Susan Rice: This Decade's Lani Guinier

Susan Rice in 2012; Lani Guinier in 1993 (Getty Images)

(The Root) — When President Obama released a statement on Thursday disclosing that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice had formally withdrawn her name from consideration as a nominee for secretary of state, it marked the conclusion of the first major political battle of the 2012 postelection cycle. Republicans, still smarting from their losses on Election Day, had decided to seek revenge the old-fashioned way: by playing politics. On Thursday they succeeded in claiming a highly prized scalp in their undeclared war with the president.

Rice had become the face of the administration's Benghazi controversy, and therefore the de facto punching bag for conservative conspiracy theorists, convinced that the deaths of Americans in the Libyan city involve some high-level Obama-administration cover-up. But what makes Rice an even more appealing trophy? The president considers her a friend. 


Yet the vitriol aimed at Rice led to allegations of racism and sexism, which I have written about and spoken about before. So the question that Rice's withdrawal raises is, what will the legacy of the Rice-nomination controversy be in the Obama administration going forward, and in history at large? 

Well, the first answer to that question is that in her withdrawal, she has managed to unwittingly unite the president and Republicans in one way: They all look bad. 

Republicans — particularly Sen. John McCain, who led the opposition to Rice — look like petty, bitter bullies. Worse, McCain's previous comments about Rice's qualifications (the man who presented Sarah Palin as presidential material labeled Rice — a Ph.D., Rhodes scholar and former assistant secretary of state — "unqualified") has left a permanent question mark over his legacy regarding his attitudes on race.

The question that will linger is whether he holds a black woman to different standards of capability from those he holds for a white woman. Thanks to how this has played out, we will never get to see Rice and McCain have any sort of public exchange at a confirmation hearing, so we will never fully know the answer to that question, to McCain's permanent detriment. 


Meanwhile, the president — thanks to his tough talk throughout the fiscal-cliff negotiations and in defense of Rice early on — fairly or not, looks far weaker. Yes, Rice "withdrew," but questions will always linger in the minds of some progressives — particularly women and African Americans rooting for Rice — about whether she truly withdrew of her own accord or felt pressured to because of the distraction her nomination fight was becoming. 

The greatest legacy of the Susan Rice controversy, however, will be that she will become this generation's Lani Guinier. There are some reading this who are young enough to have just asked, "Who?" But two decades ago, Guinier was then-President Bill Clinton's nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights. A conservative column labeling her "Clinton's Quota Queen" argued that she was a proponent of racial quotas, creating a firestorm, and Clinton, a law-school friend of hers, withdrew her nomination. (President Obama had not yet formally nominated Rice.) Guinier returned to Harvard, where she has maintained a distinguished career as a law professor but has, politically speaking, become a trivia question. 


There was just one oft-forgotten detail from Guinier's tale: She wasn't a proponent of quotas but a supporter of affirmative action. But who has time for facts and details when people are busy playing politics and trying to win at all costs? 

This is a lesson that, two decades after Guinier, Rice has unfortunately learned as well. 


So while America has managed to elect a black president twice, the question that Rice's withdrawal raises nearly two decades after Guinier is whether or not a black woman will be able to get a fair shake at the upper echelons of power in America — particularly if she is a woman who has the audacity to spend her career challenging the white male power structure in any meaningful way. 

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter

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