Support Rhodes Scholar Susan Rice, or you're a racist

Or not. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 19, 2012 — When Senator John McCain attacked U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s account of the September 11 attack in Benghazi, he prompted a biting response from a group of female House Democrats. 

McCain said that Rice was “not very bright” in her comments about Benghazi. The women retorted that Rice was a Rhodes scholar and a Stanford graduate, while McCain was at the bottom of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy. Because Rice is clearly brilliant and McCain is not, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) and the others concluded racism as the basis for his comment. Said Fudge, “It is a shame that any time something goes wrong, they pick on women and minorities.”

Rice is quite clearly intelligent, as are her fellow Rhodes scholars Bobby Jindal, Rachel Maddow, Kris Kristofferson, George Stephanopoulos, and Naomi Wolf, but that’s hardly the point. Would anyone who’s delighted at the thought of Rice as Secretary of State be equally delighted over Ivy Leaguer Bobby Jindal? Jindal is undoubtedly a smart man, but is it really that hard to find a “not very bright” comment or two in his record? 

Liberal Democrats in Washington are among the most undemocratic of people. Almost everyone in Washington seems to be a believer in the cult of credentials, but rarely do conservatives use it as a sort of ad hominem attack. “She’s a top graduate of Stanford; who are you to attack her? Bottom of your class at Annapolis? Please!” Harvard, Stanford, Rhodes Scholarship - those give you immediate Washington street cred and immunity from the charge of stupidity. 

And so Robert McNamara gave us a Pentagon full of the “best and the brightest,” who in turn gave us the FB-111, Vietnam, and kill ratios. Goldman Sachs alumni (another credential with enormous power among the easily impressed) gave us the brave new financial world of the 21st century. We’ve got enormous and growing debt, health care reform that we still don’t fully understand (though HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has a pretty clear idea where she wants it to go), a foreign policy that manages to get all sorts of results in the Middle East except peace - but don’t call anyone “stupid.”

Washington has been filled with brilliant people under administrations of all political complexions. We can say that without irony - the place really does have more than its fair share of smart people per capita - but what exactly has all that brain power bought us? President Obama is a Harvard graduate, but once the thrill of his academic pedigree has run down our legs, how, we might ask, has he demonstrated his brilliance in more than running highly efficient political campaigns? 

Any idiot can make a mess of things, but it takes an uncanny level of genius to make a mess as big as our country is in now. Susan Rice is a brilliant woman? She didn’t have the good sense to ask her superiors why an impromptu group of demonstrators brought grenade launchers with them, did she? Her military-political IQ doesn’t reflect her GRE scores, it seems. 

When they aren’t talking about the power elite, liberals like to talk about diverse forms of “intelligence.” They talk about an IQ for people skills, for street smarts, for the non-testable types of intelligence that white men leave off the IQ tests. There’s something to be said for this. Leadership is obviously something that doesn’t require an Ivy League education. Consider Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. Truman was the last President of the United States not to have a college degree, a fact that today would keep him relegated to the ranks of wherever Democrats put people who have “other kinds” of intelligence. 

Rice is smart, and she’s been in training for the top job at State for years. Her supporters point to her pedigree, but there’s remarkably little to show that she really has an aptitude for it. When her supporters are reduced to defending her with, “she’s a Rhodes scholar and you’re not,” there’s a problem. Her Sunday talk-show appearances were a test of sorts. She didn’t just repeat the talking points she was given, she asserted with conviction that they were true, contradicting vehemently the president of the Libyan National Assembly who appeared before her on “Face the Nation.” 

McCain is right, that wasn’t “very bright.” You don’t have to be a racist to notice, or even the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Rice still hasn’t removed her foot from her mouth. If she wants to persuade the world that she’s the best choice for the job, she should perform that operation quickly. But it’s one she’s likely to have to perform repeatedly:

  • As assistant secretary of state in the Clinton Administration, Rice gave Richard Holbrooke a one-fingered salute at a meeting of senior State Department staff.
  • Rice alienated Hillary Clinton early on, jumping ship to Obama’s primary campaign and then sharply condemning Clinton’s positions on Iran and Iraq. 
  • In the 2008 presidential campaign, Rice mocked McCain’s trip to Iraq as “strolling around the market in a flak jacket,” which much more than anything else (certainly more than racism or misogyny) explains McCain’s dislike of her.
  • She denounced McCain and Bush for embracing a policy requiring Iran to suspend its nuclear program before beginning talks, calling it “counterproductive,” not remembering that it was the Europeans who had first suggested it. This upset our European allies and got Rice sidelined as Obama’s spokesman on foreign policy.
  • A Russian foreign ministry official is quoted by Kommersant, a Moscow business daily, as saying that Rice’s appointment would make it more difficult for Moscow to work with Washington.

Rice repeated the talking points she was given, with conviction. She has the makings of an excellent White House political director, obedient, harsh, and smart. She doesn’t have the smarts to be the Secretary of State.


James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonade. Some of his best friends are Stanford gradsHe tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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