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Condoleezza Rice Interview With Christine Barbour

Interview With Christine Barbour, Professor of Political Science, Indiana University In Profiles in Citizenship, Keeping the Republic

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Washington, DC
August 16, 2005

(3:00 p.m. EDT)

QUESTION: Thank you very much for talking to us. We really, really appreciate it.

SECRETARY RICE: No, I'm happy to do it. It's a great project.

QUESTION: Well, I think it is a great project and I'm really excited that we're going to be able to provide for our students the models of what public figures are really like inside and what keeps them going.


QUESTION: I've given you a list of questions --

SECRETARY RICE: I have the questions, but why don't you let me know if you want to make any changes or if you've got additional questions. Whatever.

QUESTION: Great. Well, thanks a lot. Can you tell us what politics was like for you when you were growing up? I mean, growing up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, I think, you know, would have to be such a huge thing. But I read recently in the AARP interview that you just had come out that even in the midst of it, your parents really gave you a sense of hope and optimism about the world. And I'm interested about that.

SECRETARY RICE: Sure. Well, first of all, politics was very much a part of our daily lives. Really, prior to 1963 when Birmingham became very violent, Birmingham was a nice place to grow up if you were a middle-class child like I was and very cocooned by this very, very protective community. I lived in a little seven-square block community that has produced extraordinary people, you know, the first IMF Governor who's a black woman, the President of the University of Maryland-Baltimore, the head of the largest trauma unit in Los Angeles, so --

QUESTION: All from seven blocks?

SECRETARY RICE: All from this little seven-square block community.


SECRETARY RICE: The first National Merit Scholar, black National Merit Scholar from Alabama. And it was because everything was focused on education, education, education and we had school plays and we had lessons at everything and we had French lessons. And so it was a kind of cocooned little community, but of course, you couldn't then cocoon it when, in kind of 1962, 1963, the movement heated up in Birmingham. And what I remember most, of course, during that time was, you know, Bull Connor and the violence and the church bombing and bombings in neighborhoods and so it did have a threatening character. There's no doubt about that.

But again, even though it had this threatening character, our parents were very determined that we weren't going to be scarred by it. Yet, my father, who was very interested in politics and history, wanted me to understand what was going on, too. So we would go down and visit his students who had been arrested in the marches and we went down to see the aftermath of what was a particularly bad night of riots in Birmingham one Saturday.

And so they both made us feel protected, but my parents didn't want me to be unaware of what was going on either. We also watched every political event on television. I watched the first political convention that I remember was watching the '64 Republican Convention and my entire life we would stay up nights watching the Republican Convention. That was in the days when the roll call mattered and -- (laughter) -- my parents and I would stay up all night watching for the roll call and who was going to actually be nominated.

So politics and history were very much a part of my life. We watched the evening news every night together. So, we in part -- I lived it because I lived in the South. But my parents were also very interested, particularly my father, in politics and history.

QUESTION: Did you ever think when you were a little kid growing up that you would be involved in politics yourself? I mean you took an academic track, which, as I know, most of us don't exactly think we're going to end up being the Secretary of State. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY RICE: Right. Well, no. I really didn't think I was going to end up in politics because I was going to be a great concert pianist. I went to college to be a music major. And to the degree that I even followed politics during that time, it was because it was the mid -- you know, it was the late 1960s, early 1970s -- and it was such a tremendously turbulent time in the United States. But I had no interest or desire to go into politics in any way. I've always said -- I don't even think I even ran for anything in school. (Laughter.) I wasn't president of anything except as president of the family, but that's an inside joke. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, how did that all change for you? I mean, you went to law school, obviously you must have decided the piano --

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I didn't go to law school. I applied to law school and I was accepted to law school. But I applied to law school because every person who can't figure out what they're going to do applies to law school.

QUESTION: Yeah. I went for a year myself.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes. You did -- it really had nothing to do with wanting to be a lawyer, to be quite frank. By that time, I'd become interested in things international. I had gone -- my last year -- the end of my junior year in college I took a course in international politics and having dropped my music major I finally found what it was I was really interested in. And I knew I loved things international and I had started to study Russian. And I went off to Notre Dame. I did my Master's degree in economics and soviet studies.

And so I came back to Denver and I applied to law school not knowing what else to do, but I deferred for a year. And I just started taking courses again at the university and that's how I ended up going back to do a PhD actually.

QUESTION: Has it always been the international aspect of politics that captures your imagination?

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, pretty much. I mean, when I was younger I was -- because my father was very interested in American politics. As I said, I followed conventions and campaigns and, you know, stayed up all night the night of the Kennedy-Nixon, you know, when it was so close. But what really attracted me was international politics and that was because I was always more interested in world history than almost anything else.

QUESTION: What's particularly interesting about it to you? I mean that's one of the things we have the hardest time getting our students to really focus on the relevance of it to their lives.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I was just fascinated by it. And in fact, I did think it was particularly relevant. I had never been outside the country. I had never been outside of the country until I -- except to skate in Canada, until I went to the Soviet Union as a graduate student in 1979. So it wasn't as if I was particularly attracted to travel or cultures. That wasn't a part of my experience. But I was just -- I said once that it's a little bit like love. You can't describe why it happens; it just does. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: You just know it when --

SECRETARY RICE: And I found other cultures and particularly world history, and particularly European history, just very, very interesting.

QUESTION: Wow. That's cool. Do you remember -- I don't know if you can answer this or not, but can you isolate any individuals or figures as you were growing up who you sort of looked up to as figures you wanted to emulate or --

SECRETARY RICE: Oh, sure. Well, I mean, I'd put people in different categories. First of all, my parents were extraordinary people and I knew that from very young. I knew I had special parents.

QUESTION: That's amazing.


QUESTION: Usually they --

SECRETARY RICE: I probably lost that knowledge when I was a teenager and regained it in my 20s. But as a little girl, I remember thinking I wanted to be just like my mother and my father. But I had -- it's interesting, one of the most influential -- some of the most influential people in my life are really my grandparents and, particularly my paternal grandfather who, ironically, I never met. He died two months before I was born. But he was a towering figure in the family because he had managed to get college education, even though he was a sharecropper's son, in the early, you know, teens of the century.

And he then was a kind of educational evangelist and he went around the South starting schools and churches everywhere. And I knew his story because he was a real intellectual. My father, when I was about 10-years-old or so, my father gave me this set of leather-bound and gold-embossed books that had belonged to my grandfather. And he told me, he said, "Now these are very special." He said, "Your grandfather bought them during the Great Depression." And he spent $90 on nine volumes, so $10 a volume, which at the time of the Great Depression must have seemed like --

QUESTION: A fortune.

SECRETARY RICE: -- a fortune. And two of them had gotten lost, but I still have the other seven to this day. And they were things like the works of Dumas and the works of William Shakespeare so that was --


SECRETARY RICE: My grandfather was like that and --

QUESTION: Wow, what a heritage.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes. So I really, in a funny sort of way, looked up to him even though I didn't know him. And then later on in life, probably the person who had the most impact on my decision to go into international politics was a professor at the University of Denver, named Josef Korbel, who is ironically Madeleine Albright's father.

QUESTION: I love that story.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, yes. So he was certainly the person who interested me in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

QUESTION: What has been the most -- now that you're in public life, what have been the most rewarding moments for you and the biggest challenges that you faced?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think the most rewarding moments have been times when I've seen how American influence and power can have an effect on people's lives for the better. I've been enormously moved when -- I was enormously moved when I went to Afghanistan and that country had been through 25 years of war and, you know, now it was rebuilding.

I find what's going on in Iraq challenging, but I find it really energizing and just that in the middle of the Middle East this great country is emerging. And I think the kind of process that they're going through where they're trying to write a constitution and -- I can't even imagine what it would have been like to have to write in Philadelphia in 1789 with 24-hour cable with people deciding every hour whether you were succeeding or failing, you know. (Laughter.) And I find that just really remarkable.

And probably for me one of -- there are two other moments that stand out: going with the President to Africa to this AIDS clinic that we have helped to fund in Uganda; and the other was in Senegal, going to Goree Island where its slaves had departed from.

QUESTION: Oh, wow.

SECRETARY RICE: So I've had more than my share.

QUESTION: Wow. You know, I mentioned this in the questions that I had written for you. I can't help but be struck every time I see you. I mean, there's a lot of stress and a lot of big things going on, but you really look like you're enjoying your job.

SECRETARY RICE: (Laughter.) I am.

QUESTION: I mean, to a disproportionate, compared to other people in public service. What about it is so much fun for you?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, you just don't get a chance unless you're very, very blessed to both have an opportunity to work at this level and to work at this level at a time when so much is at stake and we're very lucky. This President is really ambitious and bold in what he thinks is possible. And so that combination, you get up every day and people who've studied international politics or studied international history know of the big cataclysmic changes that have taken place over the centuries and we're in one of those periods of time. And it's hard and it's complicated and it's messy, but I have enormous optimism about the outcomes here. And so I just feel really very lucky to get up every day and be able to do that. And I don't experience it as a burden. I experience it as just this tremendous opportunity that I should -- how did I get so lucky to get afforded this opportunity?

QUESTION: You look like that's how you feel.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes, I really do.

QUESTION: And just a couple more things here. Can you talk to me a little bit about what patriotism means to you?


QUESTION: That's such a contested concept these days and so we're trying to get a lot of choices for students.

SECRETARY RICE: Sure. I think it means, first and foremost, not just loving your country but appreciating and respecting what your country stands for. And sometimes patriotism, I think, is confused with what I'll call "jingoism" or just my country, right or wrong. Well, in fact, our country, the United States of America, is a very human institution. And so sometimes it's been right and sometimes it's been wrong. But it's always stood for principles that I think are very right. And it's always struggled toward those principles.

And for someone like me who comes from, you know, the segregated South and who recognizes that it was, you know, not that long ago that many of my ancestors were slaves. It's not seeing the United States through rose-colored glasses, but it's seeing that when the United States is at its best, when the United States is really acting on its principles, it's mostly done good in the world.

The reason I say that it is respecting those institutions is that it is -- George Schultz gave me a scarf -- he has a tie -- that says "Democracy is not a spectator sport." And so patriotism is not just loving your country and not just admiring what your country is and knowing its history and all of that, but it's also resolving to be a part of making democracy work. And I think that can be anything from having a chance to be in public service at some level to recognizing what makes the country work, like upward mobility, and that everybody has a chance for education. And then, therefore, resolving that if you have a chance to tutor or work with kids, you're going to do that because that's part of making democracy stronger.

QUESTION: Well, that leads right to my really -- my last question for you. You know, the title of our book is "Keeping the Republic," after Benjamin Franklin's story. And that's what he's admonishing us to do. If you could speak directly to our students, and we're talking 17-, 18-year-old college students taking their first political science class, some of them under the gun because it's required and others because they're trying it out. If you could say something to them about what they could do to keep the republic, what would that be?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, it would be to recognize that democracy works not just on the rights that you personally are afforded. We're actually very good at defending our individual rights -- it's my right to do this, it's my right to do that, but the obligations that go with that. And you can fulfill those obligations by acting on the other side of democracy -- the individual right side. But there's also a communitarian part of it. If it's just a bunch of individuals, it's not going to hold together.

If you look at what really makes America work, it is rotary clubs and Boys and Girls Clubs and the kind of institutions that bring communities together to make life better for people who aren't so lucky as you are. Whenever I spoke to students at Stanford, I would say that to me, the obligation is to recognize that you are where you are, not necessarily because you were the smartest or the best. There were probably a lot of people who were smarter and better who, by reason of circumstance, didn't make it there. And then that bestows on you an obligation to reach back and to help those who didn't have the circumstances. Maybe they didn't have the parents that pushed them or maybe they didn't get the one teacher who, you know, who stimulated them in school.

And if you can reach back and make sure that you are that person for a child who needs tutoring or be a big sister or whatever, that's all a part of democracy, too. And we often think too much of keeping the republic as just the politics of it: voting, defending individual rights, having a voice and all of those things. But it's also this communitarian side of democracy because that's what holds us together.

QUESTION: So for the students who see the partisanship and what seems like, you know, the red and blue America stuff, maybe one way they could feel less alienated is by looking closer to home?

SECRETARY RICE: Look closer to home and do something yourself. You know, don't sit around and criticize what other people are doing, do something yourself. The other thing is, you know, I sometimes think we have very short historical memory in the United States, which sometimes is not a bad thing because it helps us get over our history where I have a lot of contact with countries where they're still fighting what happened a thousand years ago. But our short historical perspective sometimes makes us overstate the degree to which things are so partisan now or so red and blue.

I've been reading lately the biographies of the Founding Fathers and it's been really fun for me. I read Alexander Hamilton and I read Ben Franklin. I just finished a great biography of George Washington.


SECRETARY RICE: Politics was literally a blood sport. (Laughter.) You know, I mean it was rough. And the press was rough and the rumors were rough and Thomas Jefferson spread rumors about George Washington being senile. It was pretty awful. So I don't mean to excuse the roughness of politics, but I also don't think that it has, you know, that the republic necessarily is going to be weakened because the politics gets rough. And if you just sit and say, "Oh, well, the politics is too rough. I could never be involved in that," then you just -- first of all, you're shirking your opportunity to make it better and secondly, it's just an excuse. So I would say, you know, go ahead and get involved and you might find that it's actually not as rough as people think.

QUESTION: Well, thank you very much. We're very, very grateful.

SECRETARY RICE: It's a great project. Take care.


Released on September 6, 2005


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