In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley ’94 received a text message from Reince Priebus, chief of staff for President-elect Donald Trump, asking her to call him. When Haley replied, “I’m in a meeting. I can’t talk,” Priebus immediately responded, “No, I need you to get up and call me.”
During that phone call, he told Haley that the president-elect wanted her to come to New York to talk about being secretary of state.
“I said, ‘Reince, I’m a governor,’” Haley recalls. “I can’t be secretary of state.”
Priebus was insistent that she at least come and talk. So Haley flew to New York the next day to meet with President-elect Donald Trump. “I talked with him and said, ‘From where my family is and being a governor, I think there are others who could serve you well being secretary of state.’ And we had a conversation. It was a great conversation. And then I went back to South Carolina and didn’t think anything about it.”
But then she received another call, asking if she would consider being the ambassador to the United Nations. “I didn’t know enough about the United Nations to make a decision,” says Haley. “And I said, ‘Let me look at it.’”
In her second term as governor, Haley and her family were happy in South Carolina. Her daughter Rena had started college at Clemson, and her son Nalin was settled in middle school. She went back to the president-elect with a few questions and conditions.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to do it if it’s not a cabinet position,’ and he said, ‘Done.’
“I said, ‘I’m not going to do it unless I’m on the National Security Council,’ because I love policy, and I wanted to be involved with policy, and he said, ‘Done.’
“And I said, ‘I’m not going to be a talking head or a wallflower. You know I need to be able to say what I think,’ and he said, ‘That’s why I want you for the job.’”
At that point, it was hard to say no. “The opportunity to serve your country is one of the most amazing kinds of service you can do,” she says. “And so when you get the opportunity to serve along with all the conditions you want in that service, there was no way I could turn it down.”
My mother would say, ‘Your job is not to talk about how you’re different. Your job is to show everybody how you’re similar.’
FINDING COMMON GROUND
Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa Haley has come a long way from her childhood home of Bamberg, where her family moved in 1969 when her father accepted a faculty position at Voorhees College in nearby Denmark. Some aspects of growing up in Bamberg will sound familiar to anyone who has grown up in a small town, particularly in the South.
“Everyone took care of each other,” Haley says. “Everybody’s kids were everybody else’s kids. And you couldn’t think about doing something wrong without thinking about someone telling your mom.”
But in Bamberg, the family stood out. “We were the only Indian family in that small town of 2,500 people,” says Haley. “My mom wore a sari, my dad wore a turban — still does. And no one knew who we were, what we were and why we were there.”
When she was 5 years old, Haley’s mother entered her and her sister into the Little Miss Bamberg pageant, something of a rite of passage for little girls in Bamberg at the time. They purchased their dresses and began to prepare and practice.
On the day of the pageant, the organizers pulled her parents to the side and told them that their daughters were being disqualified. There were two categories in the Little Miss Bamberg Pageant — black and white. If they were placed in the black category and won, that group would be upset, the organizers said. And if they competed in the white category and won, that group would be upset.
Ever one to strike the positive note, Haley’s mother responded, “Well, Nikki has been practicing her song for weeks. Can you at least let her sing her song?” They agreed, and Haley went on stage and performed her song.
Ironically enough, she sang Woody Guthrie’s famous folk song, “This Land is Your Land.”
“They gave me a beach ball as a concession,” she says.
It wasn’t the last challenging situation for Haley and her sister and brothers. But her mother always had the same answer when they would come home and complain about not being treated well.
“My mother would say, ‘Your job is not to talk about how you’re different. Your job is to show everybody how you’re similar,’” says Haley.
And she credits that guidance from her mother for how she lives her life today. “I’m constantly trying to show other people, and now other countries, what we have in common as opposed to what divides us.”