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Dr. Condoleezza Rice on Extraordinary Ordinary People

Thursday, October 21, 2010
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HH: Pleased to welcome now Dr. Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State. Dr. Rice, welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show, great to talk to you.

CR: Hi, it’s nice to be back with you.

HH: Congratulations on Extraordinary Ordinary People. It’s a magnificent read, actually. Are you surprised by the reaction it’s soliciting from people?

CR: Well, I am a bit. One never knows how people are going to respond to what is essentially a personal memoir, but I’m very glad. And the most heartening comments really have been from people who see glimpses of their own parents in this memoir. And I love that.

HH: Well, I shared a panel with Karen Hughes on Friday, and I was telling her how much I had enjoyed this book, my wife had enjoyed it, and she told me that prior to 2000, everyone in the Bush team was urging you to kind of tell people more about your story, that you’d never done that before. Was it difficult for you? Or is it just something you were brought up not to do?

CR: Well, it was something that we didn’t talk a lot about ourselves. You know, we’re nice, Southern Presbyterians. We don’t talk very much about ourselves. But I felt that at this time, as I was thinking about what I wanted to write when I left government, that I’d been asked the question so many times, well how did you get to be who you are, and I thought well, you have to know John and Angelina Rice. And so I thought it would be good to really tell their story. And this is as much their story as mine.

HH: It really is, and I look forward to talking a little bit about you and both of them. But I want to begin with a couple of the bracing revelations in the book. Probably the most bracing, on Page 119, is a picture of you, your mom and your dad, riding in a car with Stokely Carmichael singing Motown.

CR: Right, right.

HH: Explain to the audience how you came to know Stokely Carmichael, the man who invented black power?

CR: That’s right. Well, my dad, who was himself a conservative Republican man, was also very interested in the contestation of ideas. He was very interested in the whole range of alternatives in black politics at that time. And he invited Stokely Carmichael to speak in a speaker’s series that he had, first at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa when he was still a student, Daddy was, and then later at the University of Denver. They became great and fast friends. I’ve always thought a little bit that my father liked some of the pride and some of the toughness of both black radicals, although he himself was a very conservative man.

HH: Now in terms of your conversation with Stokely Carmichael, did you ever do politics? I know you talk about him not liking some of the popular movement music like the Temptations or Rolling Stones, et cetera. But did you ever talk his radical view of America with him?

CR: Well, sure. I was pretty young when I first met him, but we generally talked more about world politics as I got older, because as Stokely, as he got older, was very interested in the Soviet Union and Marxism. And we used to actually debate the merits and demerits of Marxism. I, of course, on the demerit side.

HH: Another amazing revelation in here that it was the father of Madeleine Albright who actually inspired you to become a Sovietologist.

CR: That’s correct, because I was in college for two years as a piano major. I practiced and learned piano from age 3. I was going to be a great concern pianist. And then I went off to the African Music Festival School, a place where a lot of prodigies go after my sophomore year in college. And I thought you know, I’m about to end up teaching 13 year olds to murder Beethoven. I’d better find another career. And fortunately, having tried several other things, I wandered into a course in international politics taught by Dr. Korbel. He is a great storyteller. He had been himself a diplomat, and it was like finding a passion all of a sudden. I knew that I wanted to do things Russian, and things international.

HH: Now Dr. Rice, given your whole life, this is encapsulated here, you cut it off just prior to your entry into the second Bush administration. But the clear focus of the book is on Birmingham, what it’s like to grow up in America’s most segregated big city, as you put it, with a particular focus on 1963. How difficult was it to write this?

CR: It was, for me, difficult to really reconstruct this in a way, realizing that this is not that long ago in America. It’s hard to believe that, I’d like to think I’m not that old, and yet I remember these events. But yet, I think it was important, too, for people who are just a little bit younger, who perhaps don’t remember all that we went through in the civil rights movement, and how far the United States of America has come. It was also good to write it, because I had a chance to go back and talk to a lot of people who had been involved in that period with my parents. And I learned a lot about what my community did.

HH: You know, there are moments here, I am just a year younger than you are, that I’m reading along, and I’m thinking oh, I remember all this stuff, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK. And then with jarring, you know, Dark Shadows, I can’t believe you watched Dark Shadows as a child.

CR: (laughing) I loved it.

HH: That’s an admission against interest, Dr. Rice. But as I go through it, all of a sudden, I realize for the first time, you were two miles away from the bomb blast that killed the four little girls in Birmingham. You were at your dad’s own church when that happened, and you knew those girls. I really…

CR: That’s correct.

HH: I was ignorant of that until this moment, and that really does separate American youth in ways that you really don’t understand.

CR: That’s right. If you grow up in a community that experienced that kind of homegrown terrorism, and that’s exactly what it was, because we were in church that Sunday, and we had just gotten there. My mom was the choir director, and my dad was the minister, so we were at church a little early. And there was a thud. And in those days, in a place that had become known as Bombingham, Birmingham had, everybody knew it was a bomb. Within a little bit of time, despite the fact there were no cell phones, there was a phone call to the church saying that 16th Street Baptist Church had been bombed. It wasn’t long after that that we learned that four little girls had been killed while waiting to go to Sunday School in the bathroom in the basement. And then we learned the identities of the little girls, and of course, Denise McNair had been in my father’s kindergarten. I played dolls with her. There’s a picture in the book of my father giving Denise McNair her kindergarten graduation certificate.

HH: That is, it’s really arresting. There’s also, you write, “If you were black in Birmingham in 1963, there was no escaping the violence, and no place to hide.” And this is a recollection I’m not sure a lot of Americans want to go back through, but the terror for a little girl must have been pretty omnipresent.

CR: Very much, because before 196–, late 1962 and early 1963, our little cocoon of a community had largely protected its children from the horrors of Birmingham. It’s absolutely true that from time to time, as I describe in the book, something would happen like a bad incident when I went to see Santa Claus, and my father thought that Santa Claus was treating little black kids differently than little white kids. And he said that he was going to pull all of that stuff off of him if he didn’t treat me well. And as you might imagine, as a five year old, you go forward with a little trepidation. You never know who’s going to go off here. Is it Daddy or Santa Claus? And so there were times like that. but ’63 was the crucible year. And then the violence was all around you, and your parents really couldn’t protect you from the random attacks, the random night riders in the community, or the random bombs that killed four little girls.

HH: When you talk about going off to Denver for the summer as your parents were teachers that could get away for a summer or elsewhere, did you regret having to come home at the end of the summer for reasons other than leaving behind ice skating or any of the other wonderful childhood memories, but to go back into segregation? Was that something you consciously thought about?

CR: Really not, because again, Birmingham was in many ways a comfortable community for a little black middle class kid like me, because we had our ballet lessons and our French lessons. And I looked forward to going home. But for me, it was leaving new friends in Denver, it was leaving ice skating, which I loved. And funny enough, what I don’t remember thinking is that for the first time in my life, my little friends were white, because in Birmingham, I had no white classmates until we moved to Denver when I was 12.

HH: I was telling my Con Law students today, we’re doing the 15th Amendment today and the Voting Rights Act, that this memoir is much like the Justice Thomas memoir, a revelation to people about what the South was really like, like your father being asked to name the number of beans in a jar in order to vote. Tell people that story.

CR: Yes, my father in 1952, my father and my mother, they were not yet married, went down to register to vote. My mother was light-skinned, very beautiful, and the man said to her, you had poll testers in those days. You had to answer questions to register to vote. And he asked my mom, do you know who the first president of the United States was, and she said George Washington. He said fine, you pass, go and register. My father, he asked him how many beans are in this jar, and there were hundreds of beans. My father obviously couldn’t count them. And so my father said he didn’t know, and he said well, you can’t register. And my dad went back to his church, and he ran into an old man there, Mr. Frank Hunter, who said oh, Reverend, I’ll show you how to get registered. He said there’s a woman down there, and she’s a clerk, and she’ll register anybody who says they’re Republican. Now you didn’t register by party in those days in Birmingham. I suspect that this woman, though, expected that if she let you register, you’d join the party, and that’s exactly what my father did.

HH: There’s a very sensitive and repeating discussion in Extraordinary Ordinary People about white kindness in a segregated society. You mention Dr. Carmichael, your mother’s doctor, and some of your dad’s friends in the education community, who would come through when he needed something. But it’s still, I mean, when you go to Burger Phillips, and you can’t try on a dress, I am amazed that it actually did not scar you. It does not appear to have scarred you.

CR: No, because my parents, and really, even their parents before them, and certainly the community that I grew up in, taught us that you might not be able to control your circumstances, but you could control how you reacted to your circumstances. And so this was not license to feel like a victim, or a license to complain. It was, if anything, a license to get highly educated and to overcome all of that. And nobody was going to be able to hold you down. I’ve often said that in this very segregated place, my parents and my community had me convinced that I might not be able to get a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, but I could be president of the United States if I wanted to be.

HH: What’s remarkable is that you ran into it way outside of the South as well. I made a note next to this lecture by Professor Robert Eckleberry that you went to at D.U.

CR: Yes.

HH: …on racial superiority when you were, you were a freshman at the time?

CR: I was a freshman in college at the time, and actually still finishing my senior year in high school. And I was a bit taken aback, because the theories of Dr. Schockley about racial superiority, and Professor Eckleberry presented it as just presenting the social science theory. But I thought it was not a very good thing to, for college students to hear, and so I challenged him on it.

HH: There’s a lot of that in this book, and I would recommend anyone who wants to understand what part of the segregated South was like, to read Extraordinary Ordinary People. But I also want to talk about your parents. I would have loved to have met John Wesley Rice, Jr., and of course, Angelina Harnett as well. But he must have been a fascinating preacher. I’m a Presbyterian like you. I’m sure we were probably at National with Louie Evans at the same time.

CR: Yes.

HH: But what do you remember of his preaching style?

CR: I remember that his preaching style was somewhat understated and professorial, really, which I found….educated population that actually didn’t like a lot of the emotional yelling, and as my grandfather called it, whooping and hollering in their sermons. And he was also, however, somebody who challenged them constantly. He had rather, sometimes, radical theological views. I remember a sermon that he gave once that was kind of a scandal in the church, because he talked about Judas in rather sympathetic ways. That wasn’t something you expected to hear in a church in Birmingham, Alabama.

HH: Oh, you stress that on Page 62. And at the same time, you went on to say you would engage your father in discussions on everything, arguments, really, from Paul to Revelation, but that you, “I have always believed fully and completely. My challenge has been to avoid complacency in my faith, and to remember to struggle with its meaning as my father taught me to do.” So it sounds like you were brought up arguing the interstices of Christianity as opposed to accepting all or nothing.

CR: I was taught to make my intellect and my faith companions rather than competitors, or in conflict with one another. And all the way from the time that I was insistent with my father, when I was four years old, that it was actually job not Job, and didn’t he understand that, which he tolerated from his four year old daughter, but we did. We discussed and argued and struggled, and I always thought that you know, I’ve been in a lot of intellectual environs where people have long since lost what faith they have. And I think my father helped to guard me against that, and armor me against that by allowing me to struggle with faith.

HH: There’s a very touching paragraph near that section where you talk about your father’s outreach to those “tough kids” on the neighborhood, and he turns a table over on his board of elders. And then, because of the interventions of Mrs. Florence Rice, you named this lady, Mrs. Florence Rice, Mrs. Hatty Conrad, Mrs. Lillian Ford, and Mrs. Marcy Bracie, he was able to go on and do that. He created a special category for them, because of course, the Presbyterians didn’t ordain women as elders. Why did you go, Dr. Rice, to the trouble of naming these women specifically?

CR: I wanted to honor this generation of people. And you can’t honor people by leaving them nameless. And I thought that it was important for people to know that these were real women who believed, as I say in the book, that my father’s ministry was not just for the middle class children of the church, but also for the tough kids that lived in the government projects behind. And I think it dignifies them. And I remember them, and I deliberately also gave them the Mrs. We didn’t call women of that age and stature by their first names when I was a little girl. It was Mrs. Bracie, and it was Mrs. Rice. And I wanted people to understand that.

HH: Now the very textured and nuanced picture of the black community in Birmingham is on every page. But there’s also some stuff I wouldn’t have recognized, or I’d never heard about. For example, in your chapter in 1963, your father and Reverend Shuttlesworth, a fairly prominent, important member of the civil rights movement, would sit on the front porch of your house and talk late into the evening, and they’re debating tactics, Condoleezza Rice. That’s fascinating.

CR: Yes, Reverend Shuttlesworth, who I think never really got his due, was really the heart and soul of the movement in Birmingham. He was the one who raised the consciousness of blacks in Birmingham. And all the way back in the 1950s, was trying organize. He moved to Cincinnati, I think, because of the threats against his family in the early 60s, but he would come back. And he and my father were dear friends. And my father was not really very much in favor of the non-violent part of the movement. I remember when everybody was lining up to march, he told my mother, and I just overheard them. They weren’t talking to me. I overheard them standing in the living room. He said you know, Angelina, they’re asking us to go out there and march, and they’re telling us to be non-violent. And he said if somebody comes after me with a billy club, meaning the police, I’m going to fight back, and I’m going to try to kill them, and they’re going to kill me, and that my daughter’s going to be an orphan. So again, my father was a very complex man. And I know that Reverent Shuttlesworth respected my father, and he said so many times. And I had a chance to meet him not too long ago, and despite the fact that, I mean, meet him again, not too long ago, and despite the fact that he’d had a stroke, he was able to communicate through nonverbal communication how much he respected my dad.

HH: He would also, your father would sit on the porch with a rifle at night, and he’d patrol the neighborhood with his friends in the summer of bombing. And you are an ardent defender of the 2nd Amendment as a result of that.

CR: I am an ardent defender of the 2nd Amendment. And he’s not an absolutist who believes that there needs to be assault rifles in our cities, but I fully believe that the founding fathers clearly and carefully delineated the relationship of the people to their government, and what rights they would have. And just like we have a right to free speech in the 1st Amendment, we have a right to a well-regulated militia, and the right to bear arms in the 2nd Amendment. And my family, my father, his friends, took advantage of that to patrol this community, and to keep night riders away. They never actually shot anybody, but they’d shoot into the air and scare people away.

HH: Dr. Rice, there’s, I don’t know if this is going to be controversial, but the portrait of the black community in Birmingham is full of school principals and pastors, a special place for music teachers. There’s a lot of class recognition within the black community, you know, the tots and teens passage versus Jack and Jill, and the blue bud passage. Is this eliciting any controversy within the African-American community?

CR: In fact, it’s interesting, it’s not eliciting much controversy, at least yet, because I think most people in the black community know that this is the way our community was. And while my parents and many of their friends fought hard to educate kids, no matter what class they came from, Birmingham was a pretty stratified place. And I think that’s part of the story.

HH: There’s also a very interesting passage about sort of the white/black relationship as to parenting, that you tell about your grandfather’s death, and your grandmother saying somebody call the Wheeler boys, who of course are the white sons of the man who adopted him. It’s, as you said, it’s really complicated for people who don’t grow up in the South to figure this out.

CR: Yes, I think our relationships, black and white in America, are very complicated. Our familial relationships…and this is one of those stories. My granddad, my mother’s father, when he was about 13, ran away from home. And you know, there are many different stories about why, but the one that the family really most believes is that he ran away because somebody had assaulted his sister, a white man. And he’s beaten this man, and he felt he’d better get out of town. And so he was sitting in a train station, really wee hours of the morning, with just a railway token in his pocket. And along came a man named Mr. Wheeler, and asked why he was there, a white man. Granddaddy explained, Mr. Wheeler took him home, raised him with his sons, and in fact, when my grandfather died, I remember going to my grandmother’s house, I was about ten, and telling her that Granddaddy died. And after she kind of wailed, she said somebody call the Wheeler boys. And sure enough, one of them came over right away. And it was really obvious that he was like a member of the family.

HH: Now Dr. Rice, one of the things I kind of knew but didn’t is how music is so deeply embedded in your life. And whether it’s reading childhood biographies of musicians like Mozart or listening to Martin Luther King and hearing Precious Lord sung, or singing, you yourself singing In The Garden at your father’s funeral. I mean, do you listen to music every day? And if so, what?

CR: I listen to music all the time, because it is so much a part of me going back to learning to play at three. But my tastes tend to be pretty eclectic, to be truthful. I love Brahms and Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin. I also love Kool and the Gang and Led Zeppelin and the Gap Band, and of course, the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

HH: So did your parents share that eclecticism? Or did you go through the standard the music was too loud and the Motown was on too much?

CR: Well, my parents were kind of split in their musical tastes. My mother was the classicist. I don’t think she ever listened to anything but classical music. My father, on the other hand, loved big band and jazz, and really progressive jazz. He loved a lot of the pretty far out jazz. He was also pretty fond of the music of the Seven Days Son, so for my dad, it was fine if I wanted to crank up the radio and listen to something really loud. My mother preferred to listen to opera.

HH: Your mother comes through in this as just an amazing woman. Condoleezza, if you are overdressed, it’s a comment on them. If you are underdressed, it is a comment on you.

CR: Right.

HH: I gather this explains a lot about your love of being well dressed.

CR: I guess so. My mother was a lady. She was an elegant, Southern lady. And she was very much one who believed that dressing properly and acting properly, and for her, by the way, acting properly as a young girl meant, or as a young lady, meant that you didn’t pick up a bat or a ball of any kind. So she never played sports, and she was a little bit taken aback at my tomboy tendencies. But she taught me to dress well, and in fact, many of our first outings together would be when my dad would go up to the church to work on his sermon on Saturday, and my mom and I would head for the stores.

HH: Now I want, also, people to understand, you were a lousy test taker. I want people to hear that from the Secretary of State.

CR: Let me just say it. I was a lousy test taker, particularly both standardized tests, where I was just not very good. And it reminds us that standardized tests are an important element of judging somebody’s potential, but not the only important element.

HH: I also want people to hear the advice, because I’m a law professor, and I tell this to people and they don’t listen to me. If you don’t want to be a lawyer, don’t go to law school.

CR: Right.

HH: You had to internalize that yourself.

CR: I did, because when I finished Notre Dame with my brand newly minted Master’s degree in international relations, Soviet studies and economics, I came back to Denver, and I was sure I was going to be a hot property on the job market. I wasn’t. And suddenly, I thought well, I could always go to law school, and applied, in fact, to law school. And it was first my father, and then Dr. Korbel who said, Dr. Joseph Korbel who said law school? Do you want to be a lawyer? And I said actually, no, I don’t want to be a lawyer.

HH: And I want people to…

CR: So I didn’t go to law school.

HH: I want people to hear that. I want to conclude by talking about your mom and dad growing old. This is for anyone our age whose parents have grown old and gone to the Lord. You went through breast cancer with your mom, and your dad’s many illnesses, and his remarriage, and all that sort of thing. That’s not, you don’t get many memoirs about that, Dr. Rice. This is fairly unusual for a memoirist.

CR: Well, it was very important that people get a full picture of life, my life, and life with my parents. And people do get old and they die. And when they die, they leave you in one sense, but they are always with you in another. I’m religious. That certainly helps to maintain my connection to my parents, because I do believe in eternal life. But it also is that my parents were so much a part of me, and who I am, that as I say in the book, I could hear them saying what they always said. You’re well prepared for whatever is ahead of you, and you’re God’s child. And I’m very grateful that our bonds were so deep that frankly they were not broken by the chasm of death.

HH: Now Dr. Rice, you’ve served three presidents, you’re at the Reagan library as we tape this. Obviously, you’ve got great connections to both the first President Bush and the second President Bush. As you survey all these leaders that you’ve worked with, and you compare them to your dad, who’s obviously had such, he was such an amazing guy, it comes through in this book, what did they have in common? You know, obviously, his opportunities were not their opportunities, but what did they share in common?

CR: What they shared in common was a deep religious faith, and a deep and abiding belief in family. I think that having families that give you unconditional love is the greatest gift that anyone can have, and I think that was true for me, and it was true in the Bush family. They also shared a belief in doing whatever they could for people who had less than they did, a bedrock belief that if you were given a lot, a lot was expected of you in returning that. And I think that explains why compassion and generosity were common to both Presidents Bush, both President Bushes, and to my father.

HH: I want to close with two subjects. First, this one is because I am a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan, I attended every home game from ’65 to ’74, and I’ve had season tickets for ten years. Are you sticking with the Browns through the lean years?

CR: I’m sticking with the Browns through the lean years. It is kind of sad that I think I was nine or ten, maybe, ten was the last time the Browns won the championship. But hope springs eternal.

HH: Yeah, Colt McCoy looked pretty good on the weekend.

CR: Colt McCoy did look pretty good. That’s right.

HH: You’re young. You’ve got the second volume to write, your NSC years, your State Department years. But what’s ahead for Dr. Condoleezza Rice after that?

CR: I love being a faculty member at Stanford. I really think that I’m a professor who took a detour to do some other things. I love the university. I love teaching, because I get to do what Dr. Korbel and some others did for me, which is to open up a world that my students might otherwise never have seen. And what’s amazing is you see that light go on with students that tells you that they’re experiencing something special, and maybe they’re finding a passion. So I think I’ll be a university person and a faculty member for as long as I can. And the Stanford Cardinals are pretty good in football this year, too.

HH: Yes, they are. Dr. Condoleezza Rice, congratulations on Extraordinary Ordinary People. It’s a wonderful book. We look forward to the second volume.

CR: Thank you so much. Great to talk with you.

HH: Take care.

End of interview.

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