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Condoleezza Rice: Birmingham to Washington

October 23, 2010|Patt Morrison

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.

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