Condoleezza Rice, Former Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice describes her path from the racist Birmingham of her youth to highest diplomat in the land.
Former Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice on her path from the Jim Crow South of her youth to becoming the highest diplomat in the land.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: My parents had me absolutely convinced that, even if I couldn't have a hamburger at the Woolworth's lunch counter, I could be president of the United States if I wanted to be.
I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s, the most segregated big city in America. My parents believed education was really the great shield against racism. I had piano lessons and I had ballet lessons and I had French lessons, every lesson known to humankind. But of course, you couldn't completely shield your children from the ugliness of segregation.
We actually felt the bomb go off that Sunday morning.
Suddenly, it was very personal, because Denise McNair had been in my father's kindergarten. I remember as a child just not understanding how people could hate us that much, and for the first time really being pretty scared.
From as long as I could remember, I was going to be a concert pianist. And then, in the spring quarter of my junior year, I wandered into a course in international politics taught by a Soviet specialist, a man named Josef Korbel, who was, ironically, Madeleine Albright's father. And Josef Korbel opened up this world to me of diplomacy and international politics and things Russian. And all of a sudden, I knew what I wanted to do.
We met Gorbachev, and President Bush turned to me and he said, this is my Soviet advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and she tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union. And Gorbachev said, well, I hope she knows a lot.
I actually had a Russian general say to me once, what's a nice girl like you doing interested in these military affairs? But over time, you realize that if you become known as capable at what you're doing, those prejudices tend to go away.
You think about the momentousness of what happened, that, on your watch, the territory of the United States had been attacked. We had to try and protect the country. We were certain that there was a follow-on attack coming. For us, every day after September 11th was September 12th, over and over and over again.
You have to learn with criticism that it comes with the territory. If you aren't prepared to be criticized, then you're probably not prepared to take hard decisions.
Immediately after the election, I walked into the Oval and I said, congratulations, sir. And he looked at me and he said, you know I want you to be Secretary of State.
The advice I give to all young people is don't let anybody else define what you're going to be because of your gender or race. If you decide that you are interested in the Soviet Union, you may be female and black, but you're interested in the Soviet Union. And it's worked out pretty well for me.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I remember working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the basement of the Pentagon with five military officers in the strategic nuclear division of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And the first day, they said, the rookie makes the coffee. I don't know. Maybe they were really testing me.
And so I said, fine. So I made the coffee, and I made it so strong-- which is the way I make it-- that nobody could drink it. So I wasn't ever asked to make the coffee again. But then I won the football pool that week. And from then on, I was kind of in.
CONDOLEEZA RICE: Nobody needs to tell me how to be black. I've been black all my life. And we, as black people, should have finally gotten to the place that we can have different interests and different views. And I cared deeply and do care deeply about the plight, particularly of black kids who are trapped in that witch's brew where poverty and race come together, who are trapped in bad schools. That's why most of my activities that are related in any way to charitable concerns have had to do with education. And it's not something I've come to recently. I started in 1992, a program called the Center for New Generation, which was for kids who did not have means to have some of the experiences that I had in instrumental music and in hands on arts and sciences and language arts. So those are issues that are deeply important to me.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I can remember being five years old, and going to see Santa Claus. And you know the drill, you stand in line. The little kid goes up and tell Santa Claus what he or she wants for Christmas. And this particular day, this Santa Claus was taking the little white kids and putting them on his knee, and holding the little black kids out from him. And my father looked at my mother and he said, Angelina if he does that to Condoleezza, I'm going to pull all that stuff off of him and show him to be the cracker that he is.
Fortunately I think Santa Claus read my father's body language, and my father was a big man. He was six two, he was built like a football player. And so when I came to Santa Claus, he put me on his knee and he said, so little girl, what will you have for Christmas? So there were always those times when you had to come face to face with racism.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think in some ways the most painful criticism is that you somehow don't care about the consequences of war. That you are somehow inured to the lives that are lost in, for instance, the conflict in Iraq. That it was somehow a callous decision. That somehow we wanted to go to war. To prove what? What President? What national security advisor wants to go to war? Criticisms of our policies, or criticisms of something that you might have said, that that just flows like water off a duck's back. But the idea that you somehow didn't care about human life. That that's very difficult to take.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: In retrospect, looking back, I was able to see places that we we might have taken a little bit more time to explain what we were doing. After 9/11 we were-- we were injured, and we were determined not to have it happen again. And we moved very fast. And sometimes maybe we didn't bring others along. Particularly some of the allies. And I know too and in reflecting that the arc of history is long, not short. And that whatever we did in eight years will probably not really be judged fairly for a very, very long time. And that's OK. I can live with that.
CONDOLEEZA RICE: Birmingham was a place where in some ways it was so segregated that parents could shield their children from some of the harsher aspects of segregation. We had our own dance lessons. We had our own lessons in etiquette. We had our own schools. Education was really the great shield against racism. It was what would armor you against the harsher elements of Birmingham and it worked very well in this tight knit little community.
CONDOLEEZA RICE: September 11th was one of those days that started like any other day. I was at my desk. The president was in Florida. For the first time, neither Steve Hadley, the Deputy National Security advisor nor I had gone with him because he was only going to be gone for four hours. And then my assistant came in and said that plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Later we learned a second plane. And I thought, my god, this a terrorist attack.
And at that point you don't really take the time to stand back, reflect, think. You just act. And for several days, that's really what we did. We had to try and protect the country. We were certain that there was a follow on attack coming.
But as time went on and as you were faced with difficult decision after difficult decision, decisions that no president had faced, you began to think about the momentousness of what had happened, that on your watch the territory of the United States had been attacked. And it changed forever, our concept of security. And it makes you absolutely determined never to let it happen again.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The most meaningful piece of advice that I have ever received is to-- to be willing to accept some ambiguity about where you're going. Very often with my students, they want to know at 20 what they're going to be doing at 35 or 40. The want to plan every step of their life. And the sometimes you have to let life happen.
CODOLEEZZA RICE: I have very eclectic taste in music . I love everything from Led Zeppelin and the Gap Band and Kool and the Gang all the way up to Brahms and Mozart. My favorite composer is Brahms. Passionate without being too sentimental. That's the way that I would describe Brahms. And probably my greatest moment in music was playing Brahms with Yo-yo Ma. The great cellist. Who asked me to play with him for his National Medal of the arts. And as we were playing I thought to myself, I am not confused. I'm not doing this because I'm the world's greatest pianist. I'm doing it because I'm the National Security Adviser, so I made a good decision to change my major.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: My father, I think, was a feminist from the day I was born. There was nothing his little girl couldn't do. And he modeled that in his relationship with my mother.
When they married, they had met teaching at the same school in Fairfield, Alabama. But the city of Fairfield had a nepotism rule, and so one of them had to leave once they married. My father was the one who left.
And I asked him-- I said, daddy, why did you leave rather than mother? He said, well, she had been there first. It only seemed fair.