Condoleezza Rice still has national potential

Condoleezza Rice was in Boston yesterday promoting her new family memoir, Extraordinary, Ordinary People. Often lampooned on Saturday Night Live, the former Secretary of State under George W. Bush is anything but a stick figure. She is charming, highly intelligent, thoughtful and articulate. And the lessons she has learned along the way help explain her positions on issues facing us still.
Rice grew up in Birmingham, Alabama before civil rights legislation started to peel away Jim Crow laws. Her parents taught her, “You may not be able to control your circumstances, but you can control your response to those circumstances.” While away from home, her parents would make her wait until she could use the bathroom at home so she wouldn’t have to use “Coloreds Only” facilities. They wouldn’t allow her to drink from a “Coloreds Only” water fountain. Each of their rules was to preserve their dignity and pride. When the public accommodations laws were passed under President Lyndon Johnson, the Rices were among the first to go to newly integrated restaurants. It would still be two years before her parents were allowed to vote. And attitudinal changes toward blacks took longer still.

Our own history, Rice says, reminds us it’s hard to replace habits of tyranny with habits of democracy. Looking at Iraq and Afghanistan, she reflects, “Who are we to scoff at people having difficulty with democracy?” But, she says, change will come. She recalls having met with a conservative cleric in Iraq, with whom she could not shake hands because she was an unrelated female. At the end of their meeting, he called in his modestly covered 13-year-old granddaughter to meet the Secretary of State, and the granddaughter told her, “I want to be foreign minister too.”

Rice embraces the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. When four little black girls, including one with whom Rice used to play dolls, were killed in the infamous 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, her father and others formed a community watch, sitting on their front porches with shotguns. “We had the right to defend ourselves when authorities wouldn’t protect us. If (notorious public safety commissioner) Bull Connor knew where the guns were, they wouldn’t have let us keep them.”

Rice’s awareness of foreign policy began during the Cuban missile crisis when, as a child, she learned that Birmingham was within range of the Soviet missiles implanted in Cuba. As an adult and a political scientist with expertise in the former Soviet Union, Rice changed from a Democrat to a Republican because of Ronald Reagan ‘s anti-Soviet positions.

On the domestic front, Rice supports affirmative action (knows she benefitted from it) to provide access but not guarantee success, which must be earned. She is appalled by today’s scapegoating of immigrants. “The United States that talks of taking away citizenship of children of illegal immigrants born here, I don’t know that country.”

Rice dislikes identity politics, assuming we know what people think because they’re blacks, or they’re women, or immigrants. “Yes, we’re part of groups, but we’re also individuals.” Group labels, she warns, create feelings of victimhood, of aggrievement, whose twin brother is entitlement. And once you’re there, you stop working, and you stop caring.”

As for our economic problems, Rice says it is the private sector that is creative and innovative, willing to take risks. “The U.S. government, not so much.” But, she says, she won’t “chirp” at those now on the inside. She knows how hard it is to govern, and has respect for the process.

Regrettably, the format of Rice’s appearance provided only for written questions from The Commonwealth Institute audience, so, despite moderator Jon Keller’s well crafted questions, she was insulated from questions inviting follow-ups such as, “In setting foreign policy, which were the issues on which you disagreed most with President Bush?”

An athlete, a concert pianist, a political scientist and diplomat, Condoleezza Rice is a mighty interesting person with a lot of potential for the national stage, should she ever want to subject herself to what that requires. She may be too much of a lady.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

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