Susan Rice withdraws her name from consideration for State
Articles have claimed Rice is undiplomatic and difficult to work for
Amar Bakshi says those descriptions clashed with the reality of working for Rice
He says Rice demonstrated openness, honesty and passion as a boss
U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name from consideration Thursday for secretary of state. Over the past few months, a slew of articles have criticized Rice’s personality. The Daily Beast recently ran a piece titled “Susan Rice’s Personality Disorder.” These articles allege that America’s U.N. ambassador is “brusque,” “dismissive,” “undiplomatic,” “shrill” and awful to work for. I felt compelled to write something because these caricatures of Rice bear no resemblance to my former boss.
I worked for Susan Rice in 2009 and 2010 as her special assistant in the Washington office of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Over the past few weeks, I have talked to other junior staffers for Rice—current and former—who all share my surprise at the way she has been described.
Junior staffers see a side of their “principal”—Washington-speak for boss—that others do not. Being a special assistant involves a wide swath of activities: couriering papers, sitting in on meetings and delving into some policy issues. In this multifaceted role, my colleagues and I saw Rice as a boss, as a diplomat and as a person. In each arena, Rice demonstrated a rare combination of openness, honesty and passion.
Early on in the job, I delivered a 50-page paper on Afghanistan to Rice. Before I could set it down on her desk, she asked, “What do you think of it?” I hadn’t read a word and froze.
I soon found out that this was typical of Rice. She always asks people at all levels what they think; she’s not concerned with hierarchy or status, just ideas. You see this in her strategy meetings, which always involve staff at all levels. You also see this when Rice tours foreign countries. She is just as interested in the stories of people on the streets as the proclamations of ministers—and often more so.
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As a diplomat, Rice can be extraordinarily charming. She can put new acquaintances instantly at ease. But she can just as easily snap them to attention.
Rice has little patience for dissembling and her insistence on thorough preparation means that she invariably knows the subject matter as well as—and usually better than—her interlocutor. This enables Rice to move from charm to hard substance in an instant, getting to the heart of an issue quickly. Some people have criticized this aspect of Rice’s personality as “undiplomatic.” If diplomacy is the art of talking and doing nothing, then perhaps they’re right. But that has never been Susan Rice.
Rice is in government because she believes in strengthening America and improving this world. Rice believes that advancing core principles serves U.S. interests in the long run. You can see this belief guiding her approach to issue after issue, in meeting after meeting.
Rice is down to earth, too, which won the loyalty of her slightly younger staffers in particular. She has an inexplicably vast collection of go-go music—a D.C. invention. She has mastered social media and new technology, but only after overcoming a healthy dose of skepticism. And she has a general demeanor, some combination of athlete and wonk, that conveys cool.
I don’t mean to minimize the serious policy issues she has handled as U.N. ambassador, a member of President Obama’s Cabinet and a lifelong public servant. One op-ed is not enough space to engage her many accomplishments in government and the various policy disputes that inevitably arise over 20 years in high office.
All I can say in this short piece—and say with total confidence—is that Susan Rice is a wonderful person and an inspiring boss. Washington is filled with people seeking power for its own sake; people embroiled in partisan politics; petty people; imperious, dismissive people; people who put themselves before others. But that is not Susan Rice.
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The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amar C. Bakshi.