Dr. Condoleezza Rice
The “Ordinary, Extraordinary People” Interview
By Kam Williams
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, and then career-wise.
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.
Condoleezza Rice: Hi, this is Condi Rice.
Kam Williams: Dr. Rice, thanks so much for the time. I’m honored to be speaking with you.
CR: Well, thank you. How are you?
KW: Very well, thanks. Do you know Arnold Rampersad. He’s a friend of mine who also teaches at Stanford?
CR: I certainly do, absolutely. He’s a really good person. A really good person. As a matter of fact, he came to Stanford when I was Provost.
KW: Tell him hi, the next time you bump into him on campus.
CR: I will. And if you come out to visit him, please stop by to say hello.
KW: Absolutely. Did you have a chance to read my review of your book?
CR: I did, thank you very much. It was very, very generous.
KW: That was my honest take. I really, really enjoyed it. 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?
CR: 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.
KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls is curious about how hard it was to go public with so many intimate aspects of your life?
CR: That’s an interesting question because I’m a very private person. But I felt that if I wrote this book, I had to be willing at least to talk about some of my struggles, whether in my personal life, health crises, or the deaths of my parents, because there can too easily be a perception of me that my life just went from A to Z uninterrupted, without any ups and downs, and that’s not a fair representation.
KW: I really appreciated how the book really, fully humanized you, because you shared so much of your personal feelings about the significant touchstones in your life.
CR: Well, thank you. It was actually fun to write, because I went back to interview people my parents had taught or who had worked with them, and I learned a lot about them that I hadn’t known.
KW: Reverend Florine Thompson asks, “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?”
CR: I believe that Reverend Thompson’s hit on something. My parents, I 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.
KW: I remember your mentioning in the book that Freeman Hrabowski also hailed from your neighborhood.
CR: Yes, Freeman, and Mary Bush, Sheryl McCarthy, and many others. That community produced an abundance of accomplished kids.
KW: Reverend Thompson, asks “What role has spirituality played in your growth and development over the years?”
CR: Spirituality and faith are at the core of who I am. I was born to deeply religious parents who were able to give me that rock solid foundation in the church and in my faith which really has served me so well.
KW: How so? What do you mean by that?
CR: It’s so much a part of me that it’s almost hard to describe myself in the absence of it. I know that for me it means asking for guidance, and that in the toughest times there’s a personal savior that I can rely on. And I’m very grateful to my parents for giving me that.
KW: Director/author Hisani Dubose says, “I have always wondered with the outstanding qualifications you have, is there a way you can put your education and experience to work outside of teaching or writing?”
CR: I really believe that you can. Not only do I think it is a part of public service to help young people find their way, just as professors had helped me find mine, but I’ve been very involved in K-12 education issues. I started a program back in 1992 called the Center for a New Generation, an afterschool enrichment program. I really do fervently believe that every child deserves to have the kind of access to educational opportunities, broadly defined, including music and sports, that I enjoyed. So, I’m trying to do my part, and I believe that all of us with a privileged background who are fortunate enough to have had that kind of access have a responsibility to try to pass it on.
KW: FSU grad Laz Lyles would like to know what you enjoy doing in your spare time.
CR: Well, I love to watch football. [Laughs] I actually really love to watch almost any competition with a score at the end. I love sports. I play golf now, which is relatively new for me. I only took it up about five years ago. I also like playing piano, and I love being with my family and friends.
KW: Where do you find time for golf and all that, being such a workaholic?
CR: I’ve never really been a workaholic. I work very hard, but I also enjoy playing. I think it’s important to have a balanced and well-rounded life.
KW: Larry Greenberg says, “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. [LOL] 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 Seventies and of The Gap Band since the Eighties.
KW: Harriet Pakula Teweles, asks, “What kind of music do you like to play on the piano when you’re playing for your own relaxation and enjoyment?
CR: 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.
KW: Yale grad Tommy Russell says, “I play piano just like you. What are you currently playing and practicing? Is there a piece that you love but struggle with? That would be Scherzo No. 1 in B minor by Chopin for me–I can’t play it as well as Vladimir Horowitz.”