I envy National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's metabolism. She is always moving, zigzagging through national security questions, her answers studded with recurring phrases like "we're going on the offensive." As for the war on terrorism, this means bringing down al-Qaida leadership, taking away their safe haven and changing the strategic landscape in the Middle East. "We are going on the offensive," proclaims Rice for the 43rd time today. And it's not yet noon.
Outside of the press room things slow down a bit. As we shuffle to the second floor of the White House, I ask, "What has really defined the meaning of life to you?" For the first time this day - perhaps any day - Rice looks puzzled. Then she smiles, the metabolism slowing for a moment.
"To me, the meaning of life is the people that God puts in your path. And every night I thank God that I had the parents that I had. ... Early on, my father engaged me in the intellectual life. My mother was an elegant lady, and she gave me music." Perhaps owing to their attention, Condi blossomed into something of a child prodigy. By age 3 her fingers were dancing across the piano. By age 7, the somewhat precocious child was engaging her father in theological debate. She loved the attention. "I spent all of my time trying to make sure I was going to stay an only child. I kept saying to my mother, 'You're not going to have anymore children, are you?'" recalls Rice, laughing.
Both parents worked, providing Rice with a model of striving. "I think that's one important difference in the African-American community - a lot of women worked. All the women in that community were schoolteachers; a couple were nurses. And so I had a strong role model in my mother of somebody who had her own professional career."
These lessons of striving were hauled along by another essential fact: the color of her skin. "We lived a completely segregated life in Alabama. I didn't have a single white classmate until we moved to Denver, when I was in 10th grade." The community responded by banding together. "We had ballet lessons and we had etiquette lessons and we had foreign language lessons; and the church was very much a center of the community. My dad was a minister, and you would go to the church to get your tutoring sessions at night. But there was a very strong sense that Birmingham's problem - segregation - was not going to diminish the horizons that were available to those kids. So I think in a funny way race was everything and it was, therefore, nothing."