Former U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice

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Former secretary of state and author of Extraordinary, Ordinary People shares the story of her childhood in Birmingham, AL and explains why she feels the U.S. Foreign Service shouldn’t be so white.

Dr. Condoleezza Rice made history as the first Black woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State and the first female National Security Advisor. She's currently a professor at Stanford, where she was formerly provost, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. She was also a foreign policy advisor to then-Gov. Bush's presidential campaign. Rice is a gifted concert pianist and author of several books, including Extraordinary, Ordinary People, which tells her story of growing up in Birmingham, AL, during the turbulent era of the civil rights movement.


Tavis: Dr. Condoleezza Rice is of course the former U.S. Secretary of State and national security adviser under President George W. Bush. Prior to her time in Washington she served as provost of Stanford, where she is now a professor of political science and a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Her new memoir is out. It’s called “Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family.” She joins us tonight from New York. Dr. Rice, an honor to have you on this program.
Dr. Condoleezza Rice: Pleasure to be with you.
Tavis: Let me start by asking a couple of things about the book itself. One, there are two versions of this: the version that I have in front of me, and there’s also a version for young adults. Tell me the distinction between the two versions.
Rice: Yes, well, the young adult version concentrates a little bit more on my earlier life. It’s a little bit condensed, a little bit less about the time leading up to going to government the first time and so forth, but both books I hope will be inspirational to both young adults and to their parents, because mine is really a story of the unconditional love of parents and what it can mean.
Tavis: Is there a particular message you want to give to young people, I assume, since you did a separate version for them?
Rice: I want young people to understand that as my parents believed and convinced me, you may not be able to control your circumstances, but you can certainly control how you react to your circumstances, and education is really the key to being able to do that.
My parents believed that education was really armor, even against the deep segregation and prejudice of Birmingham, and I believe that today, that education can be armor against anything that you face.
Tavis: To your point now, there’s a fascinating quote in the book that I want to ask you about; two questions, really. Let me just put the quote up on the screen first.
“The fact is, race is a constant factor in American life, yet reacting to every incident, real or imagined, is crippling, tiring and ultimately counterproductive. I’d grown up in a family that believed you might not control your circumstances, but you could control your reaction to them.
“Despite the gross inequities my ancestors faced, there has been progress and race is today no longer determinative of how far one can go. That said, America is not color-blind and likely will never be. Race is ever-present, like a birth defect that you learn to live with but can never cure.”
Two questions: Number one, do you really believe that race is no longer determinative of people’s opportunities in this country?
Rice: I do believe that. We’ve had two Black secretaries of state; we have a Black president of the United States. But race is determinative; unfortunately, if it is linked with poverty and lack of opportunity, and that, to me, is the big challenge that we have today.
But yes, I believe that race is no longer the impediment that it once was. We don’t see people and assume that we know how far they can go, although we still see color.
Tavis: Why the description of race as a “birth defect?”
Rice: Because the United States was born with a birth defect. It was called slavery. When slavery is your heritage, your beginning, it has long, long-term effects. I was 10 years old before I could go into a restaurant. My father couldn’t be guaranteed the right to vote until 1965.
Even today, even though race is not determinative of how far you can go, too many people who don’t have opportunities who are living in poverty are, in fact, Black.
Tavis: To your last point now, how do you respond to people who say that race may not be determinative of certain people, but to suggest that that’s the case for the majority of Black folk misses the point about the insidious nature of racism?
Rice: Well, there is an insidious nature of racism, there’s no doubt about that. But I think it’s most insidious when it shows up as a belief that someone can’t achieve, a kind of what President Bush once called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Of course one has to overcome race, but if you are educated, if you take the opportunities before you, then you can overcome that. My question, Tavis, is what are we doing to make sure that kids who may not have means, kids who aren’t as fortunate as I was, to have two educated parents, that those kids have a chance?
Those are the people that we should be worried about, not people like me or not even people like my friends.
Tavis: How important was it and what role did it play specifically in the aggressive way that they put education in front of you that both of your parents were, in fact, educators?
Rice: Well, it mattered, and it mattered that my grandfather, my father’s father, had gone out of his way as a young sharecropper’s son to get a college education. He kept asking people how a colored man could go to college, and they told him about Little Stillman College, which was a Presbyterian school about 30 miles from where he lived in Utah, Alabama.
He went there, and when he ran out of money he actually made a deal to become a Presbyterian minister in order to get a scholarship. Now, that’s really wanting a college education, but once he had that college education, he was able to pass on that transformative power of education to his children, my father and his sister.
On the other side, my grandparents were determined and did, in fact, educate all five of their kids. So while education isn’t everything, without it you really don’t have a chance in modern life, and I’m just very grateful that all the way back to my grandparents it was valued.
Tavis: While we’re talking about your immediate family, you, of course, are an only child. Your mother and father are now both deceased, but I want to go back to that early childhood in Birmingham and try to get to two or three things there.
Number one, I think some people are still trying to figure out – I’ve talked to you enough times over the years and I think I get it, and the book sheds some more light on this.
But for those who don’t know how it is that you could have grown up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, you were friends with two of the girls who lost their lives in the 16th Street Baptist Church, one of them your dear friend Denise McNair.
How does one come out espousing the views, the beliefs, the political ideas that you believe, how does one end up on that side of the aisle coming out of that kind of upbringing?
Rice: Well, first I have to say that I think people have an awfully vanilla or in fact too simplistic view of what people think. Not all Republicans think alike. I am, for instance, a defender of affirmative action – not of quotas, but of affirmative action – and say in the book quite clearly that I myself benefitted from affirmative action. By the way, I don’t think the work of affirmative action is yet done.
I do, however, believe that simply thinking of “the group,” “the Blacks,” “the women,” “the minorities,” “the poor” is really not helpful. You have to look at the circumstances of the individual, you have to give the individual the tools to achieve, and for the most part I’m very comfortable in that mainstream Republican belief that individuals are the core to achievement.
But I think people have a very simplistic view of what Republican do or do not believe.
Tavis: That phrase, “for the most part,” as you well know, begs a follow-up. So what did Dr. Rice mean by, for the most part?
Rice: Well, because the Republican Party is a big tent party. I may not agree with everybody in it. For instance, I tend myself to be very much a free-trader. There are people in the Republican Party who no longer believe in free trade.
I tend to be very much a defender of immigration as key to America’s success, to America’s renewal, and I know that there are some hardcore anti-immigrationists in the Republican Party.
So I don’t believe everything that everyone who calls himself a Republican believes, but the core values I think are really America values. By the way, I think you find a lot of those same values among many Democrats. Sometimes we’re awfully simplistic in the way that we apply these party labels.
Tavis: So speaking of party labels, Dr. Rice, your father was a Republican and there’s a pretty simple and straightforward reason explained in the book about why he was a Republican. I’ll let you tell us why.
Rice: Right. Well, in 1952, when my mom and dad went down to get registered, they were not yet married, they were dating. My mother, who was very pretty, light-skinned, the poll tester, because they gave poll tests to Blacks, the poll testers said, “So who’s the first President of the United States?” She said, “George Washington.”
He said, “Fine, you pass.” He said to my father, “How many beans are in that jar?” Well, there are hundreds of beans; obviously, he couldn’t count them. He was very disappointed that he’d not been allowed to register to vote, so he went back to his church.
Mr. Frank Hunter, who was one of his elders, said, “Oh, Reverend, I know how you can get registered. He said, “There’s a woman down there who’s a clerk, and she’s a Republican, and she’ll register anybody who will say they’re a Republican, because in those days there weren’t any Republicans, really, in Birmingham, Alabama and she was trying to build the party. So that’s how my father got registered to vote as a Republican, but he remained a Republican his entire life.
Tavis: You ever think about the parallel between then and now? That is to say, how the Republican Party welcomed your father for whatever reasons they might have wanted him to be a part of their group and today, there are people still concerned and wondering about when the Republican Party is ever going to get serious about reaching out to folk like your father?
Rice: Well, it’s kind of funny, isn’t it, Tavis, that the only two Black secretaries of state were actually serving Republican presidents. That the only Black chairman of the joint chiefs was serving a Republican president? The Democratic Party does not have the only option on doing well for minorities.
I served a president who I think cared about minority achievement for kids in schools, for minority kids in schools. Let’s be fair – both parties have a lot to atone for when it comes to issues of race and poverty.
Tavis: On that last point we agree. I was about to say, until you got to that last point, respectfully, that you and Colin Powell are wonderful and iconic and accomplished Americans, but you’re just two people. There are 30 million Black folk in this country. I don’t think most of them would tell you that the Republican Party has made a serious effort to reach out to them, but I digress on that point, given that we agree on your last issue.
That said, I want to stay with your father and that house in Birmingham, because your father is a Black Republican and yet you have folk hanging out at your house that don’t really fit the bill.
Put another way, when one thinks Condoleezza Rice, they do not think the Black Panther Party, and you’re having dinner at your house with Stokely Carmichael?
Rice: Right, Stokely Carmichael, head, at the time, of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Remember SNCC?
Tavis: Yeah.
Rice: It was because my father invited him, first when he was dean of students at Stillman College, and then later on when he was at the University of Denver, invited him to speak. Quite frankly, my father was attracted somehow to the radical side of Black politics, although he himself was a very conservative man.
I’ve always thought that one reason – I know that one reason my father was uncomfortable with some aspects of the civil rights movement was that he thought that he would never be able to meet violence with a posture of nonviolence.
Tavis: One of the other things that might seem simplistic to others but it’s important to me, given that I’m so passionate about the issue of childhood obesity, I know from talking to you over the years and anyone who follows your work knows that you are an avid fitness person.
You get up at 4:30 every morning to work out, but you grew up as a rather chubby kid.
Rice: I did. (Laughs)
Tavis: What was it like being a chubby kid, and how did you get so dedicated to a fitness regimen?
Rice: Well, I was a kind of chubby kid. As a matter of fact, if you look at the pictures of me that are in the book, I always had really long legs so I kind of looked like this little round ball on long legs. (Laughter) Later on, I actually decided to take up figure-skating.
It was kind of high-priced childcare. My parents were in graduate school and they could drop me off at the rink and I’d skate all day, and that started me being more athletic and maybe slimming down a little bit, and I’ve been a pretty dedicated exerciser ever since.
Tavis: It wasn’t just fitness that turned you on as a child, and it wasn’t just education. You got turned on to music. I’ll let you tell the story for those who don’t know of how you got to be named Condoleezza, and a funny story in the book about what you could have been named, so I guess I’m glad your mama chose Condoleezza. But the story behind your name, and the connection to music?
Rice: Right. Well, first of all, had I been a boy I was going to be named John. (Laughter) My father was going to get to name me; it was going to be John, and I was going to be an all-American linebacker.
But my mother named the girl, and she looked first at Andantino – she wanted an Italian musical name. Andantino meant “walking slowly.” She decided she didn’t like the implications of that. Even worse was when she decided she liked “Allegro,” but that meant “fast,” and you know, Tavis, that in 1960 nobody wanted their daughter to be called fast. (Laughter)
Tavis: Be called fast, yeah.
Rice: Right – that’s not a good thing. So she settled, finally, on “Condolcezza,” with meant “with sweetness,” and she changed the ending so that it would appeal to the English speaker.
But we have an Italian ancestor somewhere way back and so there are a lot of Italian names in my family. My mother’s name was Angelina, my uncle’s name is Alto, my aunt’s name is Genoa, but we called her Genoa, because we’re from the South.
Tavis: (Laughs) What role has being able to play played in your life? I suspect, given the levels that you’ve operated at, it must have been at times, must be at times a respite. What role does music play in your life?
Rice: Well, music is very much a part of me. First of all, it’s allowed me to have a place to go. When you’re wrestling with Brahms, it’s not exactly relaxing but it is transporting. You can’t think about anything else. So it really is transporting and it gets you away.
It’s also allowed me to do things like play with Yo-Yo Ma and play for the queen of England and play with the Queen of Soul. In that regard I’m very glad that when I wanted to quit when I was 10 years old, because I’ve been playing since I was three, my mother said, “You are not old enough or good enough to make that decision.” (Laughter)
Fortunately, I knew that wasn’t, by the way, a point for debate, and so I kept playing, and by the time I decided not to be a music major anyway I played well enough to play just about anything that I wanted to play.
Tavis: The love of foreign language – how does a Black girl from Birmingham end up being fluent in Russian, of all things?
Rice: Well, that’s a really good question. First you start as a failed piano major, and you start looking for a major in college, and fortunately wander into a course taught in international politics by a man named Josef Korbel, who was Madeleine Albright’s father, by the way.
You then learn that for some reason you’re just passionate about international politics and about Russia and the Soviet Union at the time in particular. For me, that says that sometimes your passion will find you, and it’s something that you never would have gone looking for. I tell my students very often when they are searching, as many college students do, try to find something that you’re passionate about and don’t let anybody tell you that because you look a particular way, you are of a particular gender or race or ethnicity, that you shouldn’t be passionate about something that just makes you very, very happy and very contented.
Tavis: Two questions about your former mentor from a passenger, the father, as you mentioned, of Madeleine Albright. Question one, we all know that you and Madeleine Albright, both women, both secretaries of State formerly, both with a unique and different, in many respects, world view, but both of you obviously connected to this same man. What do you make of the fact that Madeleine Albright’s father was your professor?
Rice: Well, it’s really one of life’s amazing coincidences, one of those little six degrees of separation, or less than six degrees of separation. I don’t think that Dr. Korbel had to be understood as somebody who really valued freedom. He was tremendously appreciative of what the United States had done for him and for his family when they escaped, first as refugees from Nazism and then as refugees from communism.
So perhaps he instilled that in me, and I know that Madeleine’s also a fierce defender of freedom.
Tavis: The other question about that, before I move forward – in this memoir you talk a bit about this and I should make the point here, and we’ll come back to this in a second, that this book really ends where a lot of us hope it would begin.
I understand that there’s going to be another book that comes behind that perhaps will talk about your policy positions and your role in government more intricately and intimately.
But this book really is about your early life, as I said at the top of the show. That said, in a book written about you, that you cooperated with to some degree, written by Elisabeth Bumiller of “The New York Times,” she writes a book and suggests that it’s fascinating for her that most all of your mentors have happened to be white males, starting, of course, with Professor Korbel.
I wonder what you think of her characterization of your mentors for the most part being all white men?
Rice: Well, in fact I had lots of mentors going all the way back into my childhood – teachers and so forth. But if you’re going to be a specialist in international politics, military policy and the Soviet Union, then your mentors are going to be white men. That’s kind of the way that it is.
It just says to me that it is a wonderful thing when you can find mentors who do look like you, but if you can’t, the most important thing is to find mentors. Indeed, today a young woman or a young minority looking to make a mark in international politics and international security and Russian studies would have the possibility of having mentors and role models who do indeed look like them, but if we always wait for somebody who looks like us then there won’t be any firsts, and that’s just the way life is.
Tavis: You made the point a couple of times now, which I celebrate, that we’ve had two African-American secretaries of State. I have a youth program, a foundation that works with young people on leadership issues, and a young man who came through my program called me a few years ago as excited as he could be because he’d gotten an internship, and his internship was in the office of Dr. Rice at the State Department. A young kid named Victor Marsh.
Rice: Yes.
Tavis: So Victor was so excited about this opportunity and I couldn’t have been happier for him, because he wants to build a life in public service, specifically in diplomacy.
I raise that to ask how important it is to you now to see other people of color – Vic is a young Black kid from Detroit, by the way – how important it is for you to see other people of color get into foreign service.
Rice: Oh, it’s really important. I used to say when I was secretary that I could go all day at the State Department, meeting to meeting, and never see another person who looked like me. Something’s wrong when the foreign service of the most diverse democracy in the world has a foreign service that is that homogenous.
So I tried through a number of programs, including the Rangel Fellows and other programs, to increase the number of Black people coming into the Foreign Service and other minorities. I know that Colin had the same concern.
But it’s also incumbent on students, graduate students, undergraduates, to strike out and do something a little bit different. Go to another country, learn a language, dedicate yourself to understanding the world better, because the Foreign Service of the United States of America shouldn’t be so white.
Tavis: Let me connect that point now back to something else in the book, specifically the fact that Dr. King, of course, spent a lot of time in, as it was called during your childhood, “Bombingham,” Bombingham, for all the obvious reasons.
You talk about in the book the fact that your father, speaking of opportunities for all, did not march with Dr. King, although they were there in Birmingham. Tell me more about that, about his decision.
Rice: Well, my father didn’t, although I have to say that people like my father, middle class of Birmingham, did many things in support of the civil rights movement. Those teachers, for instance, of which my parents were in that class, when the students went out into the streets to march the Birmingham school board wanted the teachers to turn over their names so that they could keep them from graduating, and the teachers falsified the names.
Our family also participated in the boycott of downtown Birmingham stores and held food drives for families that were being cut off by the public safety commissioner, Bull Connor.
But my father told my mother, at least, and I overheard him – she didn’t tell me, I overheard him. He said, “You know, if somebody comes after me with a billy club I’m going to try to kill him, and then my daughter’s going to be an orphan.” I simply can’t imagine my father meeting violence with nonviolence. It wasn’t in his character.
Tavis: What did you take from that as a child, overhearing your parents discuss that? I ask that against the backdrop of the fact that there’s a part in this book, I think a fascinating quote for me from you, obviously, about how naturally, how about retaliation – your words – how retaliation comes to you naturally.
Rice: Yeah, well, that was unfortunately against my little friends when they wouldn’t come and play with me for a couple days and I gathered up all my dolls and went and sat out on the front lawn. They came over and they said they wanted to play, and I said, “No, no, you go home. These are my dolls and this is my house,” and my father said, “You know, retaliation came a little too easily to you.”
But I think I had a sense that sometimes you had to fight back. Not every day, as I said in the quote that you used earlier. Sometimes it’s better to ignore slights than to constantly respond to them. But sometimes you do have to fight back, and my parents taught me that.
Tavis: Finally – I think finally, given that I’m just about out of time here – I know you to be, I think all of us know you to be now a huge football fan. You made the joke earlier that you could have been named John were you of a different sex, and would have been an all-American linebacker.
So we know you’re a huge football fan and I love the story in the book about why your father and you could never be fans of the Washington Redskins, as much time as you spent in Washington in your adult life, and the answer is what?
Rice: It’s hard to believe, but the Washington Redskins were the last of the NFL teams to have Black players. Well, in the ’60s, the Redskins did not have Black players and my father never forgave them for those racist policies. So we were fans of the Cleveland Browns, and Jim Brown and Paul Brown that you could see on television every single Sunday. They were the team that were on most, and to this day I’m still a Cleveland Browns fan.
Tavis: So what do you think of your team this season?
Rice: Well, they’ve only lost three games; they’ve only played four. (Laughter)
Tavis: And that’s why –
Rice: It’s going to get better. It’s going to get better.
Tavis: Yeah, and that’s why she was secretary of State. You could not be more diplomatic in a response than she was to that question about the Cleveland Browns. Her name, of course, Condoleezza Rice, former national security adviser and secretary of State, out with the first, I think, of perhaps a few memoirs, this one about her early life.
It’s called “Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family.” Dr. Rice, as always, good to talk to you. Thanks for your time.
Rice: Good to talk with you, Tavis. Take care.

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Last modified: April 10, 2014 at 1:45 pm