Current Issue / People

Condoleezza Rice interview: the full transcript

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

Condoleezza Rice: I do have a new 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.

DU: And 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 here at Stanford. It will end just before I go to Washington.

DU: Can you tell us about how growing up in Birmingham may have prepared you for your many roles, including those at the national level?

Rice: Well, Birmingham was a very unusual place to grow up in the late ’50s and 1960s. It was unusual because it was the heart of the segregated South. Birmingham really was the epicenter of Jim Crow and the segregated South. On the other hand, I grew up in a very loving middle-class family in a very nice community that was determined to make sure that children had every opportunity—we had every lesson known to humankind: ballet lessons and French lessons and piano lessons. And so I grew up in an environment in which people had very high expectations and in which there were really no excuses. And I think that was an awfully good way to grow up, because even though the circumstances were difficult—my parents were very big believers that you might not be able to control your circumstances, but you could control how you responded to your circumstances. That’s a lesson I will carry throughout my life.

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

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 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. And so 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: Can you give us some sense of what habits of mind you learned from Dr. Korbel? Did he train you to approach problems through a particular prism?

Rice: Dr. Korbel was, first and foremost, someone who was a clear thinker. He understood that sometimes in international politics, where people tend to think in gray, that sometimes there are things that are black and white, there are things that are right and wrong. He was able to keep centered in his principles and values, even though he was a great analytic thinker. He was open to argumentation; he taught me never to simply talk to people who agree with you because you never hone your skills, your mind, that way. But he was a very systematic thinker; he was someone who wanted to mobilize all the facts, but he never compromised on principle, and that’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not an easy thing, on the one hand, to give others their due and on the other hand to hold true to your principles. I think he was someone who did that and who taught me to try and do the same.

DU: Do you try to teach the way he taught, by any chance?

Rice: Well, we all have our ways of teaching, and I’ve had lots of great mentors who were wonderful teachers. I think I am a bit of a Socratic teacher; I try very hard to have my students develop their own thoughts, rather than imposing my own. And Dr. Korbel was like that, too. I remember the first time that he said to me, now I’m in graduate school, and I gave a presentation in my first graduate course at Denver, and afterward he said, ‘You should be a teacher, you should be a professor.’ I thought, ‘Professor!’ That never even occurred to me. But he was right. I think I enjoy bringing young people, having them express themselves and bringing them to new experiences and new information in that way that opens up whole new worlds in the way that he did for me.

DU: You’re teaching classes right now, aren’t you?

Rice: I’m teaching a class right now—it’s a seminar and it’s a course called “Challenges and Dilemmas in U.S. Foreign Policy”—something I know a little bit about. Twenty-eight students—they are advanced undergraduates and some first-year and second-year graduate students, a couple of law students and business school students. Every week we take on one of the major crises that the United States has had to work its way through. I try to give them a sense of what the calculations are and the considerations in making good decisions.

DU: Could you walk us through your day on Sept. 11—from dawn to dusk?

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. And 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 that 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: When did it first cross your mind that it was an al-Qaida operation?

Rice: The night of Sept. 11, when the president finally made it back to the White House, he did a speech to the nation, addressed to the nation from the Oval Office. And then we had a National Security Council meeting at about 10 o’clock that night. And George Tenet, the CIA director, said that it had all the earmarks, all the hallmarks of al-Qaida. I think we’d all come to know, deep down inside, but there wasn’t any time to think about it until that night, when we reflected on it. That had real consequences because it meant we were probably going to war in Afghanistan.

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 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, I said, ‘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. I told my colleague, Steve Hadley, when he became national security adviser and I became secretary of state, I said, ‘You know Steve, I really prefer being coordinated to coordinating.’ And there’s really something to that.

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, the national security apparatus? Could you give us some sense of the discussions that went on behind the scenes about this?

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 them 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 came over 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: During the four years that you served as national security adviser, whom did you turn to for advice?

Rice: First of all, I had a very close relationship with the president, which helped a lot. I could tell him anything, and I felt he would listen. Steve Hadley, my deputy, was like my alter ego. We talked eight, 10, 12 times a day. There was nobody better to be in the trenches with than Steve. On the outside, I talked to people like Brent Scowcroft, who was a good friend and mentor and former national security adviser. And Henry Kissinger, who was really throughout my time as national security adviser and secretary one of my best friends and mentors. Henry is the only other person who had exactly my profile: academic becomes national security adviser becomes secretary of state. I always felt somehow that he knew exactly what that was like.

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 think that 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: Can you tell us now about some of the differences you and the president had?

Rice: Well, they’ll come out over time. The main thing was that I always felt he listened, and he trusted me to carry out the joint course that we set.

DU: Since leaving the post of secretary of state, you’ve been very quiet about foreign policy and unfolding circumstances. I’ve read a couple of articles here and there, but for the most part you’ve kept a low profile. 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 to K-12 education, extended learning days. 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. I have a very good relationship with Hillary Clinton. I first met her when she brought her freshman daughter to Stanford when I was the provost, and so if there is ever anything I want to say to her, I can, and I know that. But there’s no reason for me to do that in the newspapers.

DU: This will come as no surprise to you, but of course the Bush administration is controversial. There are critics and historians today who say the 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, everybody had to keep 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. Several years ago I was speaking to the then defense minister of Russia, Sergei Ivanov, and he said, ‘You know Condi, I’ve visited Alaska, and it’s so beautiful.’ He said, ‘It reminds me of Russia.’ And I said, ‘You know, Sergei, it used to be Russia.’ 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: Let’s talk music. Do you still play the piano?

Rice: I play the piano quite a lot. I didn’t stop playing the piano when I was in Washington. In fact, I had a chamber music group with which I played, probably every six weeks or so. I even played a few little concerts. I had the chance to play with Yo Yo Ma. For the queen of England. … But now I’m playing more. I have a few benefit concerts that are scheduled, so practice is really important right now. Now I’ve got to get ready.

DU: I’d like to read you a quote from The New York Times. It’s from an interview with you. The quote is, “I love Brahms because Brahms is actually structured. And he’s passionate without being sentimental. I don’t like sentimental music, so I tend not to like Liszt, and I don’t actually much care for the Russian romantics Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, where it’s all on the sleeve. With Brahms it’s restrained, and there’s a sense of tension that never resolves.” Do you still feel that way?

Rice: Oh absolutely. Johannes Brahms is by far my favorite composer. It is in part because he was a great classicist, but he was also pushing music toward the 20th century. Brahms died in 1897, he was only 64 years old, and I often wonder what it would have been like if Brahms had lived to be part of the explosion of atonal music and the new music of Schoenberg and Webern that come only a couple of decades later, less than two decades later. So I’m a great fan of Brahms as a classicist, the true heir to Bach and Beethoven, but also because his music is spectacularly beautiful, but not sentimental. I don’t like music that wears its emotions on its sleeve, and you’ll never find that with Brahms.

DU: Is he difficult to play?

Rice: Brahms is exceedingly difficult to play. Fortunately, I have big hands. If you don’t have big hands, it’s kind of hard to play Brahms. One of the funny stories is that actually apparently he didn’t have very big hands. And so he was known for these performances in which he just missed oodles of notes because he had these huge leaps that he put in that he himself could not make. Apparently there was a fair amount of Brahms that Brahms couldn’t play. I love playing Brahms, but it is really, really hard.

DU: You’ve been many firsts in your life. You were the first African-American and the first woman provost here at Stanford, you were the first African-American woman to be secretary of state, and any number of firsts that I won’t list here. Given that, I wonder what your feelings were—personal feelings rather than political—on the night that the first African-American was elected president of the United States?

Rice: Well, I’ve said this publicly, I was both amazed and gratified. I thought it was terrific. It was a very special moment for our country because it showed that the United States can overcome old prejudices and old difficulties. For a country that was founded with the birth defect of slavery, this is a remarkable turn. I was very gratified, very glad that our country demonstrated that, in that sense, it’s learned not to judge people by the color of their skin. It doesn’t mean that we’re color blind, but it does mean that we’re increasingly less likely to make judgments about what people are capable of because of the color of their skin.

DU: Are there any other firsts ahead of you? Are you aiming for the commissionership of the National Football League? (Rice has long claimed that her ideal job would be to helm the NFL.)

Rice: Well, commissioner of the National Football League would have been a fun first. The first woman commissioner of the National Football League would have been a first I would have enjoyed doing. I told Roger Goodell, the current commissioner who has become a good friend, I said, ‘You know Roger, when I was struggling with the Iranians and the Russians every day, your job looked pretty good. But from Northern California, your job doesn’t look so good anymore. I suspect not, but I love sports. I love sports management. When I was provost of Stanford, Stanford athletics reported to me, and I enjoyed trying to make a big-time sports program work.

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. My good friend and mentor George Shultz told me that a long time ago. He told me—and he was somebody I talked to a lot during the time I was in government—George said, ‘You know, being secretary of state is the best job in government.’ And George should have known. He was secretary of the treasury, he was secretary of labor, he was director of the Office of Management and Budget, so he had a lot of comparative perspective, and he was right. 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 of 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: So that was your greatest job. Of all the ones you’ve had, which was the toughest?

Rice: I think national security adviser was the toughest job. I think being in a position of great responsibility, with frankly very little authority except that that you derive from the president, and you have to be careful, you can’t always say, ‘Well the president wants it, the president wants it.’ People stop listening to you after a while. I really liked being line management. I liked working in the State Department. I liked having an organization of 55,000 people that I had to get up every day and figure out how I was going to motivate them through 12 different time zones and all kinds of different challenges around the world, and how I was going to keep the messages straight. I loved that part of it, and in that regard, probably my second favorite job ever, and maybe even my favorite job, was being provost of Stanford. I loved that side of management. I think at root maybe I’m a manager and an executive, and those two jobs played to that strength.

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. Who knows, you may not like that; 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.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *