Alone with Condi

Posted: Mar 16, 2004 12:00 AM

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."

The paradox was not lost on her teachers who taught Rice that she had to be twice as good as white boys and girls just to make it in this world. These lessons cultivated a fierce tenacity.

The sheer force of that tenacity came clear during Rice's freshman year at Stanford University. During a lecture, one of her professors began discussing the writings of Professor William Bradford Shockley, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who had attempted to prove through IQ testing that blacks were inherently inferior. As the professor droned on matter-of-factly about the inherent inferiority of blacks, Rice's blood began to boil. "I thought, why are they letting this man stand there and say this?" she recalls. She raised her arm and yelled, "You know, I don't know why you're saying such things, it's obviously not true." The professor replied by calmly citing statistics. Rice was in no mood. "Let me tell you something," she said, "I speak French. I play Beethoven. I'm better at your culture than you are. Clearly, this can be taught." She made her point with such certainty that no one - including the professor - could do anything but agree with her.

And, of course, she was right. People live up to the expectations society sets for them. If blacks have traditionally lagged behind, it is plainly a result of social conditioning. For centuries black children in this country were carefully taught their roles. They were not given access to decent schools. They often lacked mentors to cultivate their particular talents. Nothing about their surroundings suggested that they entertain the expectation of other possibilities. These brutal lessons were learned young and they tended to stick. Even to this day, American blacks fall victim to negative social conditioning. In our urban schools, in particular, teachers often expect less of minority children and tolerate low test scores and higher dropout rates. "I have watched with some of my very best students - even at a place like Stanford - faculty sort of think, well, that student is black so I should expect less of that student," explains Rice.

So, how is it that an intelligent and thoughtful woman who grew up in segregated Alabama ended up opposing the University of Michigan's affirmative action policy? Or more to the point, how did she become a Republican? These are the questions I put to her.

"I thought there were problems with the program, but that it was important, in my view, that race be considered a factor - be allowed to be considered a factor, because race is a factor in American life. You can't ignore that. However, I think that college admissions work best when they don't work by formula, but they try and look at real human beings and say, what can so-and-so contribute to this class, recognizing that one of the things that we might contribute is diversity."

As for becoming a Republican, Rice was initially drawn to the party's tough stand on foreign policy. In time, she became more receptive to the party in general. Or, as Rice put it: "It's a terrible thing to be trapped in one party. All of the issues of America ought to be our issues. Yes, there are some issues having to do with residual racism . but the issues that have been 'black issues' are really America's issues, and blacks cannot be somehow de-linked from the great issues of the United States. I mean, why shouldn't black Americans care about what's happening in the war on terrorism? It affects us."

Indeed, the terrorist hijackers did not aim their airplanes at only those white Americans inside the World Trade Center. Their assault was against all Americans. Just as the national policies enacted by our politicians affect all Americans. National security, the economy, these are issues of vital importance. Issues, Rice reminds us, which should not be left merely to white men over 40.