Interview with Condoleezza Rice: Dr. Rice Makes a House Call

Condoleezza Rice was born in Birmingham, Alabama on November 14, 1954, the only child to bless the loving union of John and Angelena Rice. In spite of the considerable disadvantages she encountered just by virtue of growing up black in the South during the days of Jim Crow, she somehow managed to overachieve, first academically then in her career.

In terms of credentials, she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science, cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Denver in 1974, her master’s from the University of Notre Dame in 1975 and her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver in 1981.

Dr. Rice is currently a professor of business and political science at Stanford University and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution. From January 2005 to 2009, she served as the 66th secretary of state of the United States. Before serving as America’s chief diplomat, she served as assistant to the president for national security affairs (National Security Advisor) from January 2001 to 2005.

She joined the Stanford University faculty as a professor of political science in 1981 and served as Stanford University’s provost from 1993 to 1999. She was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution from 1991 to 1993 and returned to the Hoover Institution after serving as provost until 2001. As a professor, Rice won two of the highest teaching honors; the 1984 Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching and the 1993 School of Humanities and Sciences Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.

She has authored and co-authored several books, including Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (1995), with Philip Zelikow, The Gorbachev Era (1986) with Alexander Dallin, Uncertain Allegiance: The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army (1984) and Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family (October 2010).

Dr. Rice served as a member of the boards of directors for the Chevron, Charles Schwab and Transamerica corporations. She was a founding board member of the Center for a New Generation, an educational support fund for schools in East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park, California, and was vice president of the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula. She currently serves on the board of the Boys and Girls Club of America.

She has been involved in a number of humanitarian pursuits, most notably with PEPFAR (The President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) and in creating and serving on the board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Both endeavors increased aid to developing countries and the world’s poorest, most disadvantaged populations. PEPFAR was the largest commitment of funds from any single nation to combat a single disease at any time in history and the Millennium Challenge Corporation promotes sustainable economic growth and poverty reduction.

She also serves as a member of the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In addition, she is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Here, the previously-very private Dr. Rice reflects about her life while talking about Extraordinary, Ordinary People, her strikingly-revealing memoir about her childhood.

My first question is why did you decide to write a memoir focusing on your childhood, as opposed to one about your illustrious political career?

Well, I didn’t feel that I could do justice to this story of my parents and their generation, and all that they did to make it possible for me to be who I am, if I sort of just put it at the beginning of a book about my last eight years in foreign policy. I will write that book, in fact, I’m working on it now. But first, I wanted to answer the question I’m most frequently asked: “How did you become who you are?” Well, you had to know John and Angelena Rice. So, that’s what I wanted to help people do with this book.

How has the Jim Crow Birmingham experience affected your life? How has it defined who you are today? Did this make you more determined to excel? Did it foster greater drive?

My parents, [myself] and a lot of my friends growing up in that community, had tremendous drive. There was almost a sense of, “We’ll show them! We’ll show them that we can be twice as good, despite everything.” I think that was something that motivated people who could have instead been consumed by bitterness and fallen into victimhood. I chalk it up to my parents and grandparents and our whole community that we saw the situation as a challenge to be overcome rather than as something that might prevent us from succeeding.

I remember your mentioning in the book that Freeman Hrabowski also hailed from your neighborhood.

Yes, Freeman, and Mary Bush, Sheryl McCarthy, and many others. That community produced an abundance of accomplished kids.

I‘m interested in Condoleezza Rice the musician. Led Zeppelin was my favorite band when I was a kid, too. Do you have a favorite Led Zeppelin song and can you play it?
CR: I do have a favorite Zeppelin song, Larry, “Black Dog.” But it’s a little hard to play on the piano. [Laughs] So, I stick to playing Brahms, but I love listening to Led Zeppelin, and I’ve also been a big fan of Earth Wind And Fire since the ‘70s and of The Gap Band since the ‘80s.

What kind of music do you like to play on the piano when you’re playing for your own relaxation and enjoyment?

I play classical music almost exclusively. I never mastered jazz or gospel in the way that my mother did. She was a fine improvisational musician. I pretty much have to stick to what’s written on the page. Fortunately, I started very young, so I read music very well. And my favorite composers to play are Brahms and Mozart.

What was it like playing backup for Aretha Franklin? Have you ever speculated on what your life might have been like, or might be like, as a concert pianist?

Oh, that’s a really good question. First of all, it was really wonderful playing with Aretha. I knew that she knew what she was doing, so all I had to do was sit in the background and vamp a little bit. [Laughs] I didn’t have to worry about that part of the program. But playing Mozart was far more challenging, because I hadn’t played with an orchestra since I was 18 years old. It was a great experience, but I had to work very hard to prepare for that. Sure, I’ve speculated about what my life might have been like as a musician, but I’m afraid I came to the conclusion that I probably would’ve either been teaching piano or maybe gotten to play at Nordstrom’s department store.

You say you always hoped to marry within your race. Can you answer honestly about your perception of the number of eligible African-American bachelors in your circle? Is there a dearth of black men?

Well, of course, all of the statistics say there are fewer eligible black men in my circle. But I’ve never thought of it that way. I believe that if the right person came into my life that would have been terrific. When I said I had always hoped to marry in my race, I really do mean that. That doesn’t mean I absolutely wouldn’t marry outside of it, but there’s a culture and traditions to maintain, and I have great pride in them, and I always thought it would be wonderful to share that with somebody of my race.

What was it like for you, as the first African-American woman to become Secretary of State?

I was very proud and grateful to be the first African-American woman in the position. I thought it said a lot about our country that we had back-to-back African-American Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and then me. I also thought it said a lot about President Bush that he didn’t see limits on the highest ranking diplomat in terms of color. It’s a hard job, but really the best one in government.

Reflecting on your time in office, what would you have done differently, and is there anything that you feel particularly proud of having achieved?

Well, there are many things, whenever you look back, that you would’ve done differently. We’re all human. We do our best at the time. I really wish that we had passed a comprehensive immigration bill because that would’ve really helped our country. We came close, but we couldn’t. I wish that after the war against Saddam Hussein we had been more effective at rebuilding Iraq quickly. I think had we done it from the provinces, in, rather than from Baghdad, out, we might have been more successful. I’m very proud that President Bush took on AIDS relief. It was the largest single response by any country to a major international health crisis, and there are millions of people who are alive today in Africa and other developing countries because of that program. And I’m very proud that we stood for the proposition that no man, woman or child should ever have to live in tyranny. We believed in democracy and promoted it.

I’m curious to see what your report card is for President Obama since he’s occupied the Oval Office.

Oh, I don’t think it would be fair to grade him because I believe our Presidents work hard and it’s the loneliest job in the world. I may not agree with everything, but our President, just like President Bush did, is trying to do his best under difficult circumstances.

Condolezza Rice’s memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People, is available now wherever books are sold.