Meet Susan Rice, Controversial UN Ambassador

Often-blunt aspirant for Secretary of State has powerful friends, and enemies.

November 27, 2012, 5:18 PM

Nov. 28, 2012 -- United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, on Capitol Hill this week answering questions about her role after the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi, has become yet another player in the divide between the left and right, with her possible nomination as the next Secretary of State hanging in the balance.

But who was Susan Rice before she told ABC's "This Week" and other Sunday morning shows the attack was a spontaneous response to an anti-Islam film and not a premeditated act of terror? Four Americans died in the September attack.

Unlike many in government, Rice holds a rare claim to Washington, D.C.: she's a local. She hails from a prominent family with deep ties to the Democratic Party. She was born Nov. 17, 1964 to Emmett Rice, a deputy director at the Treasury Department who served as a member of Jimmy Carter's Federal Reserve board, and Lois Dickson Rice, a former program officer at the Ford Foundation who is now a higher education expert at the Brookings Institution.

As a high school student at the all-girl National Cathedral School in Washington, Rice was known as an overachiever; valedictorian, star athlete and class president. After graduating high school in 1982, she went on to study history at Stanford, where she graduated as a Truman scholar and junior Phi Beta Kappa. Rice also attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

The family has roots in Maine. In an interview with the Portland Press Herald in 2008, Lois Dickson Rice said that she held the same high expectations for her children as her mother had held for her. According to the paper, Ambassador Rice's drive to achieve spanned generations. Her maternal grandmother, an immigrant from Jamaica, was named Maine State Mother of the Year in 1950. Rice's father was only the second African-American man to be chosen for the Federal Reserve board.

Two years out of Stanford, Rice joined Massachusetts Democrat Michael Dukakis as a foreign policy aide during his 1988 run for president. After his defeat, Rice tried her hand in the private sector, where she went on to work as a management consultant with McKinsey and Company. After President Clinton's election in 1992, she joined Clinton's National Security Council, eventually joining her mentor, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

A profile of the diplomat from Stanford paints the Rices and Albrights as old family friends.

"The Rice and Albright kids went to school together and shared meals at Hamburger Hamlet," Stanford Magazine reported in 2000.

But her tenure at the Clinton Administration was not without controversy. In a 2001 Atlantic Monthly article, Samantha Power, a human rights journalist who is now an Obama administration adviser, criticized Rice's response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda during her first years in the Clinton administration. Power wrote that Rice wondered on a conference call how the use of the word genocide would affect the November elections if the U.S. failed to intervene, appearing to be more preoccupied with the domestic political ramifications of the tragedy than in stopping the violence.

Rice has since said she deeply regrets the U.S. inaction in Rwanda. She moved from the NSC to the State Department during President Clinton's second term, serving as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, one of the youngest people to ever to hold the position.

When President George W. Bush took office, Rice left the State Department for Brookings. In 2007, she joined the first Obama presidential campaign as Senior Adviser for National Security Affairs. Rice was a staunch, outspoken surrogate for the president, and according to her detractors, maybe too outspoken.

In a 2008 Huffington Post blog, she sharply criticized Obama's primary opponent, then-Sen. Clinton, for voting for the Iraq war, saying it proved Clinton wouldn't be ready for a "3 a.m. call" in a national security emergency.

"Senators Clinton and McCain failed the judgment test when they voted for George Bush's Iraq war -- a war which has made America less safe and is the greatest strategic blunder of our generation -- without even bothering to read the full National Intelligence Estimate."

Rice was accused of being ageist in her later criticism of Sen. John McCain, calling him "confused" over the war in Iraq in a conference call with reporters.

"A real disturbing, even disconcerting pattern of confusing the basic facts and reality that pertain to Iraq from John McCain over a series of months. He doesn't know how many forces we have there. He thought we were down to pre-surge levels," Rice said.

Her loyalty and blunt-speaking manner has been appreciated and rewarded by allies, such as Albright and President Obama. When he took office he named Rice as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

But those same qualities have also made her a divisive figure in Washington. Some Washington insiders have wondered whether Rice -- Benghazi aside -- is the right person to be America's top diplomat.

"By all accounts, she is talented, capable and extremely abrasive," Washington Post political reporter Dana Milbank told ABC News. "Does she have the temperament to be the nation's top diplomatic? She's very smart, very driven, not necessarily very diplomatic."

William Antholis, the Managing Director of the Brookings Institute, worked closely with Rice at both Brookings and in the Clinton administration. Antholis told ABC News via email that few people in Washington rival Rice's knowledge and understanding of both foreign affairs and political institutions.

"In all of these settings, she was always in command of her brief -- and several others as well," he said. "Her combination of smarts and persistence won her respect and admiration among many of her peers and superiors."

Antholis also said that despite the rumblings over whether Rice has the temperament to be Secretary of State, he always found her to be extremely collegial.

"Susan was an ideal colleague. She helped advise senior leaders at Brookings not only on a wide range of policy issues, but also for how we could strengthen our Institution as place that could attract the best scholars from across the political spectrum," he said, adding that he hopes the partisan political wrangling won't derail her potential nomination. "If President Obama nominates her, I hope the nomination will be viewed as an endorsement of an extraordinarily talented, courageous, and persistent public servant."