Interview with Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Interview with Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

By The Situation Room - October 15, 2010

Condoleezza Rice back on familiar ground, the former secretary of state here in Washington, D.C. She is promoting her new book. And she met today with the president of the United States over at the White House.

First, though, she stopped here in THE SITUATION ROOM, and I asked her if she had a message she wanted to give President Obama.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: The president nicely invited me, knew I was here, and we'll talk about a range of foreign policy issues. BLITZER: Is there something on your agenda?

RICE: No, it's frequently done, you know, that former cabinet secretaries go, and particularly on the foreign policy side, and see the sitting presidents, and I'm very much looking forward to it, and whatever is on his mind.

BLITZER: If there -- this is a period of transition personnel in his administration, in his cabinet. If he offers you a job are you interested?

RICE: Come now, come now, Wolf. I've got a job, and he's got really fine people around him. He -- he's picking the brain of a former secretary of state, and that's perfectly appropriate right now.

BLITZER: As soon as you hear that the president has invited you to the Oval Office, the first thing on my mind is that would be a bold move on his part.

RICE: I know, but presidents do this. It's a nice feature, actually, of our democracy that, particularly on the foreign policy side, the foreign policy -- people who have been involved in foreign policy do this from time to time.

BLITZER: All right. Do you speak with the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton?

RICE: I do from time to time, but again, when you're in those positions, the opinions and the advice of people who aren't following the issue on a daily basis is somewhat limited, but whenever Secretary Clinton is in need, she will call me.

BLITZER: Let's talk about this book. It is an extraordinary book. It's not an ordinary book. The book is entitled "Extraordinary Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family." It's got a great picture of you and your mom and dad on the cover.

I want to go through some of the history, because it helps explain to our viewers here in the United States where you're coming from, your childhood growing up in the segregated south.

RICE: Yes.

BLITZER: It was an emotional, frightful, terrifying period for you as a little girl.

RICE: Well, this is really one of the crucible periods in American history. In Birmingham, Alabama, the most segregated big city in America, a black family couldn't go into a hotel, couldn't take a kid to an amusement park. I didn't have a white classmate until we moved to Denver when I was 12.

And so in that sense, that and the fact that by 1962, 1963, it had become Bombingham, a place where bombs were going off in communities all the time. It was a difficult place. But this was also a story of triumph of family and their values and a little community that believed that, while you might not be able to have a hamburger at Woolworth's lunch counter, you could be president of the United States if you wanted to be.

BLITZER: We sent a producer and a camera crew down to Birmingham. Take some pictures. I want to put them up on the wall behind me. Take a look over there, the Westminster Presbyterian Church. You see that -- what it looks like today. What goes through your mind?

RICE: All -- what goes through my mind is all the time that I spent in that church, not just on Sundays, because my father also believed very strongly in using the church as a social force. So we had tutoring in that church, and we had French lessons. And that little church is still there and still prospering. My grandfather actually founded that congregation in the 1940s.

BLITZER: Wow. And now, we also have some video of some of the neighborhood, of this area. This is what it looks like today, obviously, a lot different than in the '50s and '60s when you were growing up. And it's -- it's integrated, desegregated city, but it was totally different then.

Let's talk a little bit about that blast that killed those four little girls. Remind our viewers what happened where you were, because take a look. That's archival video.

RICE: Yes.

BLITZER: Of what happened?

RICE: Yes, this is 16th Street Baptist Church. And in September, September 16, 1963, my parents and I had just arrived at our own church. It was fairly early in morning, but my mother was the musician for the church, and so we were there getting things ready.

And suddenly, there was a loud thud, almost like a roaring. And in those days in Birmingham, which as I said had become Bombingham. You knew that a bomb had gone off someplace.

And at first we thought it was perhaps in our neighborhood, but pretty soon, well before cell phones, people called to say that a bomb had gone off at 16th Street Baptist Church. It wasn't long after that that we learned that four little girls had been killed, and it wasn't long after that that we learned their names.

And everyone knew one of those little girls or more, because Birmingham was a small community. And one of the names was Denise McNair, a little girl with whom I had played and gone to kindergarten. There's a picture in the book of my father handing Denise her kindergarten graduation certificate when she was 6 or 7. So it was a really sad and terrifying day for us in Birmingham.

BLITZER: And you tell the story of how your parents raised you and wanted to make sure you didn't feel like a victim, even though there was this hatred in Birmingham of black people. What did they do to make sure that you grew up and had self-confidence and poise and could succeed?

RICE: Well, my parents and really their friends, and the whole community were people who just demonstrated to us that you might not be able to control your circumstances, but you could control your response to your circumstances.

And the best armor against everything around you was to be well educated, to work hard, to be twice as good as if you had to be, to do their languages and their culture better, meaning the white man. And so, we had our French lessons, and we had our ballet lessons. And we were just encouraged to have high expectations and high ambitions, even in a place that could have had a stultifying effect on those ambitions.


BLITZER: Much more on any conversation with Condoleezza Rice coming up. We'll hear what a jar of jelly beans had to do with her father's shift to the Republican Party, and what Russia had to do with hers.

And later, the space shuttle program winding down. But it may get one extra hurrah before it's grounded for good. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: If it wasn't for the Soviet Union, Condoleezza Rice might not have been secretary of state. History played a major role in bringing both her and her father to the Republican Party. She explains what happened to them both as my interview continues.


BLITZER: Tell us, because you write about this in the book, about your father's decision to become a Republican.

RICE: Yes.

BLITZER: How did that happen?

RICE: My mother and father went down in 1952 to register to vote, and they were not yet married, but they were courting.

My mother, beautiful, light-skinned, they poll tested her because there were poll tests for blacks in those days. The poll tester asked her, "So you probably know who the first president of the United States was."

She said, "Yes, George Washington."

And he said, "Fine, you register."

My father, he said, "How many beans are in that jar?" BLITZER: Darker skinned?

RICE: My father was darker skinned, and a big kind of intimidating man, actually.

And he said, "So how many beans are in that jar?"

My father, who obviously couldn't count the beans, was really devastated. And he went back, and he was talking with Mr. Frank Hunter, an old man in his church. And he said, "Oh, Reverend, I'll tell you how to get registered." He said, "There is a clerk down there who's a Republican, and she'll register anybody who will say they are Republican," because of course, this was when the Dixiecrats and the Democrats controlled Alabama completely.

So my father registered as a Republican, and he was a life-long and actually proud member of the Republican Party for the rest of his life.

BLITZER: And you, too?

RICE: And me, too. I didn't start as a Republican. I first voted for President Jimmy Carter. But I became a Republican largely around foreign policy issues initially, because I was attracted to Ronald Reagan's strength.

BLITZER: When you were studying the Soviet Union, the former Soviet Union and you were learning Russian and all that, that's when you decided you felt more comfortable in the Republican Party?

RICE: Well, it was really after the invasion of Afghanistan. I had just...

BLITZER: By the Soviets?

RICE: By the Soviet Union, and President Carter said that he had never known anything more about the Soviet Union and this and decided to boycott the Olympics. And I decided that we needed a stronger foreign policy.

BLITZER: I want to wrap it up on a passion that you have, a passion that I have, a lot of the viewers have, which is NFL football.

RICE: Ah, yes.

BLITZER: I know your biggest disappointment is that you're not the commissioner of the NFL.

RICE: Well, I told Roger Goodell, who is a very good commissioner of the NFL, that his job looked pretty good when I was struggling with the Iranians and the Russians everyday, but from Northern California, his job doesn't look so good any more. I'll be a fan and leave it at that for now.

BLITZER: He gives up that job, is that something?

RICE: Speculation. Let's...

BLITZER: I sense that you might be open to that.

RICE: I'm always open to sports management. I loved when I was provost of Stanford, that Stanford athletics reported to me and I enjoyed managing big-time college sports. And, oh, by the way, the Stanford Cardinals are very good this year.

BLITZER: I know they are. Let's wrap it up with how you became a young girl growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, a fan of the Cleveland Browns, of all teams. Why?

RICE: Yes. Even that has to be situated in the times and in segregation. Alabama had no team. In fact, the Deep South had no teams, in large part because of segregation. And the Washington Redskins actually would have been the closest team, but they refused until the very end to have black players, so they couldn't be our team.

The team that was on TV most often, the Cleveland Browns, Jim Brown, Paul Brown. And so my father, who was a football coach when I was born and wanted me to be his all-American linebacker, and taught me all about the sport, that was his team. And so every Sunday we would follow the ups and downs of the Cleveland Browns. In those days, it was mostly ups. These days it's a little harder to say that.

BLITZER: And then, once there was an NFL game in Birmingham.

RICE: Yes.

BLITZER: You went.

RICE: I did.

BLITZER: And you write about it and I read about it. Tell our viewers what happened at that game.

RICE: Yes.

BLITZER: This is the first time you've been allowed. Black people couldn't even go to the stadium.

RICE: That's right. And so we go to Legion Field when the Dallas Cowboys play the Minnesota Vikings. And my mom and I had bought new suits. We were so excited. And the -- Bob Hayes, the great sprinter, was playing for the Cowboys. He took the opening kickoff 100-plus yards.

And we were cheering wildly. And I'll have to use the word. The man behind us -- and I don't think my parents thought I heard him -- the man behind us said, "Oo-ee, look at that nigger run."

And it just said something at that time about the South. It said something about the still deep wounds of segregation and how far we had to go. But the amazing thing is that, when I go back now to that same city of Birmingham, it's had several black mayors. It's had several black city council members, including a little girl that I played with, Carol Smitherman. It has had a black woman in the position once held by Eugene "Bull" Connor, the police commissioner at the time. And so, it shows how change comes.

As you nicely said, I'm not that old, and that was my experience as a child. And now I've been secretary of state. It says something quite wonderful about America that we're able to overcome these old wounds and these terrible times and move forward. And it's a good lesson that history's arc is long, not short.

BLITZER: I hope you become the commissioner of the NFL some day, and I can only imagine your father and your mother, if they were alive, what they would say.

RICE: They would -- they would say, you're prepared for what's ahead of you and you're God's child and go get it. And thanks to them, I've had a fulfilling and quite unique life.

BLITZER: The book is entitled "Extraordinary Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family." The author is Condoleezza Rice.

Madam Secretary, thanks very much.

RICE: Thank you. Great to be with you.


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