Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom
By Condoleezza Rice
496 page, $35
In an engaging Prologue to her new book, “Democracy,” Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, and now a professor at Stanford University Graduate School of Business, recaps a long governmental career of nurturing democracy around the world.
In my view, her record for encouraging democracy – if one could make such an assessment – would be an A plus for having the right goals, and probably a C plus at best for its achievement.
Why such a grade? Because estimating individual efforts while representing one’s government on the world stage has its limits. In a complicated mix of policy, ambition, cynicism, lack of transparency and outright criminality, grading individual effort among nations is a mug’s game.
Nevertheless, her story itself is impressive. She begins her account in Moscow, 1979, as a young woman with friends in a communist country and afraid. Later she carries on with a description in July 1989 in Poland while working for President George H.W. Bush.
There, she indicates that Mikhail Gorbachev was rewriting the rule book for Eastern Europe, loosening the constraints of Moscow’s power. While in Warsaw, guests of a dying Communist party, she reports, watched the lights go out during the state dinner - “a perfect metaphor for the regime’s coming demise.”
Rice’s uplifting message in this book is about what she hopes will be the survival of human rights. Her view is that democracy can be revived where it is suffering. She draws from her experience in government, academe, and, as a private person, to show how it might be done.
“I have watched,” she writes, “as people in Africa, Asia and Latin America have insisted on freedom. … As a child, I was a part of another great awakening: the second founding of America, as the civil rights movement unfolded in my hometown of Birmingham, Ala., and finally expanded the meaning of ‘We the people’ to encompass people like me. … There is no more thrilling moment than when people finally seize their rights and their liberty.”
Rice tells us that the climb toward freedom in the broader Middle East and North Africa have been a far rockier story. From Afghanistan and Iraq, to Syria, to Egypt, to Turkey, freedom is in flux amidst civil wars, military coups and instability. The region is a maelstrom. There, the decline of human rights is frightening despite America and its allies’ efforts.
In the long run, her view of democracy’s agenda is encouraging. But it’s a far distance from President Trump’s "America First" ideas that seem to change daily.
Instead she writes that “expanding the meaning of ‘We the People’ to encompass people like me,” has encouraged her to push for what she considers justice for all. Translated, it means that there is the inevitable movement of freedom (not necessarily via democracy) for others in countries across the world.
Our author knows from hard experience that getting to that goal will be “terrifying and disruptive and chaotic," she writes. "And what follows," she continues, "is hard – really, really hard.”
Why do it if it’s so difficult, the laconic reader may ask, sitting on a couch?
This is a query for all Americans to ask themselves. The answer is that it is a question of making an imperfect society better; never perfect, better. Does it look as if America is moving in that direction? It’s every citizen’s responsibility to give a hand.
And this is Rice’s point in “Stories from the Long Road to Freedom.”
Rice is one keeper of democracy’s flame. There should be many more guardians. This book is a wake-up call.
America's torch needs the oxygen of its citizens. One hopes it doesn’t expire.
Michael D. Langan a long time Buffalo News book reviewer. He worked for Democrats and Republicans for twenty years in Washington, D. C.