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The Faith of Condoleezza Rice
by Leslie Montgomery
(Click for Amazon book review)
Massscorecard.org BOOK REVIEW:
This book is not a political biography, but a faith-based biography. It focuses on the basis of Condi's faith (primarily from her pastor father, John Rice) and then on how Condi applies that faith to public policy decisions. The book details her early childhood in segregated Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s, and follows Condi's career through college and to George W. Bush's Cabinet. The thesis of the book is presented on the opening page of chapter 1:
The examples of lack of political understanding come early and often, starting in chapter one, where the author asserts that "in 1863, President Lincoln, a slave owner himself, issued the Emancipation Proclamation" (p. 17). Huh? Lincoln owned slaves? That was the most important political issue of the Civil War, so certainly a politically astute writer would know that. Just in case, I checked the Internet, and indeed there are lots of conspiracy theories that Lincoln owned slaves, including one current book entitled Did Lincoln Own Slaves?. (The answer to that book's title question is No, and that author says it's just a dumb question that people insist on asking, despite a total lack of any evidence). That glaring inaccuracy calls into question the accuracy of the rest of the book's historical and political analysis.
You might say, "Well, knowing about Lincoln is really about history, not about politics." True, but the purpose of citing historical context is to understand Condi's roots and Condi's milieu. The author says exactly that in the follow-up to the thesis excerpt above:
Nevertheless, the author does present a solid study of the history of the civil rights movement, as the formative background milieu of Condi's childhood. Applying historical context to one person's development is a meaningful and unusual analysis, and to that extent the civil rights history is valid. For example, Condi was near enough to have felt the explosion the infamous Birmingham church bombing (the 1963 event in which four young black choir girls were killed in Birmingham Alabama by a white racist's bomb). Condi's memory of that event -- and her personal recollection of her feelings associated with it -- are certainly important for understanding her adult character.
But the author insists on cataloguing just about EVERY major event of the civil rights movement, whether Condi was affected by it or not. For example, the author describes how, in 1977, the United States Postal Service issued the first commemorative stamps about Black Heritage (p. 109). The author notes that Condi was 23 years old and beginning work on her PhD at that time -- but there is no comment by Condi on the relevance of those stamps, nor even if Condi was aware of their existence. So why mention them? The same applies to the Rodney King beating and subsequent Los Angeles riots in 1991 (Condi was in Stanford then, hundreds of miles away) -- and to dozens of other historical references which seems unconnected to Condi's life. It feels like the author did the historical research (solid); then interviewed Condi (interesting); then connected the relevant historical parts to Condi's character (purposeful); but then left in the book all of the irrelevant parts that should have been removed.
While the civil rights history has at least one purpose -- that it is an unusual history that many readers are unfamiliar with -- the author does the same with political history -- which is the typical means of presenting history, and hence offers nothing new to the reader. The author presents numerous aspects of current events as Condi became more involved with politics and government -- but again, numerous irrelevancies remain disconnected with the political history as much as with the civil rights history. For example, the author details the 1993 World Trade Center bombings (pp. 151-2) but connects that to Condi only by noting that at that time Condi was provost at Stanford University. Condi offeres no comment on the bombings; had nothing to do with the response to the bombing; and there's nowhere later in the book that readers might refer back to the bombing as the basis for Condi's later policy choice -- so why include it at all?
Readers are left to their own devices to determine whether an historical episode relates to Condi or not. I took to scanning ahead to see if Condi would offer a comment, before committing myself to reading, say, two pages about the 1993 WTC bombing. If Condi is not mentioned, I just felt misled by the author into a tangential area that would be better avoided. In summary, this book is great for understanding Condi's faith -- but is awful for understanding Condi's history or Condi's politics.
-- Jesse Gordon, editor-in-chief, Massscorecard.org, DJanuary 2013
by Leslie Montgomery.
Page last edited: Jun 30, 2013