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Facing Forward, Looking Back

"I’ve often said, sometimes your passion finds you instead of the other way around," says DU alumna Condoleezza Rice. Photo: Jeffrey Haessler

As the nation’s 66th secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice (BA ’74, PhD ’81) logged more than a million miles and visited 85 countries. By the time she left her post in January 2009, she had confronted everything from the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian problem to the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia.

Today Rice is out of the diplomatic spotlight, but she is nonetheless on the go, serving on two faculties at Stanford University and as a senior fellow at the school’s Hoover Institution, traveling the globe for various speaking engagements and preparing—accomplished classical pianist that she is—for a series of benefit concerts, including one with queen of soul Aretha Franklin.

One of DU’s best-known alumni, Rice will be honored with the Josef Korbel Outstanding Alumni Award at the annual Korbel Dinner in August.

The biographical details of Rice’s career are well-known: She grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights era; pursued her college education at DU, where her father served as a vice chancellor for enrollment; and prepared for a career in Sovietology under the tutelage of Josef Korbel, who founded what is today the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at DU.

She joined the faculty at Stanford in 1981. While at Stanford, she met Brent Scowcroft, who later served as national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush and who recruited her to serve as the 41st president’s director of Soviet and East European affairs in the National Security Council. She returned to Stanford in 1991 and was appointed provost in 1993. When George W. Bush announced his campaign for the presidency, Rice became one of his key advisers on foreign affairs. She served as his national security adviser during his first term in office and during his second term she served as secretary of state.

Throughout her career, Rice has made history and generated controversy—as the first female national security adviser, as a provost who took aggressive steps to balance the budget, and as the foreign policy adviser who, in the months preceding the Iraq War, first warned about the dangers of smoking guns and mushroom clouds.

In February, Rice sat down with the University of Denver Magazine to discuss her life and career. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

University of Denver Magazine: Rumor has it that you have a book coming out—the first installment in a two-volume memoir. Could you give us a sneak preview?

Condoleezza Rice: I do have a book coming out in October—a family memoir, really. I decided that while it’s very important to write the policy memoir—the sort of obligatory secretary of state’s policy memoir—that it would be better to start with my family and my extraordinary parents and how I grew up and give people a sense of where I came from, because whenever people ask me, ‘How did you get to be who you are?’ I say you had to know John and Angelena Rice. This book is as much about them as it is about me.

Read a full transcript of the interview, in which Rice discusses growing up in Alabama, her favorite composers, the election of Barack Obama and her debt to Josef Korbel, here.

DU: Will you spend some time in Denver in that book?

Rice: Well, the book starts in Birmingham, where I was born, and then traces my family’s decision to move to Denver. And it has quite a bit in there about my time at the University of Denver and then on to Stanford. It will end just before I go to Washington.

DU: The story goes that you were set to have a career in music. And then one day you wandered into a course with Josef Korbel (founder of what was then DU’s Graduate School of International Studies). That must have been some course.

Rice: The truth of the matter is that I was a failed piano major by the time I wandered into Dr. Korbel’s course. I had studied piano from age 3; I could read music before I could read—I was really headed for a career at Carnegie Hall. And then, the summer of my sophomore year, I went to the Aspen Music Festival school. I met 12-year-olds who could play from sight what it had taken me all year to learn, and I thought, ‘Uh oh, I’m going to end up teaching 13-year-olds to murder Beethoven, or maybe I’m going to play [in a] piano bar, but I’m not playing Carnegie Hall.’

And so I came back to the University. I was already a junior, trying to find a major. My parents were really worried that I wasn’t going to find a major and figure out what to do with my life. I took a course in international politics in the spring quarter of junior year, so it was pretty late. And Dr. Korbel was a magnificent storyteller. He was someone who made international politics and the Soviet Union come alive. He did it through wonderful stories about his time as a diplomat, about his time in the dark days of World War II. He had magnificent stories about being in Yugoslavia and knowing Tito. And suddenly this world opened up to me, of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ It really was this course that led me to believe there was another future for me. Even if I couldn’t be a great concert musician, maybe the study of the Soviet Union would provide a passion. I’ve often said, sometimes your passion finds you instead of the other way around. I think this is a case where my passion found me.

DU: Could you walk us through your day on Sept. 11, 2001?

Rice: Well, Sept. 11 was, of course, a day that no American will ever forget, maybe no one in the world will ever forget. But for those of us in a position of authority, every day after Sept. 11 was Sept. 12. You really had a complete change in the way you thought about everything after Sept. 11.

I got to the office, as usual, early—6:15 or so. The president happened to be going that day down to Florida to do an education event, and ironically, either the deputy national security adviser, Steve Hadley, or I would normally have been with him whenever he traveled, even domestically. But this was just going to be a four-hour trip, so both of us stayed in Washington. There was lots to do.

Just after the first plane went into the World Trade Center, my executive assistant came in and said, ‘You know, a plane has hit the World Trade Center.’ I thought, ‘Well, that’s a strange accident.’ I called the president, and we talked about how odd it was. Then I went down for my staff meeting, and they handed me a note that said a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought, ‘My God, this is a terrorist attack.’ So I went into the situation room to try to gather the national security principals—Colin Powell was in Peru; George Tenet, the CIA director, had already gone to the bunker; and I couldn’t get Don Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. I looked behind me, and a plane had hit the Pentagon on the television. At about that time the Secret Service came to me and said, ‘You have to go to the bunker, planes are flying into every building in Washington; we don’t know if the White House is going to be next.’

And so I was sort of spirited away down to a bunker. On the way, I stopped and I called my aunt and uncle, and I said, ‘Terrible pictures are going to be coming out of Washington, but I’m OK. Tell everybody I’m OK.’

And I called the president, and the president said, ‘I’m coming back.’ And I did something I never did before or after: I raised my voice to him, and I said, ‘You stay where you are.’ I said, ‘You cannot come back here. Washington is under attack.’ And the rest of the day was trying to deal with the consequences. I talked to Vladimir Putin on the phone. He said, ‘We know that your forces are going up on alert. We are bringing our forces down.’ As an old Soviet specialist, it was really confirmation for me that the Cold War was over, and here was Russia trying to help at that moment.

I remember the horrors of thinking that the plane that went down in Pennsylvania—that we’d shot it down, because the president had given an order that any plane that was not properly responding could be shot down by the fighters. We couldn’t let planes keep flying into buildings in Washington. And I remember sitting there just trying to deal with everything that was coming across our desk in a sort of fog that, frankly, didn’t lift until several days later at the memorial service, when, I think, for all of us the period of mourning was over and the period of action and defiance began.

DU: I read in The New York Times that you considered the national security post a great job, but then you added, ‘It’s also a very difficult job because everything is by remote control. You do not own any of the assets.’ What did you mean by that?

Rice: Well, national security adviser is a fancy title for assistant to the president for national security affairs, and you are the president’s staff. It’s your responsibility to help him in any way that you can. But the fact of the matter is that the way you help him the most is to get the constitutional officers—the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the secretary of the treasury—all working in the same direction to help the president’s policies. But the secretary of state is the person who has the diplomats, the secretary of defense has the military forces. They are the people who have the authority that comes with being confirmed by the Senate.

As national security adviser, you are staff—rarified staff to be sure, but you’re staff. So I told President Bush once, ‘It’s like working by remote control.’ Can I get secretary A to do this, and can I get secretary B to do that and secretary C to stop doing that? And that’s really what being national security adviser is like.

DU: In 2002, the administration outlined what came to be known as the Bush Doctrine, with two pillars being preemptive strikes and encouraging democratic regime change. Given that preemption could be used as justification for aggression, was this controversial within the foreign policy [and] national security apparatus?

Rice: Of course, preemption—or its cousin, preventive war—have long been a part of American military doctrine. If you ask the question in a rather simple way—if you suspect that something is about to attack you, or if the storm clouds are gathering, the threat is gathering, do you wait until you are attacked? Or do you try to deal with the problem before? Then I think people understand why prevention and preemption have a place in military strategy. And after Sept. 11, the idea that we would sit again and wait for threats to gather, as they had in Afghanistan, I think that was what was far-fetched. And yes, for some it was controversial. But I think the mistaken view is that we intended somehow to go around preempting and preventing war—with preventive war—all over the globe. In fact, there were a limited number of threats that were concerning enough to try and deal with before they fully materialized.

DU: March 19, 2003: The United States launches an air strike on the Dora Farms, where Saddam Hussein was supposedly visiting his sons. The next day the war begins. Tell me about March 19.

Rice: As of fall 2002, the president had gone to the Security Council to say it was time for Saddam Hussein to either comply with the will of the international community, expressed in more than a dozen Security Council resolutions—16 or 17 Security Council resolutions—and fully disarm and allow inspectors back in with full access or he would have to pay the consequences. That work then unfolded until February, when I think it was clear that Saddam Hussein was not going to fully comply, that the word of the United States and the word of the Security Council had to have meaning, and it was at that point pretty clear that we were likely headed toward some kind of military confrontation with Iraq.

But the Dora Farms events were not planned, and they are, to me, one piece of evidence against the idea that somehow we were just dying to go to war—we just wanted to go to war against Saddam Hussein. The reason that we launched the strike at Dora Farms was that we had intelligence that Saddam might be going there, and we thought if we could kill him, then perhaps we wouldn’t have to go to war. And it required a revision of the war plan. The war was supposed to start with air strikes the next day against Iraqi air defenses. But instead we took this chance to try and get rid of Saddam Hussein. As it turns out, he either wasn’t there or he escaped. Most likely he wasn’t there. And we then went to war the next day.

DU: So you must have been on the edge of your seat wondering, when the strike was launched, have we just prevented the war?

Rice: What was actually controversial was whether to launch Dora Farms at all. I can remember being in the Oval Office with the president, Don Rumsfeld, George Tenet, Colin Powell and the chairman of the joint chiefs, because everything was set for the execution of the war plan. The president had that morning met with his commanders one last time by video, asking if there was anything more that they needed. Everyone had said, ‘God bless America,’ and we were ready to launch the war. Then to suddenly decide to change the plan—which could have, of course, given the Iraqis strategic warning of the time of the launch of the military advance—was somewhat dangerous. And we had a long discussion about whether to even do that, whether to do this and give the Iraqis a chance to get ready. We decided, in the final analysis, that it was worth taking the shot. And yes, we waited some 12 hours and then learned that, in fact, we’d not gotten Saddam Hussein, although there was a false report—just shows you how the fog of war acts—there was a false report that somebody had seen somebody like Saddam Hussein on a stretcher. And that got everybody’s heart rate going for a moment, but then it came in that probably he’d not been killed then.

DU: Let’s move on to the secretary of state years. I’m curious: After four grueling years as national security adviser, why weren’t you ready to retire? Why did you want such a challenging job as secretary of state?

Rice: The truth of the matter was, I was ready to retire after being national security adviser and told the president so. I said, ‘You know, your national security team is exhausted. We’ve had the worst terrorist attack in American history, fighting two wars, it’s time to leave.’ I would not have remained as national security adviser. When the president and I talked about my becoming secretary of state—because Colin had said that he was ready to step down as secretary of state—I said to the president, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? You probably could use new blood.’

We then talked about what was on the agenda for reconciliation with our allies after the difficulties of 2003, 2004. I felt that we had a lot of work to do in the Middle East, particularly if we wanted to launch a Palestinian-Israeli negotiation. And so for those reasons, it seemed worth doing.

The part for me that was daunting was that I knew I was going to be on an airplane all the time. The fact is, I’m kind of a nester. For somebody who does international politics, I don’t really like to travel that much. I’d just as soon be in my bed in my house with my things. And I thought, ‘OK, you’re just going to have to get ready to travel,’ because I traveled a million miles as secretary. You cannot do it by video, you cannot do it by phone. You have to be with people. For me, that was in some ways the hardest decision, determining, in fact, that I could go forward.

DU: What did you think you could bring to the position?

Rice: Well, I thought I could bring to the position the experience of having been national security adviser, but also I knew what we needed to achieve strategically, and I knew where the president was. The secretary of state and the president of the United States need to be close. It can’t be that any foreign government or even the bureaucracy in Washington thinks they can split the president and the secretary of state. The president and I had differences during my tenure as secretary of state. Nobody ever knew it, because we would sit down and we’d hammer it out, and he’d listen to me—ultimately, he was president. But I felt that bringing that close relationship and the need to do some things that would now lay a firm foundation going forward, from the difficult years that we’d been through—from Sept. 11 through 2004—that I could do that.

DU: Since leaving the post of secretary of state, you’ve been very quiet about foreign policy and unfolding circumstances. Why is that?

Rice: Well, first of all because I don’t really want to be a former anything. I’ve moved on to my other life, which is teaching at Stanford and writing books and doing some speaking and work that I love with the Boys and Girls Club and K-12 education. I’ve never particularly wanted to just sort of hang out in Washington and ‘comment’ on foreign policy. I was the nation’s chief diplomat—I had my chance. We had eight years, and after eight years, we did what we could do—some of it good, some things I’d do differently. But I’m very aware that it looks a lot easier from the outside than it does when you’re sitting at that desk. I don’t want to be somebody sitting out chirping criticism at my successor. I think you owe those who come after you more than that. You owe them a certain decorum—you’ve had your chance, you’ve done your best. The good thing about change is that they now get to do it their way.

DU: There are critics and historians today who say the Bush administration will be ranked as one of the worst in history. How do you feel about that?

Rice: I’d say they’re not very good historians if they’re making those judgments now. I think about all the times that today’s headlines and history’s judgment didn’t turn out to be the same. In fact, I kept four portraits of secretaries of state near me: Thomas Jefferson, although to my mind he’s a little bit overrated as a founding father. Alexander Hamilton is my favorite founding father. I kept George Marshall, certainly the greatest secretary of state. But I also kept Dean Acheson. When Dean Acheson left office, people talked about who lost China. Now Dean Acheson is known as the father of NATO and he laid the foundation for victory in the Cold War, in which I was lucky enough to participate in 1990 and 1991. And I kept William Seward. He bought Alaska, and at the time it was Seward’s Folly and Seward’s Icebox. I think we’re all glad now that William Seward bought Alaska from the tsar of Russia—for $7 million by the way.

So I give no credence to any historian who is ready to make those judgments now. They ought to read their history and realize that it takes a long time, especially for consequential events, to play out the string. History has a long arc, not a short one, and if, in fact, the Middle East is a place that, instead of Saddam Hussein, finally has an Arab democracy in Iraq, that will be a fundamentally different Middle East than we found. If, in fact, al-Qaida is defeated, that will be a fundamentally different situation than we found. And if the president’s efforts to deal with the scourge of AIDS and malaria and poverty in Africa, something for which he is fondly remembered on the continent, if there are fewer orphans as a result—there are currently 2 million people under treatment with antiretrovirals; there were 50,000 when we started—history will judge our administration well.

DU: Would you return to the foreign policy apparatus in another administration?

Rice: I can’t imagine why anybody, after having been secretary of state, would want to go back and be part of the foreign policy establishment. Secretary of state is the greatest job in government. You get to represent this great country that I love so much, you get to see its strengths and its challenges, and there’s nothing quite like stepping off that plane as secretary of state, with the plane behind you saying ‘United States of America.’ Once you’ve done that, I don’t know why you would want to try and replicate an experience like that. In that sense, maybe you really can’t go home again. I will always find ways to engage in public service, but I am content with what I did and with what we did, and I don’t really see the circumstances that would return me to Washington.

DU: To wrap up this interview, I want to deliver another quote of yours: “I don’t do life crises. I really don’t. Life’s too short. Get over it. Move on.” Still feel that way?

Rice: I feel very much that way. I don’t quite understand the impulse of people, first of all, to always have their hair on fire. Everything’s a crisis; everything’s nuclear war. A lot of life is paper clips. A lot of life you just have to say, ‘OK, I’m putting that aside, I’m going on, it’s too bad, but I’m going on.’ We all have our emotional times and struggles. The deaths of my parents were times that were not so easy just to get over. Obviously those times come. But for the most part, I’m not, frankly, all that reflective. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to get to know myself. Maybe that’s somebody you won’t like very much if you spend too much time trying to get to know yourself, so I think I’m just maybe not that reflective. Maybe it’s not a good thing, but I try very hard to take life as a blessing and a gift. I am a deeply religious person—whatever you go through, I believe, is part of honing yourself to be better the next time. And in that regard, just being thrown off kilter whenever life gets a little difficult seems not really worth it.

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