Condoleezza Rice: Birmingham to Washington

Her mother crafted the name from the musical terms con dolce and con dolcezza, meaning “with sweetness” in Italian. Condoleezza Rice’s life’s work, though, has been about the hard stuff: Soviet specialist, Stanford University provost, Chevron board member, national security advisor and then secretary of State under President George W. Bush. Hers was one of the most public and controversial faces in that administration, for her justifications of the Iraq War and for the conduct of the war against terrorism.

The headline on an earlier online version of this article misspelled Condoleezza Rice’s first name as Condoleeza.

All that came long after growing up an only child in the black middle class of Birmingham, Ala., the hard heart of the segregated South. Rice can remember the “thud” she heard one Sunday morning when, miles away, segregationists blew up a black Baptist church, killing four little girls about her own age. Her memoir, “Extraordinary, Ordinary People,” takes us from that world to the brink of her White House years.

You ended this book just where readers wanted you to start it — in 2000. Are you teasing us for the sequel?

No no no, it was a natural stopping point because my father died just before I left for Washington. This is my story wrapped in my parents’ story. I want to answer the question everybody asks: How did you get to be who you are? You have to know John and Angelena Rice to answer that question, so that’s why I did this book first. The next book is about eight years of foreign policy — not just about the past but how the past is prologue.


You met with President Obama recently and gave him your book. Would you go to work for his administration if he asked?

I don’t think that’s in the cards. He’s got wonderful people who work with him and for him. His invitation said that he wanted to do what many presidents do, reach out and recognize that foreign policy and America’s interests are bipartisan.

Your father was a man of complex politics — a Republican and a Presbyterian minister who was acquainted with Stokely Carmichael (famous coiner of the term “black power”) and was fascinated by radical black politics. You write that you were never taught that Louis Farrakhan was a traitor or that the Black Panthers were terrorists. Now, some call Obama a radical or worse. Where does that come from?

There are extremes in any country. [And] sometimes surveys ask questions in very strange ways. So I don’t put much stock into answers like that. I think for the most part Americans are a tolerant people; we ought to give ourselves a little more credit.


You don’t give credence to polls showing many Americans believe this?

It may well be, or it could be that people hear a snippet here and a snippet there and put it together in the wrong way. It might be more misinformation than anything that’s really nefarious.

Should you speak up?

I think people are speaking up. The most important thing we can do [about] matters of race is to turn down the volume — on both sides, by the way. I remember when people said President Bush was racist and that’s why he didn’t respond to [Hurricane] Katrina; so this didn’t just start, and it didn’t just start from one side. Race is a deep wound in the United States, and we need to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

As a citizen and voter, how do you think the administration is doing?

I have said that there are things I don’t agree with and things that I do, but I know how hard it is, and these folks are patriots. They’re doing their best; sometimes they’ll succeed, sometimes they’ll fail. That’s the nature of this business. Our politics has always been a little rough; Thomas Jefferson spread a letter saying that George Washington was senile, because he didn’t like what Alexander Hamilton was doing. I was grateful that the president invited me to give him my views on foreign policy, and I’ll do it any time he’d like.

You’re a Soviet expert. With the end of the Soviet empire, some historians predicted smooth sailing for democracy. What happened?

History doesn’t end, that’s what happened. We’re struggling with the new realities of a shadowy terrorist network supported by some very bad actors and states [that] would love to do the United States in. After the Cold War, we didn’t know the next big challenge. We knew terrorism was a problem, but not of the scale and scope it has turned out to be. I think we and our allies are organizing ourselves better.


A top official of Britain’s internal security agency said recently that Americans think every terrorist attack can be stopped every time, and if it isn’t, the government’s failed.

Yes, that’s a problem because the terrorists only have to be right once, and we have to be right 100% of the time. That’s an unfair fight. I do think terrorist efforts have been weakened. The organization that did 9/11 — that Al Qaeda — I don’t think really exists, but it’s still dangerous because it’s more atomized — small groups of terrorists who one day probably will get lucky.

There are reports of Sunnis who were part of the Awakening making common cause again with allies of Al Qaeda.

People are saying a lot of things that may turn out not to be true in terms of allegiances and alliances. Iraq has a chance to be the first multiethnic democracy in the Arab world. We’re not talking about Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons any more; we’re not talking about Saddam Hussein invading his neighbors. We’re talking about whether, given the history of tyranny, Sunnis, Shias and Kurds can form a functioning government. That’s a different kind of conversation.

Is Iran as big a risk, or bigger?

Iran is probably the most dangerous country in the world at this point, but as dangerous as it is, it’s a fundamentally weak state. It’s a government that has no legitimacy whatsoever after what it did to its own people in June of 2009, and I think pressure will either change the policies of the regime or it’ll change the regime.

Your father’s career took your family to Denver for a while, and you went to the University of Denver. Would you be a very different person if you’d grown up there instead of Birmingham?

Oh certainly. I’m not quite sure how, but the kinds of struggles of growing up in Birmingham — I don’t want to overstate it because I grew up in a loving family with tremendous determination to give me every possibility. But Birmingham in some ways makes you more determined to overcome. Education became a kind of armor. My parents believed that you might not be able to control your circumstances but you could control how you respond to them.


You cite education as a talisman. And yet there’s an anti-intellectual streak in the nation now. You did graduate work at Notre Dame and worked at Stanford; why this deriding of top institutions?

Places like Notre Dame and Stanford are egalitarian in ways people don’t know. In a Stanford class, one kid is a fourth-generation Stanford legatee, and the kid next to him is the son of an itinerant worker. The elite in universities is not in the people who go to them; it’s in the excellence that those universities demand. And so I don’t know where [the attitude] is coming from. I will say this: People who are fortunate to be part of whatever you want to call it, the intelligentsia, need to be very careful about looking down upon other citizens, and assuming the intelligentsia has all the answers too.

You write about a close gay friend and his longtime partner in your book. How do you feel about same-sex marriage?

I’m a traditional person, and I’ve always thought of marriage as between a man and a woman, but I think this is something that the country is going to work out, and I suspect it will change in time because all of us who are fortunate enough to have really, really close friends — and some of my really, really close friends are gay — don’t want to see them discriminated against. Look, I’ve never been one for saying, well, the struggle of these people is exactly like the struggle of those people; I think that’s not true. But whenever one senses that there is discrimination against some group of people, it behooves us as a country to look hard at what we’re doing.

Are you in touch with the other two women who have been secretary of State?

The graduate school at the University of Denver was renamed for Madeleine [Albright’s] father [Rice’s former professor], so we did some events around that. And Secretary Clinton and I talk from time to time. She knows that I am there for her, but you shouldn’t overestimate the value of your advice once you’re out. It’s a lot harder in there than it is out here.

Code Pink protesters at your recent appearance in San Francisco shouted that you’re wanted for war crimes. Are there things that happened on your watch that you wish had not?

We’re human, so of course there are things, but I have absolutely no reservations about defending this country and doing it legally, which is what we did.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

Sure, because I’m just a bedrock believer in equality; I’m a bedrock believer in the empowerment of women. If I could wave a magic wand and do one thing in international politics, I would empower women, because I think you would solve a lot of different problems if you did that.

Your father brought you up watching football. Why do you love it so much?

The strategy. Somebody called it violent chess, and it is a little bit like that. I just love everything about the game.

And at any moment either side can score — unlike baseball.

I’m not a huge baseball fan, although I am a Yankees fan and a San Francisco Giants fan, so I’m having fun in this particular playoff.

Do you want to be NFL commissioner?

I wanted to be, but Roger Goodell got that job and he’s doing it very well. I told him, when I was struggling with the Iranians every day, [his] job seemed pretty good.

Is there some piece of pop culture about yourself that you get a kick out of? Maybe a bobblehead, or a cartoon?

No, with me, it’s about sports; I collect memorabilia about sports. Peyton Manning autographed a football for me; Joe Namath autographed a jersey for me; Ken Griffey Jr. autographed a baseball — so I’ve got some great stuff.

What was the hardest thing for you to write about in your book?

My mother’s cancer. Both times, the first time that she had it — she lived 15 years [more] — and then to write about her death. My father’s death was difficult, but my dad was almost 78 years old and he’d lived a full life. My mother was 61, and that’s very young.

What should people take away from “Extraordinary, Ordinary People”?

That first and foremost, it’s a blessing to have good parents. Secondly, if you aren’t fortunate enough to have good parents, it’s important that adults, the community or teachers — that somebody cares for every child. Third, you really can through education transform your circumstances.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Morrison and Rice will continue their conversation in a live interview Monday at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. Event details here.