Condoleezza Rice grew up in segregated Birmingham and never had a white classmate until she went to college. “I couldn’t eat at Woolworth’s lunch counter, but my parents convinced me I could be president of the United States — and I became secretary of state,” she said at the Westmont President’s Breakfast March 4. She shared some of the personal story she tells in “Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family” at the event and reflected on her years directing American foreign policy as secretary of state and national security adviser.“I have remarkable parents who were ordinary people,” she said. “They taught me you can’t control circumstances, but you can control how you respond. I learned to never be aggrieved because there are always others who are struggling more and to never feel entitled because there are always those who have less.”
Rice’s grandfather saved up his cotton but could only pay for one year at Spellman College. He asked how the other students could afford to attend and learned they had scholarships to become Presbyterian ministers. “That’s exactly what I planned to be,” he said. He recognized the value of education, and Rice said her family has been college-educated and Presbyterian ever since.
Rice encouraged guests at the breakfast to be concerned about the state of the country and the world. “In these turbulent and chaotic times, we should focus on what is important, not what is urgent,” she said. “Today’s headlines and history’s judgment are not always the same.”
Saying that every day after 9/11 was Sept. 12 for the Bush administration, Rice concluded that the biggest threat comes from failed states like Afghanistan. “Northern Mexico is beginning to resemble a failed state, a place where government authority doesn’t hold,” she said. “It will be a long and difficult war to take on the drug cartels, but it can be done — Columbia did it.”Freedom is a universal value, not an American or Western one, Rice believes. “Everyone deserves to live in freedom,” she said. “People have the right to choose who will govern them, to say what they think, to worship freely, to be free from police and from the oppression of the state. No one deserves to live in tyranny. We can’t live in comfort in the U.S. and not care about those who risk their lives for the freedoms we enjoy.”
Rice acknowledged that democracy is “inefficient, messy and disruptive. Some of us may think it doesn’t work too well even in our country, but democracy has this going for it: If we get too fed up, we can throw the bums out. Democracy sets up within itself the disruptive process of changing governments. When tyrants fear people, they oppress them, and the people have no way to express themselves.
“The U.S. has advocated for democracy, change and human rights everywhere but in the Middle East, where we have promoted stability to get peace. We haven’t gotten either one. The U.S. can’t fear democratic change because countries might elect leaders we won’t like. Patriots in the Middle East don’t see the U.S. as a shining city on a hill. What they will say will be uncomfortable, but that is better than the silence of totalitarian oppression.“All people have a right to govern themselves and choose who will govern. If we express doubt that people can handle this responsibility, if we say there are parts of the world where the DNA is not right for democracy, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy and cut at the heart of who we are.”
Rice then talked about the U.S. as the home of people from all nations and creeds. “People are universally attracted to our great national myth of the log cabin: People can come from humble circumstances and do great things. This myth has attracted people from all over the world, and we better reaffirm that we are a country of immigrants and acknowledge that they renew and sustain us.”
Describing herself as an optimist, Rice said, “I’d rather be naïve than cynical; cynical people can’t lead. The U.S. has never been cynical. We have made the impossible inevitable.”
Later in the morning, Rice answered questions from a student panel during convocation in Murchison Gym. She candidly discussed the decision to attack Iraq. “The intelligence was not correct about WMDs — Saddam Hussein had used them in the past and had been close to developing a nuclear weapon,” she said. “Intelligence is always uncertain, and we could have done a better job of talking about the uncertainties in giving the rationale for attacking Iraq. We will always have to deal with the lives lost. Nothing of value is achieved without sacrifice.”
She urged patience with countries developing representative government. “Democracy takes a long time to establish,” she said. “My father had trouble voting in 1952. Democracy is hard, not easy; it’s a journey, not a destination. I have learned to be patient with people struggling for democracy — look how difficult it was for for the U.S. to achieve.”
Asked about the greatest challenge facing students today, Rice replied, “You are determined to know what you will do in 20-30 years. You should keep searching for your passion and be open to the possibility of doing something that people who look like you just don’t do.Find mentors who can take you along and focus on just your next experience and adventure. If you do it well, opportunities will open for you. Be patient with the future.”
Rice serves as professor of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution and professor of political science at Stanford University.
The Westmont Foundation sponsors the President’s Breakfast each year.