This reading group guide for Tough Love includes an introduction and discussion questions for your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the bookIntroduction
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Recalling pivotal moments from her dynamic career on the front lines of American diplomacy and foreign policy, Susan E. Rice—National Security Advisor to President Barack Obama and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations—reveals her surprising story with unflinching candor in her memoir, Tough Love.
Whether as a mother, wife, scholar, diplomat, or fierce champion of American interests and values, Rice conveys with clarity and humor how her many roles protecting the home front—of her family and the nation—were informed by the tough love she received growing up and throughout her life. Through the strong examples of her parents and of generations past, she was encouraged to compete and excel in settings where women and people of color are few. Rising to the highest echelons of the U.S. government, Rice never forgot her origins, and now she shares the wisdom she learned along the way with her characteristic humility, integrity, and conviction.
This inside look at a woman whose public persona has been both praised and attacked spans three decades of recent, poignant history—from “Black Hawk Down” in Somalia to the genocide in Rwanda and the East Africa embassy bombings in the late 1990s, and from conflicts in Libya and Syria to the Ebola epidemic, a secret channel to Iran, and the opening to Cuba during the Obama years. With unmatched insight and her usual bluntness, she reveals previously untold stories behind recent national security challenges, including confrontations with Russia and China, the war against ISIS, the struggle to contain the fallout from Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks, the U.S. response to Russian interference in the 2016 election, and the surreal transition to the Trump administration. Clarifying her positions on incidents that have incensed and motivated world powers, Rice offers an unvarnished opinion on her own role in the country’s legacy on the world stage, as well as her optimism about the future. Ultimately, Tough Love
makes an urgent appeal to the American public to bridge our dangerous domestic divides in order to preserve our democracy and sustain our global leadership.Tough Love
is a wonderful read for anyone who wants to compete and thrive in unforgiving environments and to get back up if they’ve been knocked down.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What about Rice’s upbringing and family roots made her path in government a logical, perhaps expected, one, and what made her decision exceptional? Consider her parents’ work in economics, politics, and education and the impression their work ethic made on her as a child.
2. Rice says of her own children, “I believe that kids come into this world precooked to a substantial extent, with the capacity to be molded and shaped, but with much of their nature established” (218). How is this idea of one’s innate personality manifesting itself from an early age apparent in Rice herself? Consider her relationship with her brother, Johnny, and her third-grade teacher’s advice to “Stay strong [but] try to be more gentle and less impatient with the other kids” (56).
3. Unlike today, Rice grew up in an age of three news networks, which she describes as delivering the news “unvarnished and un-spun” (53). What were some of the events or issues in the news that had the strongest influence on her understanding of the U.S. government, and how did her family’s engagement with the news help shape her opinion on policy and forge her skills as a negotiator?
4. In what ways has the role and presence of the media changed in delivering information to the public? Consider what Rice learned in later years from her friend at Fox News about how the network used her Sunday show reports on Benghazi, as well as the public defamation she was made to endure for having delivered the Intelligence Community’s initial assessment about the attack. Did the explanation of the network’s turning to Rice as their new “villain” for a “ratings bonanza” make sense to you, and do you observe similar things happening in the media today (333)?
5. Writing in the era of #MeToo, how does Rice describe her experience of sexual harassment when she was a fourteen-year-old page in Congress? She also describes an uncomfortable encounter with Donald Trump and Charlie Rose. What was her response at the time, and how does she feel about her actions now?
6. During her first government post, in the Clinton administration, Rice went to Rwanda in the wake of the genocide of 1994. How did that searing experience shape her approach to Africa as a public leader, and her response to instances of gross human rights violations in the future?
7. What is Rice’s comfort level in seeking assistance and advice from mentors, ranging from her schoolteachers to senior leaders like Madeleine Albright, Tony Lake, and Richard Clarke? How does she combine both humility and confidence in engaging with people who are more experienced than she is?
8. Throughout her life, Rice faces implicit and explicit challenges to her career because she is a woman, wife, and mother. What seemed to you to be the hardest trials Rice had to face, such as her struggles breastfeeding while making dangerous trips to Africa, the commute between Washington and New York to serve at the U.N., and even her decision to serve tea to an opposition leader in Nigeria?
9. What do Rice’s views about the power of meeting people where they are say about her? She writes, “I learned that leadership is more like conducting a symphony than performing as a virtuoso player of any single instrument—often with multiple, potentially dissonant musicians and the need to achieve harmony among them. . . . The most enduring outcomes are not always the swiftest ones; indeed, the best route from Point A to Point B is not always a straight line but could be a path with twists and turns” (203). Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
10. Did any of the events Rice describes, such as the 9/11 attacks, Ebola outbreak, several elections, the capture of Osama bin Laden, and others, bring up memories or feelings in you? How did hearing her perspective as a government official change your view of these events? Did you come away from reading the book feeling differently about anything or anyone, including Rice herself?
11. Rice calls the false accusations published in Vanity Fair
in 2002—that she refused incriminating evidence against Osama bin Laden during her talks with Sudan—her “maiden national hazing” (210). How would you have reacted if you were in this position? Consider how she describes the effect of such stress and anxiety on herself and on her family in this instance and others.
12. Rice has a unique relationship with Barack Obama given what she describes as similarities in temperament, management style, and values. How does this match enhance their working relationship throughout his administration?
13. Recall for yourself how and to what extent you heard about the 2012 Benghazi attacks and Rice’s involvement with them. What does this book’s testimony clarify for you about Rice’s statements? What do you imagine would have happened if she had listened to her mother and did not go on the morning shows? Did you agree with Rice’s decision to drop out of the running for secretary of state? Has your understanding of how government information is shared with the public changed at all? Does her experience make you question whether you have been told the full truth of other stories in the news?
14. Rice shares behind-the-scenes details of many highs and lows of the Obama administration, especially in Chapters 20 and 21. Which stories surprised, amused, disturbed, or enlightened you the most? Consider both moments of major conflict or decision making, such as Syria, the discovery of the Snowden leaks, or Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, and day-to-day anecdotes, such as Rice’s wardrobe advice to Obama for St. Patrick’s Day. Did these accounts change your previous opinions on the government or president during that period?
15. How do Rice and her top NSC deputies, collectively dubbed “the Furies” by President Obama, complement, challenge, and support each other? What is significant about their collaboration as women in these top-leadership positions?
16. Consider what insights Rice brought to policymaking as a woman and mother: “Motherhood . . . has given me a sense of priority about what matters most. It has invested me more deeply in the future and in the long-term consequences of policy choices” (218).
17. Rice describes the dangers of our country’s increasing polarization as, among other things, “afford[ing] our adversaries easy openings through which to pit Americans against one another—to distrust, discredit, and ultimately, detest each other” (478). Do you see this happening within your own family or communities? What concerns you most about our current political climate, and are you inspired by Rice’s encouragement that you look for ways to connect with others?
18. Consider Rice’s relationship with her son, Jake, whose political views have diverged from hers. What keeps their bond loving and mutually supportive despite their different political views? Is there anyone in your life whose views conflict with yours, and how do you get along?