Blunt, rude, aggressive and anything-but-diplomatic are adjectives being flung at United Nations ambassador Susan Rice who yesterday withdrew her name from consideration as the next Secretary of State.
The announcement came after weeks of Republican attacks that Rice downplayed the role of terrorists in the September Benghazi attacks that resulted in the deaths of the U.N. ambassador to Libya and three others.
Despite public support from President Barack Obama, who called her work “exemplary,” Rice said removing her name was based on matters more important than lengthy and divisive congressional hearings.
Rice’s decision to retreat, at least for now, immediately made me think about other high-profile women of the past whose political ascension was stymied by beltway politics, nitpicking and other shenanigans staged by opposing political parties.
Such treatment, then and now, is a telling message about how women continue to be scapegoats in the male-dominated industries of news, politics and war.
Lani Guinier, a Yale Law School graduate, was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to become the U.S. Assistant Attorney General for civil rights. Clinton withdrew his nomination of Guinier after she was accused of being one of his “quota queens” and over false reports of her academic writings. Guinier’s appointment was criticized by leading Democrat officials, including then Sen. Edward Kennedy – (D-Mass).
Jocelyn Elders, highly outspoken and equally controversial, was the first black woman appointed as U.S. Surgeon General, also under Bill Clinton. Her frank discussions about drug prevention and sex were too much for American ears back in 1993-94. Elders was fired after advocating masturbation as a means of preventing risky sex among young people.
Kimba Wood, nominated by Bill Clinton for United States Attorney General, failed to make the cut after it was learned that she hired an illegal alien as a nanny. Even though Wood paid taxes on the employee and her actions did not break any laws, Clinton instead placed Janet Reno in the post.
Harriett Miers, nominated by George W. Bush in 2005 as the replacement for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Vitriolic opposition from numerous Republicans forced Bush to withdraw Miers’ nomination; John G. Roberts Jr. became Miers’ replacement. Roberts currently is the high court’s chief justice.
Twenty years after the Guinier debacle begs the question as to whether women’s increased presence in politics has made a difference. While the jury is still out and despite the record number of women who will be sitting in Senate seats next month, I do see Rice’s situation as being somewhat different than Guinier, Elders and other women of color.
Race isn’t as transparent in Rice’s battle, perhaps due to a man; Rice’s father, Emmett J. Rice, a former Federal Reserve governor and Cornell University economist. The elder Rice often told his daughter that he feared his accomplishments would be seen as simply meeting affirmative action measures rather than merit. Susan Rice, a Rhodes Scholar, appears to have no such questions surrounding her dossier.
Gender, spoken or not, remains a reality.
The news media, incessant and unrelenting in discussions about Hillary Clinton’s likely run for president four years from now, are reluctant to dismiss Rice as a has-been who has lost her “game.”
That’s because they somehow sense that, unlike Rice’s 20-year-old predecessors, she’s too intriguing, too “in your face” and too sharp to be sidelined for too long.
She’s very much her own woman ready to sustain the battle in a male-dominated business.
Rice’s stoic-yet-sly resilience shown yesterday during her announcement speaks volume.
“How could you not want to serve, in my field, at the highest possible level?” replied Rice when NBC’s Brian Williams questioned her political ambitions.
Rice’s current setback in her quest to serve is just that. Will she soften up enough, as some claim Clinton had to do, to reach her ultimate career goals?
Man, I hope not.
Who knows? Maybe the 2016 election cycle will see Democratic primaries in which Rice and Clinton each seek the seat held by a man they now serve.
Bonnie Newman Davis is a journalist and journalism educator who lives in North Carolina and Virginia.