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On Susan Rice and How a Non-candidate Is Treated

220Px Susan Rice2 C Official State Dept Photo Portrait2 C 2010

Amid premature political attacks that were under-analyzed by the media, Susan Rice's actual record as a public servant was ignored. Did she ever have a chance? asks multimedia journalist Mary C. Curtis.

There the posse of senators stood, facing a bank of microphones and television cameras before the full story was known, criticizing an Obama administration official. That official’s offense? Making statements in front of the cameras and on television before the full story was known. It is the enduring image of the drama—or would it be farce—called "when Susan Rice met Washington’s political buzz saw."

What was striking in the seemingly endless coverage was how little actual information was revealed about Susan Rice or the tragic attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, when U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack first thought to be a protest over an anti-Muhammad video.

Certainly there were questions to be asked and answered by Congress on behalf the public. But was the crucial issue ever a supposed attempt by Rice to mislead, as her critics contend? Or did posturing in partisan Washington, always a part of the show, get in the way of the truth, and did the media do enough to cut through the clutter?

It all came to an end last week, or paused at least, when Rice withdrew her name from consideration for being considered a candidate to follow Hillary Clinton in the job of secretary of state. In a Washington Post column, Rice wrote, "Even before I was nominated for any new position, a steady drip of manufactured charges painted a wholly false picture of me. This has interfered increasingly with my work on behalf of the United States at the United Nations and with America’s agenda."

Rice said, "I concluded that it would be wrong to allow this debate to continue distracting from urgent national priorities—creating jobs, growing our economy, addressing our deficit, reforming our immigration system and protecting our national security."

In his response, President Obama said all the right things. "While I deeply regret the unfair and misleading attacks on Susan Rice in recent weeks, her decision demonstrates the strength of her character and an admirable commitment to rise above the politics of the moment to put our national interests first,” he said. “The American people can be proud to have a public servant of her caliber and character representing our country."

But was this UN ambassador, who repeated official talking points on Sunday talk shows, left on her own, now radioactive for a job she was never formally offered?

Rice’s history and resume went missing in much of the reporting about her, including her background as a Rhodes Scholar from Stanford University, her service on the staff of the National Security Council, as assistant secretary of state for African affairs for President Bill Clinton and as the U. S. ambassador at the United Nations. There were questions, as well, that would be appropriate for any prospective secretary of state, including Rice’s involvement in shaping U.S. African policy and its relationships with certain repressive leaders.

The coverage of Rice’s battle with Congress touched on these issues, but I came away hearing much more about style than substance, particularly Rice’s “blunt” ways and “aggressive” temperament, which is a common complaint when talking about women in powerful positions. It fit a familiar narrative when specifics would have been more enlightening.

Remember that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), one of Rice’s most vocal critics, lectured Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on her “excitable” ways and how she could learn to be a better person. Her Princeton and Yale law credentials also were somehow discounted in a haze of affirmative action accusations.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ), never one known for calm, joined Graham to lead the attacks on Susan Rice, questioning her qualifications and intellect. (McCain’s own history as a frequent Sunday talk show guest shows he is no shrinking violet.) Rice was characterized most often as a friend of the president, as though that’s the beginning and end of her.

Now, the top secretary of state candidate looks to be Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, yes, but a member of the Senate club. Kerry should feel diminished by the public process, which paints him as a president’s second choice; though who knows the complete and probably more complicated truth?

Some Republicans might be looking at a vacant Senate seat in Kerry’s Massachusetts as a chance for Scott Brown—defeated in November by Democrat Elizabeth Warren—to make a comeback for himself and the GOP. The public is left to wonder about hidden political motives, what’s next for Susan Rice and whether she was pushed or jumped in her decision to withdraw, what the "fiscal cliff" negotiations have to do with a foreign policy appointment and if all the drama was merely unfinished business playing out among DC power brokers.

While his Senate colleagues assure an easy confirmation battle for Kerry, will there be more discussion about how his vision meshes with the president’s and how his leadership at the State Department might differ from Rice’s? After all, their differences have meaning for the future of American foreign policy.

Of course, Kerry hasn’t been formally chosen for anything yet—like that ever stopped speculation.

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