by Lloyd Grove
The Daily Beast

Lloyd Grove

Lloyd Grove

Dec 12, 2012 7:45 AM EST

Brusque. Aggressive. Undiplomatic. The adjectives used to describe the ambassador aren’t kind. Lloyd Grove on Susan Rice’s polarizing temperament-and why that may matter more than Benghazi.

Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations and President Obama’s most visible candidate to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, is being subjected to an immutable law of the Washington power grid: In the rough and tumble of political combat, personality trumps policy.

Government policy, especially foreign policy, is rife with nuance and complication. But personality is easier to grasp and harder to shed.

Recent critiques of Rice’s influence on U.S. diplomacy in Rwanda, Sudan, and Eritrea over the past two decades are endlessly debatable among think-tank elites. Republican Sen. John McCain’s threat to block her (hypothetical) confirmation because she relied on faulty intelligence to mischaracterize the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya — a warning joined by fellow GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte — seems emptier by the day. Rice, after all, is African American and female — two demographics that the Republican Party is not especially anxious to alienate further.

“It is a fact that Susan had no role in determining the security footprint in Benghazi or gathering or assessing the intelligence of what happened before, during or after,” says National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. “She simply went on TV and gave interviews.”

But Rice’s personality — or “temperament,” in the parlance of her Beltway critics — is increasingly front and center. She is frequently described in the press with such adjectives as “brusque,” “aggressive,” and “undiplomatic in the extreme.”

It is highly unusual for someone who hasn’t even been nominated to be targeted in such wounding terms by enemies and detractors. But personality quirks can loom large in the process, says the Senate’s official historian, Donald Ritchie. Presidential nominations have foundered on smaller factors than Rice’s alleged foibles.

When she was an assistant secretary of state, Rice once gave the finger to her colleague Richard Holbrooke during a fractious high-level meeting.

Loose-lipped playwright Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Time magazine founder Henry Luce, was confirmed as President Eisenhower’s ambassador to Brazil over the objection of Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse, but was forced to resign before taking her post when she quipped that Morse’s opposition was because he’d been “kicked in the head by a horse.”

Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, Eisenhower’s nominee to be Secretary of Commerce, “had a personality like a barbed-wire fence,” says Ritchie. “He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.” New Mexico Sen. Clinton Anderson, who had tangled with Strauss over the Los Alamos National Laboratory, “made it a personal crusade to defeat the nomination,” Ritchie says — and in June 1959 succeeded.

As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Texas Sen. John Tower had shown little patience for colleagues he considered intellectual inferiors; citing rumors about womanizing and alcohol abuse — allegations that might not have been credited had Tower been better liked — the normally clubby Senate rejected his nomination to be the first George Bush’s secretary of defense. Other nominees whose prickly personalities worked against them include Robert Bork, who was denied a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987, and John Bolton, whose allegedly volcanic temper and penchant for throwing objects at underlings figured in his Senate confirmation hearings to be U.N. ambassador; he was ultimately given a recess appointment, not requiring a Senate vote, by the second George Bush.

Susan Rice’s fate is by no means sealed, but the Zeitgeist hardly seems favorable. Monday’s New York Times-which featured a critical news story about her lack of success in settling a bloody dispute between Rwanda, Congo, and murderous Rwanda-backed rebels, plus an Op-Ed scorching her policy approach to Ethiopia and Eritrea — jolted Rice’s friends and allies.

The working assumption among some well-connected members of Washington’s foreign policy community is that, in the end, Obama will nominate John Kerry, the easily-confirmable chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for State; pick Rice to replace Tom Donilon as his national security adviser, a post that doesn’t require Senate confirmation; and move Donilon over to the State Department as Secretary Kerry’s chief of staff — the same job he did for Clinton-era Secretary Warren Christopher.

“This town is kind of crazy,” says a White House aide. “There is something going on in which these stories are feeding one another and sensing blood in the water and piling on, one after the other.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.