush that is a life of service, particularly in the White House. Not now. Sixteen years earlier, at the end of the Clinton administration, I made the transition from an intense government job to private life. Over the course of my fifty-two years, I had learned how to drive myself at varying speeds—from fifth gear to second gear—and am confident that I remember how to downshift.

Three hours left.

Curious, Ian and I walk around the first floor of the West Wing. Tall, lanky, as handsome and almost as youthful-looking as when we first met in college, my husband—who worked for years in television news, most recently as an executive producer—has his phone camera at the ready. All the jumbo photos of Obama and his family and staff have been removed from the walls. Empty wooden frames await Trump photos to fill them.

“Susan—” I hear the unmistakable voice of Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor and one of my closest friends, calling to us. I know I’m about to get one of the best hugs in the world. Ben is compact, with short-cropped hair and an impish demeanor. No one can beat him for loyalty, devotion, or dangerous tandem moves on the dance floor. I turn and see him approaching with Anita Decker Breckenridge, the striking blond, appropriately fierce deputy White House chief of staff, who carries a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne. We follow her like she’s the Pied Piper to find Ferial Govashiri, the president’s unfailingly warm and upbeat assistant. She is standing vigil in the outer Oval Office, making sure that as long as Obama is president, nothing untoward is going down on his premises.

Inside the Oval, the scene is surreal—the final stage of the presidential transition in all its banality, speed, and extraordinary professionalism. A crew of moving men is ripping down the old Obama curtains and putting up Trump gold. The Resolute Desk behind which President Obama sat—made of wood taken from the Arctic explorer HMS Resolute, and used by almost every president since Rutherford B. Hayes—will soon be Donald Trump’s. It is lying upside down in the center of the Oval with wires and cords hanging out, as the communications systems are reconfigured. The crew is changing out the Obama carpet, on which the famous quotation attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. is woven along its edge: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

We do not linger. It is painful to witness the literal dismantling of Obama’s White House. With a full appreciation of the irony of drinking champagne on the morning of Trump’s inaugural, Anita pops the cork, and the five of us share the bottle. Without much in the way of words, we drink to our friendship, to the privilege of public service, to the pride we share in the accomplishments of the Obama administration, and to our prayer that the country is strong enough to endure whatever is to come.

Ian and I meander back to my suite, diagonally across from the Oval Office in the compact West Wing. I settle down at my desk for the last time to tackle the loose ends. Despite the press of end-of-administration responsibilities, I want first to act on a letter that I received from a former State Department employee who was gravely injured in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings. We originally met when he was being treated at the Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. His son wants to go to the Naval Academy, and he wrote to ask if I could help. Though I doubt I can be of much assistance, I want to make the effort on his behalf. I call a senior career staffer in the vice president’s office, someone who will stay behind after Joe Biden departs, to ask if he can please try to help the son of a man who sacrificed immeasurably for his country. The vice president’s office can nominate candidates for the service academies, and my hope is that the permanent staff can lend apolitical support to this family. I then call my former State Department colleague to relay that, while I am not optimistic, I made the request.

I shift gears to clean out the remaining items in my desk and finish up with the final boxes. It’s a little after 11 a.m., and time is running out. The last weeks of the administration, not surprisingly, have been even more intense than usual. On top of the crush of enduring issues—the counter-ISIS campaign, North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya—I have had to spend many hours on additional tasks: briefing my successor as national security advisor, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (Retired); coaching NSC staff who are leaving government on how to think about their futures; moving mountains of final paperwork to be signed by the president; and overseeing my team’s yeoman efforts to archive my documents.

In the midst of those undertakings, came the sudden loss of my mother, Lois Dickson Rice. Her passing on January 4, 2017, left me shocked and bereft but also demanded a significant share of my time. Even though my younger brother, Johnny, took on many of the tasks that are invariably part of losing a loved one, it fell to me to obtain the death certificate, complete paperwork for the funeral home, schedule her memorial, pay severance to her caregivers, host grieving relatives, and ensure that her obituaries were both worthy and published in the right places.

There was no time to grieve. Too much was happening to allow myself to succumb to the undertow of pain inside me.

As these final days flew by, I left to the end one last email—a memo for the record, requested by our White House counsel’s office. I knew I must get it done, but it wasn’t urgent. It didn’t seem to matter much when I wrote it. So it fell to the back of the jammed queue. The email was to memorialize a brief meeting that President Obama hosted on January 5 with Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, FBI director Jim Comey, Vice President Biden, and myself. This discussion followed a larger meeting in which President Obama was briefed on the highly classified version of the Intelligence Community report, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.”

In this follow-on meeting that the White House lawyers had asked me to document, President Obama sought the Justice Department leaders’ judgment of whether there was any reason that he should instruct me and other senior administration officials to be careful in how we briefed incoming Trump administration officials on Russia. Obama was explicitly not seeking to inject himself into any law enforcement business and, as always, he insisted that we proceed “by the book” to avoid any inappropriate White House involvement in Justice Department matters. Rather, from a national security vantage point, Obama wanted to know if there was any risk in fully sharing information related to Russia with the incoming Trump team. Comey offered his best judgment, which remains classified, and agreed that, if anything changed, he would let the president know. This is what I hurriedly write up as a summary of that brief conversation. I email it to myself in order to record, at the White House counsel’s request, that this discussion should not subsequently be misconstrued as the president improperly injecting himself into a matter under Justice Department purview.

The clock’s minute hand inches past 11:15 a.m.

Time to turn on the television in my office to watch the inaugural proceedings.

Before saying goodbye to cherished colleagues in the Situation Room and the NSC front office, who will stay behind, I ask Ian if I should pen a note to my successor, Michael Flynn, who will take over my desk later that afternoon.

Over the last two months, Flynn and I have spent over twelve hours together. He is a wiry, taut man, fit with a chiseled angular face and military-cut dark hair. In my presence, he seemed quite a different person than the fiery partisan who led the “Lock Her Up” chant at the Republican National Convention. With me, Flynn seemed subdued, even daunted by the tasks ahead. He was civil and respectful, hungry for advice on how to do the job of national security advisor, if not so much for my views on policy matters. At the end of our final meeting, after I wished Flynn all my best, I started to extend my hand to shake his. He surprised me by asking, “Can I have a hug?”

Flynn seemed to understand what a tough assignment he was embarking on and recognized that I had done my best to help him succeed. I had, despite my misgivings. Though unexpected, I provided the requested hug—which was awkward, if a little touching.

In this context, a note seems somewhat superfluous, but Ian and I agree it is the patriotic and professional thing to do. On a White House stationery card, I reiterate my best wishes for his success in a job so crucial to the nation’s security. I offer to help him, if ever I could, which is a duty and a creed among former national security advisors, regardless of party affiliation. I had always been grateful for the wisdom and generosity of my predecessors—from Henry Kissinger to Sandy Berger, from Tony Lake and Tom Donilon to Condi Rice and Steve Hadley. I would, of course, return the favor to anyone who came after me.

I leave the note on top of the desk and take one last look around the wholly sanitized national security advisor’s office, burning into my mind’s eye the image of the spotless walls, empty shelves, and, for once, a completely clean desk. Gone are the photos of my children and family. The wall is bare where the massive, gorgeous, reputedly $5 million Willem de Kooning painting entitled … And the Cat (Untitled XI) had hung, which was loaned to my offices at the U.N. and the White House by the de Kooning Foundation courtesy of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies. Gone too are the painted purple and blue wooden sign with a green handprint made by my daughter, Maris, at summer camp that greeted guests at my front office door with “Susan E. Rice’s Office, National Security Advisor”; the placard with my signature mantra “Get Shit Done,” which was strategically placed on my bookshelf to spur me on over the years; and the wooden carved desk plate emblazoned with “United States of America,” which I liberated from the 2015 Camp David Summit with Gulf Arab leaders. The only remaining color in the room comes from the television set still playing the lead-up to the oath of office.

Ian snaps some final pictures of my former office and captures me as I walk out one last time. The clock above the door reads 11:52. Time to go.

As I head out, I gather my beloved colleagues senior advisor Curtis Ried and special assistant Adam Strickler, who sit outside my office. Curtis is dressed to the nines as usual—in a perfectly tailored suit, funky colorful socks, and expertly coiffed hair. Adam is ready, as always, with his sweet smile, sparkly brown eyes, and unfailingly even demeanor, which have helped soothe me and several of my predecessors through countless storms. The four of us head down the stairs and out the door of the West Basement back to the driveway separating the White House from the Old Executive Office Building. We all pile into the Secret Service black armored Suburban. Before we pull away, I see John Fitzpatrick, NSC senior director for records and access, across the driveway. I jump out of the car and hustle over to give him a hug goodbye and thank him. An experienced career civil servant in his fifties, John has the enormous, ongoing job of overseeing the transfer of all Obama-era NSC records to the Archives.

As we roll out of the White House gates for the last time, my lead Secret Service agent, Tom Rizza, leans back and says, “Ma’am, I need to ask you for your White House cell phone and your badge.” I hand them over dutifully, with a combination of sadness, finality, and relief.

The radio is tuned to the inauguration and, shortly after we leave the White House complex headed to Joint Base Andrews, President Trump takes the oath of office, concluding: “So help me God.”

I’m thinking to myself, Please God, help us all, especially President Trump. I struggle to persuade myself that his presidency will be better than his campaign and transition. Surely, the weight of the office will sober and steel him. It couldn’t possibly be as bad as some fear.

Trump’s speech is unpleasant, if unremarkable, until he utters words that seem to make the armored vehicle shudder: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

We all look at each other, stunned.

“Did he just say ‘carnage’? In his Inaugural Address?” I ask no one in particular. I really wasn’t sure I heard him correctly.

Seated behind them, I sense the agents wince almost imperceptibly. No one is prepared for the cynicism and ugliness of “American carnage.” We ride the rest of the way to Andrews in near silence.

When President and Mrs. Obama depart the Capitol after the swearing-in, they will helicopter to Andrews in order to fly to their destination in Palm Springs, California, on the plane that we think of as Air Force One (but isn’t because Obama is no longer president). But before they depart, there will be one last goodbye.

Two months earlier, in November 2016, on our final overseas trip with the president, I suggested to Anita Decker Breckenridge that we organize a proper send-off for the Obamas at Andrews. I recalled fondly the moving and emotional goodbye for the Clintons staged in a big hangar with staff and cabinet, active duty military personnel, an honor guard, and military band. It was a great way to bond the team at the end of the administration and put a bow on eight years of triumph and tribulation—to say goodbye and thank you. I thought the Obamas deserved the same and knew how much it would mean for staff to be together with them one last time. Anita made it happen, as she did so much over the years.

We pull up to the packed hangar in time to hustle inside, make our way up to the front, and position ourselves close to the podium alongside the rest of the senior staff. Conversations are muted and abbreviated as we wait together for former President Obama and the first lady to arrive and speak to us assembled one last time.

When that moment comes and the president begins, “Michelle and I, we’ve really been milking this goodbye thing, so it behooves me to be very brief,” someone calls out, “No, no!”

“Yes, yes!” he says, and continues from there.

As if to comfort the bereaved, he reminds us all that our jobs are not over. Democracy, he tells us, 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 argue with each other and come together and knock on doors and make phone calls and treat people with respect. And that doesn’t end. This is just a—just a little old pit stop. This … is not a period. This is a comma in the continuing story of building America.”

He tells us all how proud he is of us, that he can’t wait to see what we do next and, he concludes, “And I promise you, I’ll be right here with you.

“All right?

“God Bless you. Thank you, everybody.

“Yes, we did. Yes, we can.

“God Bless America.”

Then, too soon, it’s time for them to leave. Former president and Mrs. Obama each give me and Ian farewell embraces and deliver many others. It is a fitting send-off for a president who had done so much good, with such humility, and who made his whole team proud every day he served.

Rain falls as the Obamas walk outside along the red carpet, up the stairs to the plane door, then turn and wave one last time. Many of us stay behind to share memories, comfort one another, and promise to stay in touch. The Secret Service has kindly agreed to take their former protectees home, including me and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and his family, rather than leave us curbside at Andrews. The four of us cram back into my agents’ SUV, plus my (now former) chief of staff Suzy George, and we head to my house.

Outside our home, Ian and I thank my four Secret Service agents from the bottom of our hearts. The bond of gratitude and trust you form with men and women who would give their lives to protect you is hard to convey.

After we take a few final pictures, I ask them, “Where do you go from here?”

“Well, ma’am,” one says with a hint of trepidation, “we are going to pick up Kellyanne,” the incoming White House counselor to President Donald J. Trump.

Stoically, I reply, “Good luck and thank you again,” and turn to walk into the house with Ian and my team.

As soon as the door slams shut, overwhelmed by a flood of mixed emotions, I burst into tears.



“Honey, can you tell the doctor what’s happening?”

“First, it was voices. And now it’s like people, real people, but I can tell they aren’t real… they are coming out of the walls. And they move toward me and talk.”

“Are they scary? Do they threaten you?”

“No, not really scary, but it’s creepy. They come at bad times like in class at school, or when I was at Frannie’s house for a sleepover. And I don’t know when to expect them, and it really bothers me.”

“Do you recognize them?”

“No, it’s mostly a man. I don’t know him, but he is very real.”

This was the recurring conversation my daughter, Maris, my husband, Ian, and I were having with various doctors at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. It was November 2012, and our beautiful, happy, seemingly healthy eight-year-old was suddenly having frequent and unpredictable hallucinations. She was bothered, and we were terrified.

Over a span of three weeks, a phalanx of neurologists, psychiatrists, ophthalmologists, and radiologists pummeled Maris with MRIs, needles, exams, and repetitive questions. The doctors said the most likely cause was a brain tumor. Other possibilities included schizophrenia, a visual disorder, abuse, or psychological stress. I was flying back and forth from New York, where I was serving as the United States ambassador to the United Nations, to attend these various appointments and to comfort Maris.

Eventually, the tests ruled out the worst possible explanations. No tumor, no mental disorder, no physical trauma or abnormality. Still, no explanation. The episodes continued for almost a year, albeit with diminishing frequency after January 2013. Over time, her doctors concluded that Maris was experiencing a stress reaction to watching her mother being assailed for my role in characterizing the Benghazi attack.

While serving as U.N. ambassador, I had appeared on five Sunday shows in mid-September 2012, just days after four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, had been killed in a terrorist attack on the U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya. Speaking from talking points prepared by the Intelligence Community, I provided their initial assessment of what had happened. Rapidly thereafter, I became the target of right-wing commentators and Republican members of Congress who falsely accused me of incompetence and, worse, of lying to the American people about the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.

Still a young child, Maris had internalized the distress that had infused our household. In hindsight, Ian and I realized we had failed to turn off the television quickly enough and to keep it off at home, before it was too late. Maris was hurt and angry. She couldn’t understand what was happening or why. But she was damn sure of two things: she loved her mother intensely, and she despised Senator Lindsey Graham. She wanted nothing more than to call his office and tell him so.

We didn’t let her make the call, but we were sorely tempted.

Washington’s politics of personal destruction don’t come free of cost. They damage and destroy the lives of innocents who neither signed up for the public spotlight nor can comprehend vicious character assassinations of the ones they love.

Our son, Jake, then thirteen years old, managed to distance himself from the uproar that swept through our lives like wildfire. Or, at least at the time, he seemed better able to compartmentalize his feelings—something I know a little bit about too.

In addition to Maris, I worried a great deal about my seventy-eight-year-old mother, Lois. Brilliant, accomplished, and elegant, my mother was stuck at her Embassy Row town house in Washington, D.C., recovering from her third surgery in her battle with cancer, rather than enjoying the first of fall foliage in her home state of Maine, as she normally would in September.

My mother warned me: I should never have gone on the Sunday shows.

Until she passed, on appropriate occasions, Mom would remind me, with a gentle smile, of her advice unheeded.

In those early days, it was hard to grasp the depth and force of the reaction to my appearances. It was harder still to imagine that it would endure, not only through the entirety of the 2012 presidential campaign, but long thereafter. I became a household name and the poster child for bilious Obama-haters on Fox and in right-wing social media. For months, it was relentless. And though it ebbed, it has never ended.

I have always viewed myself as a professional, a patriot, a dedicated public servant. I do not much mind if some people don’t like me. And some don’t. Never before, however, had I been accused of being stupid or, worse, dishonest. None of which mattered when, on September 16, 2012, I became and remain, as one commentator on MSNBC said, “the right-wing’s favorite chew toy.” Or at least one of them.

Ever since my name became synonymous with Benghazi, I have wanted to tell my story. Almost overnight, I went from being a respected if relatively low-profile cabinet official to a nationally notorious villain or heroine, depending on one’s political perspective and what cable news channel you watch.

I am neither. The portrayals of me on both sides are superficial and uninformed by who I am and where I come from, by what motivates and truly defines me.

I could not tell my own story—until I left government. When I was a senior official who spoke publicly, I was speaking on behalf of the United States of America and our president. For the five years after Benghazi until I returned to private life, I was compelled to allow myself to be defined by others—something I never had to do before or otherwise would have tolerated. It’s hard to convey how frustrating that feels, especially when the public portrayal is false or demeaning. Now I am free to not only tell my own story but also what I have learned over the course of my life in service.

Recently, the renowned professional tennis coach Nick Bollettieri watched me hit a few strokes on the court and said: “I can tell what you are. You are fiercely competitive and a sore loser.” My younger brother, Johnny, and I laughed uproariously. Ten minutes into our first encounter, Bollettieri had nailed me. My hope is that I have grown more gracious in both winning and losing over time, but neither I nor Johnny was prepared to argue this point with Nick. He was more right than wrong.

For over four decades, I have been sprinting. Running as far and as fast as I can—through whatever pain—to try to exceed expectations, in school, at university, in my work, and as a daughter, wife, and mother. I’ve had little time to absorb and reflect on what I have discovered about myself, my family, my hometown of Washington, D.C., or the extraordinary professional experiences I’ve had. From my first job on the White House National Security Council staff, starting in the Clinton administration at age twenty-eight to becoming the youngest ever regional assistant secretary of state, from representing our country at the United Nations to wrestling as national security advisor with the toughest threats we face, I have been privileged to participate in making many of the most complex and consequential decisions the U.S. has confronted over the last twenty-five years.

I haven’t had time to breathe. Until now. In retracing my steps and reclaiming my voice, it was necessary to revisit the foundations of who I am—to study my family history and build on the knowledge imparted to me in disconnected snippets over decades. To recall the myriad blessings I have been given, and to renew my vows to fulfill the responsibility that comes with such blessings. To relearn the fundamental lessons my parents taught me about race, resilience, equality, excellence, education, and overcoming adversity.

I am a direct person. You will find that what you see is what you get. I’m not pulling my punches, even when they land on me or the ones I love most. That’s part of the tough love way I was raised. I also can’t tell you absolutely everything. There are too many important issues on which I have worked over the years to recount them all. By necessity, I have been selective, since this is a personal story, not a comprehensive diplomatic history, yet one that I hope will elucidate how American foreign policy is customarily made. There are some matters—personal, professional, classified—I will keep to myself and take to my grave. Tell-all books, which sell copies at the expense of others, are tacky and not my style. But I am giving you all I can, the best I can, straight-up, with whatever wisdom I can add for good measure.

In the earlier chapters ahead, I’ve opened each with reflections on my time leading up to and including the Obama years. This nonlinear approach links my more recent past with my childhood and young adulthood, when I learned many lessons that would help shape me as a leader. From then, as I delve into my time in the Clinton and Obama administrations, I have opted for openings that typically go to the heart of the chapter to come.

Reflecting on our current complex and disconcerting times, I recognize that many Americans are questioning our leadership role in the world. Many also doubt the relevance of the American dream to huge segments of our society who have been left behind and locked out of the kinds of privileges that I’ve been fortunate to enjoy. My mother used to look back on her amazing life and say, “Not bad for a poor colored girl from Portland, Maine.” We need more Lois Dickson Rices who can overcome the odds and win in tomorrow’s United States.

Almost by definition, I am an optimist, or I couldn’t stay sane while doing the intense and sometimes terrifying work of national security. I am a big believer in our country, which has given so much to me, my family, and to so many others with far less than what my grandparents had, who were both immigrants and descendants of slaves.

Yet, I am not naive. I know that it’s works that matter—not words, not hope, not even the most powerful dreams. We each have agency and responsibility. We can’t be passive bystanders, victims, or vigilantes. We must each commit to unify and to heal. We must fear none, especially our fellow Americans.

I still believe that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but nobody is going to do the hard bending, if not you and me. It’s our choice, and I have always believed we must choose each other.

My sincere hope in telling my story is that others may find in it inspiration and empowerment, perhaps a source of strength and fearlessness. If nothing else, I aim to share what I have learned along the way: the importance of always doing your best; picking yourself up and dusting yourself off; and driving down the court to the bucket—all while maintaining grace under fire.

Finally, I hope that you will see the value of my father’s core doctrine. Emmett J. Rice, who overcame Jim Crow, the segregated armed forces, and pervasive employment discrimination to rise to the top of his field, hammered something essential into me and my brother: “Don’t take crap off of anyone.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Tough Love includes an introduction and discussion questions for your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book


Recalling pivotal moments from her dynamic career on the front lines of American diplomacy and foreign policy, Susan E. Rice—National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations—reveals her surprising story with unflinching candor in her memoir, Tough Love. Whether as a mother, wife, scholar, diplomat, or fierce champion of American interests and values, Rice conveys with clarity and humor how her many roles protecting the home front—of her family and the nation—were informed by the tough love she received growing up and throughout her life. Through the strong examples of her parents and of generations past, she was encouraged to compete and excel in settings where women and people of color are few. Rising to the highest echelons of the U.S. government, Rice never forgot her origins, and now she shares the wisdom she learned along the way with her characteristic humility, integrity, and conviction.

This inside look at a woman whose public persona has been both praised and attacked spans three decades of recent, poignant history—from “Black Hawk Down” in Somalia to the genocide in Rwanda and the East Africa embassy bombings in the late 1990s, and from conflicts in Libya and Syria to the Ebola epidemic, a secret channel to Iran, and the opening to Cuba during the Obama years. With unmatched insight and her usual bluntness, she reveals previously untold stories behind recent national security challenges, including confrontations with Russia and China, the war against ISIS, the struggle to contain the fallout from Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, the U.S. response to Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the surreal transition to the Trump administration. Clarifying her positions on incidents that have incensed and motivated world powers, Rice offers an unvarnished opinion on her own role in the country’s legacy on the world stage, as well as her optimism about the future. Ultimately, Tough Love makes an urgent appeal to the American public to bridge our dangerous domestic divides in order to preserve our democracy and sustain our global leadership.

Tough Love is a wonderful read for anyone who wants to compete and thrive in unforgiving environments and to get back up if they’ve been knocked down.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. What about Rice’s upbringing and family roots made her path in government a logical, perhaps expected, one, and what made her decision exceptional? Consider her parents’ work in economics, politics, and education and the impression their work ethic made on her as a child.

2. Rice says of her own children, “I believe that kids come into this world precooked to a substantial extent, with the capacity to be molded and shaped, but with much of their nature established” (218). How is this idea of one’s innate personality manifesting itself from an early age apparent in Rice herself? Consider her relationship with her brother, Johnny, and her third-grade teacher’s advice to “Stay strong [but] try to be more gentle and less impatient with the other kids” (56).

3. Unlike today, Rice grew up in an age of three news networks, which she describes as delivering the news “unvarnished and un-spun” (53). What were some of the events or issues in the news that had the strongest influence on her understanding of the U.S. government, and how did her family’s engagement with the news help shape her opinion on policy and forge her skills as a negotiator?

4. In what ways has the role and presence of the media changed in delivering information to the public? Consider what Rice learned in later years from her friend at Fox News about how the network used her Sunday show reports on Benghazi, as well as the public defamation she was made to endure for having delivered the Intelligence Community’s initial assessment about the attack. Did the explanation of the network’s turning to Rice as their new “villain” for a “ratings bonanza” make sense to you, and do you observe similar things happening in the media today (333)?

5. Writing in the era of #MeToo, how does Rice describe her experience of sexual harassment when she was a fourteen-year-old page in Congress? She also describes an uncomfortable encounter with Donald Trump and Charlie Rose. What was her response at the time, and how does she feel about her actions now?

6. During her first government post, in the Clinton administration, Rice went to Rwanda in the wake of the genocide of 1994. How did that searing experience shape her approach to Africa as a public leader, and her response to instances of gross human rights violations in the future?

7. What is Rice’s comfort level in seeking assistance and advice from mentors, ranging from her schoolteachers to senior leaders like Madeleine Albright, Tony Lake, and Richard Clarke? How does she combine both humility and confidence in engaging with people who are more experienced than she is?

8. Throughout her life, Rice faces implicit and explicit challenges to her career because she is a woman, wife, and mother. What seemed to you to be the hardest trials Rice had to face, such as her struggles breastfeeding while making dangerous trips to Africa, the commute between Washington and New York to serve at the U.N., and even her decision to serve tea to an opposition leader in Nigeria?

9. What do Rice’s views about the power of meeting people where they are say about her? She writes, “I learned that leadership is more like conducting a symphony than performing as a virtuoso player of any single instrument—often with multiple, potentially dissonant musicians and the need to achieve harmony among them. . . . The most enduring outcomes are not always the swiftest ones; indeed, the best route from Point A to Point B is not always a straight line but could be a path with twists and turns” (203). Do you agree with this? Why or why not?

10. Did any of the events Rice describes, such as the 9/11 attacks, Ebola outbreak, several elections, the capture of Osama bin Laden, and others, bring up memories or feelings in you? How did hearing her perspective as a government official change your view of these events? Did you come away from reading the book feeling differently about anything or anyone, including Rice herself?

11. Rice calls the false accusations published in Vanity Fair in 2002—that she refused incriminating evidence against Osama bin Laden during her talks with Sudan—her “maiden national hazing” (210). How would you have reacted if you were in this position? Consider how she describes the effect of such stress and anxiety on herself and on her family in this instance and others.

12. Rice has a unique relationship with Barack Obama given what she describes as similarities in temperament, management style, and values. How does this match enhance their working relationship throughout his administration?

13. Recall for yourself how and to what extent you heard about the 2012 Benghazi attacks and Rice’s involvement with them. What does this book’s testimony clarify for you about Rice’s statements? What do you imagine would have happened if she had listened to her mother and did not go on the morning shows? Did you agree with Rice’s decision to drop out of the running for secretary of state? Has your understanding of how government information is shared with the public changed at all? Does her experience make you question whether you have been told the full truth of other stories in the news?

14. Rice shares behind-the-scenes details of many highs and lows of the Obama administration, especially in Chapters 20 and 21. Which stories surprised, amused, disturbed, or enlightened you the most? Consider both moments of major conflict or decision making, such as Syria, the discovery of the Snowden leaks, or Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, and day-to-day anecdotes, such as Rice’s wardrobe advice to Obama for St. Patrick’s Day. Did these accounts change your previous opinions on the government or president during that period?

15. How do Rice and her top NSC deputies, collectively dubbed “the Furies” by President Obama, complement, challenge, and support each other? What is significant about their collaboration as women in these top-leadership positions?

16. Consider what insights Rice brought to policymaking as a woman and mother: “Motherhood . . . has given me a sense of priority about what matters most. It has invested me more deeply in the future and in the long-term consequences of policy choices” (218).

17. Rice describes the dangers of our country’s increasing polarization as, among other things, “afford[ing] our adversaries easy openings through which to pit Americans against one another—to distrust, discredit, and ultimately, detest each other” (478). Do you see this happening within your own family or communities? What concerns you most about our current political climate, and are you inspired by Rice’s encouragement that you look for ways to connect with others?

18. Consider Rice’s relationship with her son, Jake, whose political views have diverged from hers. What keeps their bond loving and mutually supportive despite their different political views? Is there anyone in your life whose views conflict with yours, and how do you get along?

About The Author

Photography by Christopher Patey,

Ambassador Susan E. Rice is currently Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the School of International Service at American University, a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. She serves on the boards of Netflix and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and previously served on several nonprofit boards, including the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.

Rice earned her master’s degree and doctorate in international relations from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar, and her bachelor’s degree from Stanford University. A native of Washington, DC, and a graduate of the National Cathedral School for Girls, she is married to Ian Cameron; they have two children. Rice is an avid tennis player and a long-retired basketball player.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 4, 2020)
  • Length: 560 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501189982

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