WASHINGTON — An emotional Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reveled Wednesday in Barack Obama's election, calling it an "extraordinary step forward" for the nation.
A child of the segregated Deep South, Rice became the highest-ranking African American woman ever in U.S. government and was once considered a potential Republican presidential nominee.
She called the Democratic president-elect "inspirational" and said his victory was proof of America's promise.
"This was an exercise in American democracy of which Americans across the political spectrum are justifiably proud," she said.
"As an African American, I'm especially proud," said Rice, her eyes glistening with emotion, "because this is a country that's been through a long journey, in terms of overcoming wounds and making race" less of a factor. "That work is not done, but yesterday was obviously an extraordinary step forward.
"One of the great things about representing this country is that it continues to surprise," she told reporters at the State Department at a hastily arranged briefing just hours before she left Washington for a peacemaking trip to the Middle East.
"It continues to renew itself. It continues to beat all odds and expectations," she said.
Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., at the height of the civil rights struggle, Rice overcame numerous obstacles and stereotyped low expectations. She speaks frequently about how improbable her rise to the corridors of power may seem. But she also notes that she succeeded the first black secretary of State, Colin L. Powell, and the first woman to hold the job, Madeleine Albright.
"You just know that Americans are not going to be satisfied until they really do form that perfect union," she said at the news conference. "And while the perfect union may never be in sight, we just keep working at it and trying."
Rice said Republican candidate Sen. John McCain had been "gracious" in defeat and called him "a great patriot."
"I want to note that President-elect Obama was inspirational and I'm certain he will continue to be," Rice said.
During the campaign, she never said who she would vote for, but repeatedly stressed that she is a Republican.
AP writer Foster Klug contributed to this report.