I’m inclined to agree with the LSI-Ti typing of her.
Condoleezza Rice: Ti-ISTj (Normalizing subtype) [ISTj-INFj]
- from No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleezza Rice; pp. xv-xviii (Introduction): It had been a long two days. On Thursday morning, September 13, 2001, I stood looking at myself in the bathroom mirror. How could this have happened? Did we miss something? Keep your focus. Just get to the end of today, then tomorrow, then the next day. There will be a time to go back. Not now. You have work to do.
The time of reckoning—of facing the nation and myself about what had happened that day—would come in April 2004, when I testified before the 9/11 Commission. From the day the commission was announced, I knew that the administration would be asked the questions I’d asked myself. “How could you let it happen on your watch?” “Why didn’t you see that the system was blinking red?”
I was familiar with past commissions of this type and had even taught about the investigations into the Roosevelt administration’s failure to spot telltale signs of an impending attack on Pearl Harbor. But it’s one thing to read about it and quite another to be a central, maybe the central, character in the drama.
“Isn’t it a fact, Dr. Rice, that the August 6 PDB warned against possible attacks in this country?” Some forty-five minutes into my testimony, Richard Ben-Veniste, a seasoned prosecutor, abruptly pounced. He was referring to an intelligence report prepared for the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) on August 6, 2001. The report had been developed only after the President himself had asked whether there was any information on a possible al Qaeda attack on the U.S. homeland. The very fact that he’d had to ask suggested that the intelligence community thought it an unlikely event.
The report summarized historical information that had been contained in old intelligence documents and quoted a media interview that had already been public. It also said that the intelligence community could not corroborate a 1998 report about Osama bin Laden’s desire to hijack a U.S. aircraft. None of us even remembered the PDB until May 2002, when CBS Evening News referred to its contents. I had talked to Bob Woodward and his colleague Dan Eggen of the Washington Post about it and had given a long White House press room briefing. The story had largely gone away.
The report, though, carried the eye-popping headline “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in U.S.” Since it had been issued only a month shy of 9/11, it commanded the spotlight during the hearings. In my opening statement before the commission, I said that the briefing item had not been prompted by any specific threat information. It noted some suspicious activity that we went to great lengths to investigate. But the report was not a warning, which I made clear at other points during the hearing. That did not prevent the commissioners from asking probing—and at times hostile—questions about its contents. I had to be careful with what I said because the report itself was still classified at the time. In fact, there are no more closely held documents than PDBs, which are seen only by the President, the Vice President, and a handful of other officials. Because PDBs usually deal with the most sensitive and current intelligence reporting, they are rarely declassified. But that fact did not prevent Commissioner Ben-Veniste from asking me to reveal the title of the August 6 memorandum. I knew I had to answer the question.
“I believe the title was ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States,’” I said. There were audible gasps in the chamber, particularly from victims’ families who were in attendance. The report’s title was suddenly the news of the hearings.
As the President’s national security advisor, I had the responsibility of managing the various agencies involved in national security affairs at the time of the attacks. It helped to remember that I’d done everything that I thought necessary at the time. From the very beginning, I pressed for a strategy to disable al Qaeda and directed Richard Clarke, the White House’s counterterrorism expert, to develop one. When threat levels began to spike in the summer of 2001, we moved the U.S. government at all levels to a high state of alert. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had secured our embassies and military bases abroad. After all, the intelligence assessment was that an attack would most likely come in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, or in Europe. The three of us talked almost every morning and assessed the situation and the need for further action. I asked Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet if there was more we could do, and we tried to find the key al Qaeda facilitator, Abu Zubaydah, with Vice President Dick Cheney asking the Saudis and Jordanians for help in doing so. With White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card present, I insisted that Dick Clarke inform domestic agencies of the heightened threat just in case an attack might come against the United States, despite the lack of intelligence pointing to the homeland. I did everything I could.
I was convinced of that intellectually. But, given the severity of what occurred, I clearly hadn’t done enough. The hardest moment that morning was walking into the room and seeing the families of the 9/11 victims. Some were accusatory and others were supportive, but they were all hurting. And I hurt for them because the United States of America had failed to protect nearly three thousand of its innocent citizens.
The room was filled to capacity, and there were cameras and television lights everywhere. I felt surprisingly calm and said a little prayer before we started. I made my opening statement, acknowledging that the country had been poorly prepared—but because of systemic failures, not the negligence of any one administration or any one person. There was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. I concluded my prepared testimony by making the point that terrorists have to be successful just once, while the defender must be vigilant 100 percent of the time.
I had to make the policy case for what we’d done in response, place the blame squarely on al Qaeda, recommend changes to prevent another attack, and restore the American people’s confidence in the Bush administration. A part of me wanted to apologize, but the collective view of my advisors was that to do so would overwhelm anything else that I said. So instead I expressed regret.
“I’ve asked myself a thousand times what more we could have done,” I told the commission. “I know that had we thought there was an attack coming in Washington or New York, we would have moved heaven and earth to try and stop it.”
Years later, in 2008, toward the end of our time in office, a terrorist attack took place in Mumbai, India. I traveled to New Delhi to lend support to the Indian government and to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan. I walked into Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s living room and came face to face with the Indian national security advisor. He was a slight man who wore huge dark-rimmed glasses that made him look like an owl. I had heard that he had offered to resign shortly after the attack and that the prime minister had refused to accept his resignation. He, M. K. Narayanan, had the same shell-shocked look that I remembered seeing in the mirror after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
I took his hands. “It’s not your fault,” I said. “I know how you feel. It’s like being in a dark room with doors all around and knowing anything might pop out and attack again. But now you have to concentrate on preventing the next attack.”
I don’t actually remember what he said in response because, in reality, I was very much inside myself. I was replaying those awful days in the wake of 9/11, days that had from that time forward been September 12 over and over again. Nothing was ever the same. It was as if there had been a crack in time.
Protest as you might to yourself, to the nation, and to the world, you never get over the feeling that you could have done better. And you resolve never to let it happen again.
- pp. 1-2 (Chapter I—Before the Crack in Time): . . . The elder Bush didn’t hide his desire to get me together with his son George just so we could get to know each other better and talk a little about foreign policy. Before a casual lobster dinner that night, I joined Governor Bush on the back porch, where he told me that he was confident of reelection in November and that if he won impressively (which he fully expected), he’d likely run for the presidency.
A run for the White House by the Texas governor struck me as having long odds for success. President Clinton’s years had been morally tarnished but peaceful and relatively prosperous. The governor was untested and would likely face a real pro in Vice President Al Gore. I was too polite to say those things that night, but I sure thought them.
Throughout the weekend, while fishing (he fished, I sat in the boat and watched) or exercising side by side in the small family gym on the compound, we talked about Russia, China, and Latin America. He wanted to start thinking about what to do in foreign policy if he got elected. I soon realized that he knew our southern neighbors, particularly Mexico, far better than I did. I made a mental note to read a few articles about Mexico when I got back to my home in California.
But we also talked about other things. He was interested in my upbringing in segregated Birmingham. I was attracted to his passion for improving education for disadvantaged youth. We compared notes on the problems of college admission and affirmative action. I was more traditional in my support of race-based admission; he’d tried to increase diversity at the University of Texas by other means. He proudly said that he would likely receive half of the Hispanic vote and more than a quarter of the African American vote.
I liked him. He was funny and irreverent but serious about policy. We e-mailed back and forth several times during the fall, mostly friendly chitchat about whatever was in the news—the growing conflict in the Balkans or the Clinton administration’s efforts to expand NATO.
- pp. 6-10: Slowly the governor [George Walker Bush] was climbing in the polls, and he clearly had a real chance to be President. But we had not erased the questions about his foreign policy competence. In fact, early in the campaign, one particular misstep created a deep hole, and it took a while to climb out of it.
I arrived at the Austin airport one November evening in 1999, and my cell phone was going crazy. It was Joel Shin, an incredibly dedicated young man who actually slept in the campaign office. (Joshua Bolten, the policy director for the campaign and later deputy chief of staff, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and chief of staff, finally made him get an apartment.) Joel asked if I’d seen the governor’s interview with Andy Hiller. I said that I’d been on the plane and hadn’t. He read the transcript. My heart sank. “Can you name the president of Taiwan?” Answer: “Lee.” “Can you name the general who is in charge of Pakistan?” Answer: “General.” “And the prime minister of India?” No answer.
“Well, that reads pretty badly,” I commented.
“It’s worse,” Joel said. “It’s on videotape and being played over and over.”
I went to the hotel but decided not to call the governor, thinking it might be better to wait until I saw him the next morning to address what we might do. That evening, he called me. “Who is the prime minister of Italy?” he asked. I laughed and thought to myself that he’d be just fine. In truth, the failure to know the names of leaders said little about the governor’s competence to lead the country. Indeed, even President Clinton said that if Governor Bush were to make it into the White House, he would “soon enough learn their names.” It was not as debilitating an issue as the press was making it out to be. Still, when we had breakfast the next morning on the patio of the Governor’s Mansion, I said exactly what I was thinking: “We’ve got to step it up.”
“I know,” he replied.
And step it up he did. We needed to fight to a draw in foreign policy so that the American people could concentrate on the governor’s qualities and domestic achievements, not on what names of leaders he knew. We picked a few key issues on which to focus—missile defense, reduction of offensive nuclear arms, and relations with emerging democracies such as India—as well as trading on his extensive knowledge of Mexico and Latin America.
Some of the senior statesmen of the Republican Party backed the governor early, particularly Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and George Shultz, who held policy seminars in his home on the Stanford campus. After the primaries, other heavyweights joined forces with us, among them Colin Powell and Henry Kissinger. The work paid its greatest dividend in the second debate against Al Gore.
In the first debate, George Bush had been a bit shaky on foreign policy, but fortunately, Al Gore’s sighing and orange makeup had obscured this fact. Moreover, there had been fewer foreign policy questions than expected. We all knew that international affairs would therefore dominate the next encounter. The afternoon of the second debate, Karen Hughes, the governor’s close confidante and communications director for the campaign, and I sat in his suite in North Carolina, going over major foreign policy questions. After a while, the tired George Bush said, “That’s enough.”
By then, though, we’d armed him with a particularly good answer on issues of global development and poverty. When the question came up, he replied that the United States is a generous country and ought to participate in significant debt relief for the poorest countries. A few days later a New York Times article noted the backing of debt relief by an assortment of leaders, including Governor Bush and the Pope. With his crisp answers on other questions—and Al Gore’s inexplicable near-catatonic state (lampooned on Saturday Night Live)—George Bush delivered the foreign policy performance he desperately needed. Foreign policy was no longer a liability.
He knew the significance of that too. After the debate I found him outside his room at the hotel. He hugged me and said, “Oh, baby!” I translated that as “Job well done.”
The time after the debates passed in an instant. I flew down to Austin the afternoon of the election. By the time I arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel, the news stations were chalking up state after state in the Gore column. When I made it downstairs to watch with a few Bush friends and family, everything was going against us: Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Florida were all gone. I sat there with Doro Bush Koch, the governor’s sister, and watched in dismay. “Let’s change places,” I said to Doro, employing a superstition from my days as an athlete and a sports fan: if your team is not winning while you’re sitting on the right side of the sofa, move to the left. Yes, I know it doesn’t matter, but it can’t hurt.
We did change places. Almost magically, NBC News reported that we’d won Georgia. Then Jean Becker, the elder George Bush’s assistant, got a call. Jean had been a reporter, and a friend from USA Today called to tell her that they were about to reverse the call on Florida. Within what seemed like minutes but was much longer, the TV screen suddenly began showing “George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States.” It was quite a moment, and my immediate impulse was to call my father. I decided not to, fearing that he would be too disoriented to share the moment with me.
I jumped into a minivan with other Bush supporters for the trip to the capitol for the victory speech. It was freezing cold in Austin, and we stood on the square, rocking to “Y’all Ready for This” from the Jock Jams album and hugging each other. But something was wrong. Al Gore hadn’t conceded. I could also see the big screen displaying CNN’s election coverage. The margin of victory in Florida was shrinking very fast.
Then Karen Hughes called her husband, Jerry, and reported that although Gore had called the governor to concede, he had subsequently withdrawn his concession. After another hour or so, we all shuffled back to the minivan and went back to the hotel. There was confusion but not really despair. I went to bed and awoke to the news that Florida would be contested.
When I spotted Fox News reporter Carl Cameron in the lobby, I asked him, “What’s going on?”
“I thought you might know,” he said and then went on to tell me that there would likely be a recount.
I also ran into Bob Blackwill. “You know what this is like?” he asked. “It’s like eating a really spicy meal before bed and having a really bad dream. You think to yourself, ‘Must have been what I ate last night. Boy, I’m glad to wake up from that one!’”
But of course it wasn’t a dream. I stayed in Austin a few days. I hung out near Karl Rove, trying to understand what was really happening via his sophisticated county-by-county analysis of our chances in Florida.
Governor Bush called the morning after the election to say that he wanted me to be national security advisor but we’d obviously have to wait a bit on any announcement. It was surreal, but we went through the motions of planning a foreign policy transition that might never happen. One particularly bad idea was to have a photo op of the governor and me sitting in front of the fireplace discussing foreign policy. It looked like a faux Oval Office shot and was properly ridiculed. I decided to go home to California.
The return to California gave me a chance to spend quality time with my father. Meanwhile, I watched the ups and downs in Florida, my mood swinging with every court decision. I asked Steve Hadley to be the deputy national security advisor if I needed one. The two of us met with the Vulcans in Washington and talked about how to organize Bush’s foreign policy, if we were given the opportunity. After the session, Steve and I were sitting in the conference room of his law office when we got word that the Florida Supreme Court had ordered a manual recount. The Bush lawyers had fought to prevent that, and though no one could know the outcome it seemed to portend a probable defeat.
We walked outside toward the restaurant for dinner. “Steve,” I said, “I would have loved to serve with you. You would have been a great deputy national security advisor.” I flew home to California the next day, believing that it was over. When I got off the plane and into the car, my driver, Mary Reynolds, gave me an update. The Supreme Court had, by a 5-4 decision, issued a stay, halting the manual recounts and setting a hearing for the matter on Monday, December 11. That meant that the judges in the majority were likely to rule in favor of Bush, certifying him as the winner of Florida’s electoral votes. George W. Bush would indeed become the forty-third President of the United States.
- pp. 15-19 (Chapter 2—Honest Broker): To be sure, tensions between Defense and State are almost endemic, and there have been some cases—Caspar Weinberger and George Shultz come to mind—where the two principals barely spoke to each other. That is not, as some might think, because State is from Venus and Defense from Mars. In fact, there are many times when the secretary of state is more willing to use force than the Pentagon, given the admirable conservatism of professional officers about the use of military power.
Nonetheless, secretaries of state find the Pentagon all too willing to exert influence in foreign policy. With a budget nearly forty times that of the State Department, the Defense Department possesses an awe-inspiring logistical capacity, and State sometimes finds itself dependent on and resentful of the military’s reach. No U.S. response to a humanitarian crisis, such as the 2004 earthquake in Indonesia, is possible without the extraordinary capabilities of the Pentagon. The military undertakes humanitarian work around the world through, for example, the USNS Mercy hospital ship. In the best of circumstances, those capabilities merge seamlessly with the diplomatic expertise of the ambassador and his embassy, producing a unified U.S. response to a crisis or opportunity.
But that’s not always the case. Combatant commanders exist for each region of the world, and they sometimes act quite independently, developing their own relationships with foreign leaders and bringing their influence to bear on issues that at best cross and at worst shatter the lines between diplomacy and security policy. Those commanders have enormous assets. For example, the commander in the Pacific (USPACOM) lives in Hawaii and travels on dedicated military aircraft across the Pacific and in Asia. By contrast, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs will often find himself in a web of connecting commercial flights that can take more than twenty-four hours to deliver him to the region.
There is also, of course, the tendency of civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense to have many different opinions about how diplomacy ought to be carried out. State Department officials must politely remind them that getting other countries to do what you want is no easy task. It is State that must deliver, but everyone has views about how to get it done, and often those individuals are vocally critical of how State is doing its work. It isn’t surprising that the relationship between the two departments is sometimes a bit tense.
In the case of Colin Powell and Don Rumsfeld, it went beyond such inescapable tensions. The two men had known each other for years, and there was a good deal of personal respect. There was an equal measure of distrust, however. The two did not confront each other face-to-face, let alone in front of the President. Rather, Don would send memos (snowflakes, we called them) that implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—criticized what State or the NSC was doing. Often those memos reflected discussions that had already taken place, but they left the impression that it was Don imparting new wisdom or making an important recommendation. In meetings, he would ask Socratic questions rather than take a position. This led to tensions with and frustrations for Colin.
In addition, Colin had to battle the perception that State was not always on the same page with the White House. There is a tendency of Foreign Service officers to regard the President and his political advisors as a passing phenomenon without the deep expertise that they, the professionals, bring to diplomacy. That sometimes led State to tell the world “What the President meant to say,” usually in some leak to the Washington Post or the New York Times. The inclination of some in State to display what they regard as their superior expertise was especially strong in the first turbulent years of the Bush administration, but former Secretary of State Dean Acheson had talked about the appearance of the phenomenon decades before. As Acheson put it in his memoir Present at the Creation, “The attitude that presidents and secretaries may come and go but the Department goes on forever has led many presidents to distrust and dislike the Department of State.”
The national security advisor is left to sort out those tensions. In general, I got along well with my colleagues. The Vice President had direct access to the President, and he used it. After those conversations, though, the President would fill me in on the Vice President’s thinking, so that I was rarely blindsided. Often the Vice President and I talked directly about what was on his mind. Later, when I became secretary of state, he and I often disagreed and argued vociferously in front of the President. But it was never personal.
That was not always true of the Vice President’s staff. At the start, there had even been one attempt to alter a long-standing tradition by having the Vice President chair the powerful Principals Committee, made up of the Cabinet secretaries, in place of the national security advisor. I went to the President and said, “Mr. President, this is what the NSA does: convene the national security principles to make recommendations to you.” He agreed, and that was the end of that. Later, Steve Hadley told me that he’d spoken to the Vice President who’d acknowledged that it was a stupid idea.
The problem was that the Vice President’s staff, which seemed very much of one ultra-hawkish mind, was determined to act as a power center of its own. Many things were done “in the name of the Vice President,” whether he had directed them to be done or not. To be sure, he shared his staff members’ views; they were not substantively out of line with his thinking. But some of the bureaucratic games that the Office of the Vice President played were not characteristic of my dealings with their boss.
My relationship with Don Rumsfeld was considerably more complicated, though not in the ways that accorded with common wisdom in Washington. Don and I had been friends for a number of years. I first met him when we participated in a three-day “continuity of government” exercise to prepare for nuclear war. (The Cold War was not yet over.) He played the President, and I was his chief of staff. Over the years we remained in contact, and Don and his wife, Joyce, gave dinners for me or joined me for a meal when Stanford business took me to Chicago. Don tried to recruit me to a couple of corporate boards on which he served, and it was I who helped recruit Don to George W. Bush’s cause in 1999. What’s more, when initial secretary of defense candidates fell by the wayside during the transition, I recommended to the President-elect that he choose Don, pointing out that he was known to be a tough bureaucratic infighter but that he “knew where the bodies were buried in the Pentagon” and would be able to carry out the much-needed post-Cold War transformation of our military forces.
Throughout the ups and downs of the term, our relationship remained cordial. Don would come to my Christmas party and heartily sing “We Three Kings.” For a long time I saved a letter that Don sent me in 2006 offering me his weekend home on Maryland’s eastern shore should I want to get away from Washington. I knew that without proof no one would believe it. In other words, the tension that did build between us was not a problem of personal animosity but rather of professional conflict.
I am convinced that Don simply resented the role I had to play as national security advisor. He would become frustrated when my staff would reach out to military officers in the Pentagon to coordinate the particulars of a policy among the agencies. This was a routine responsibility for the NSC, but for some reason Don interpreted such actions as a violation of his authority.
In December 2002 he sent me a “snowflake” saying that I “was not in the chain of command”—a fact I well understood—and that if my staff and I did not stop “giving tasks and guidance” to the combatant commanders and the joint staff, he would take his objections to the President. I found the tirade amusing if slightly condescending and wished he had taken it to the President. I am confident that the President too would have found it bizarre.
- pp. 20-22: A two-hour NSC Principals meeting is core to the national security advisor’s mission but a drain on the time of a secretary, who can end up making the trip to the White House two or three times a day.
The truth is that we would have had fewer Principals meetings had the distrust between Don and Colin not made the levels below the secretaries largely incapable of taking decisions. The two had dissimilar styles: Colin was a cautious consensus builder in international politics, and Don was confrontational. Don rarely saw shades of gray on an issue, while Colin almost always saw nuances. This, of course, reflected their different roles, but it was more than that; it was a matter of personality and worldview as well. Don’s more black-and-white view of the world sometimes accorded more closely with that of the President in the early days, particularly after 9/11.
The other major challenge with Don was his secretiveness in running the Pentagon. He claimed to delegate decision making to lower levels, but then didn’t always ratify what his lieutenants had done. The people who worked for him were fearful of his wrath. The atmosphere in the Pentagon was one where nothing was really settled until the secretary had opined. That handicapped the Deputies Committee (the number twos in the departments) that Steve chaired and made necessary the very Principals meetings that Don detested.
For the most part we managed the tensions between us. But we did clash with increasing frequency as time went on. It’s always uncomfortable, particularly for the President, for a member of the President’s staff to challenge a Cabinet secretary. Still, on a few occasions, Don and I did tangle in front of others. After one such episode, the two of us were walking side by side through the Rose Garden portico. I turned to Don and asked, “What’s wrong between us?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “We always got along. You’re obviously bright and committed, but it just doesn’t work.”
Bright? That, I thought to myself, is part of the problem. Don had been more comfortable in the old days, when he was the senior statesman championing my career. A relationship between equals was much harder for him.
Colin, on the other hand, always seemed very comfortable with my role and our personal relationship. I’d first met him in 1987, when he was deputy national security advisor and I was on a one-year fellowship with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He invited me to a pleasant lunch, and we conversed about my future. He and his wife, Alma, became my friends. Alma and I shared familial ties in Birmingham, Alabama. My father had worked for Alma’s uncle, who was the principal of the second largest black high school. Alma’s father, Mr. R. C. Johnson, was the principal of the largest, Parker High, and was a legend in our middle-class, segregated community.
Colin knew how hard the NSA job was, and he tried to be supportive. But he also, I believe, thought that I was not strong enough in my support of him and the State Department agenda. He asked me many times why I didn’t go to the President to “discipline” Defense for any number of sins of omission or commission, some imagined, some not. He probably didn’t realize how often I took State’s case to the President sympathetically.
But truthfully, I wondered why he did not take greater advantage of his extraordinary stature. Sometimes I would go to the President and suggest that it was time for him to sit down with Colin over dinner; the relationship between the two men was always better after they did. I often told the President before one of those sessions that Colin was very unhappy and would tell him so. He didn’t, and the President sometimes had difficulty gauging the extent of Colin’s dissatisfaction. I hate pop psychoanalysis, but I did sometimes wonder what held Colin back; perhaps the “soldier” felt constrained, and, of course, he had to be aware that he probably would have been President had he chosen to run. The relationship between George W. Bush and Colin Powell was thus respectful—genuinely so—but complicated.
- from Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family by Condoleezza Rice; pp. 1-2 [Chapter One (Starting Early)]: My parents were anxious to give me a head start in life—perhaps a little too anxious. My first memory of confronting them and in a way declaring my independence was a conversation concerning their ill-conceived attempt to send me to first grade at the ripe age of three. My mother was teaching at Fairfield Industrial High School in Alabama, and the idea was to enroll me in the elementary school located on the same campus. I don’t know how they talked the principal into going along, but sure enough, on the first day of school in September 1958, my mother took me by the hand and walked me into Mrs. Jones’ classroom.
I was terrified of the other children and of Mrs. Jones, and I refused to stay. Each day we would repeat the scene, and each day my father would have to pick me up and take me to my grandmother’s house, where I would stay until the school day ended. Finally I told my mother that I didn’t want to go back because the teacher wore the same skirt every morning. I am sure this was not literally true. Perhaps I somehow already understood that my mother believed in good grooming and appropriate attire. Anyway, the logic of my argument aside, Mother and Daddy got the point and abandoned their attempt at really early childhood education.
I now think back on that time and laugh.
- pp. 4-6: Grandmother had rich brown skin and very high cheek-bones, exposing American Indian blood that was obvious, if ill-defined. She was deeply religious, unfailingly trusting in God, and cultured.
My grandfather Albert Robinson Ray III was one of six siblings, extremely fair-skinned and possibly the product of a white father and black mother. His sister Nancy had light eyes and auburn hair. There was also apparently an Italian branch of the family on his mother’s side, memorialized in the names of successive generations. There are several Altos; my mother and her grandmother were named Angelena; my aunt was named Genoa (though, as southerners, we call her “Gen-OH-a”); my cousin is Lativia; and I am Condoleezza, all attesting to that part of our heritage.
Granddaddy Ray’s story is a bit difficult to tie down because he ran away from home when he was thirteen and did not reconnect with his family until he was an adult. According to family lore, Granddaddy used a tire iron to beat a white man who had assaulted his sister. Fearing for his life, he ran away and, later, found himself sitting in a train station with one token in his pocket in the wee hours of the morning. Many years later, Granddaddy would say that the sound of a train made him feel lonely. His last words before he died were to my mother. “Angelena,” he said, “we’re on this train alone.”
In any case, as Granddaddy sat alone in that station, a white man came over and asked what he was doing there at that hour of the night. For reasons that are not entirely clear, “Old Man Wheeler,” as he was known in our family, took my grandfather home and raised him with his sons. I remember very well going to my grandmother’s house in 1965 to tell her that Granddaddy had passed away at the hospital. She wailed and soon said, “Somebody call the Wheeler boys.” One came over to the house immediately. They were obviously just like family.
I’ve always been struck by this story because it speaks to the complicated history of blacks and whites in America. We came to this country as founding populations—Europeans and Africans. Our bloodlines have crossed and been intertwined by the ugly, sexual exploitation that was very much a part of slavery. Even in the depths of segregation, blacks and whites lived very close to one another. There are familiar stories of black nannies who were “a part of the family,” raising the wealthy white children for whom they cared. But there are also inexplicable stories like that of my grandfather and the Wheelers.
We still have a lot of trouble with the truth of how tangled our family histories are. These legacies are painful and remind us of America’s birth defect: slavery. I remember all the fuss about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings a few years back. Are we kidding? I thought. Of course Jefferson had black children. I can also remember being asked how I felt when I learned that I apparently had two white great-grandfathers, one on each side of the family. I just considered it a fact—no feelings were necessary. We all have white ancestors, and some whites have black ancestors. Once at a Stanford football game, my father and I sat in front of a white man who reached out his hand and said, “My name is Rice too. And I’m from the South.” The man blanched when my father suggested we might be related.
It is just easier not to talk about all of this or to obscure it with the term “African American,” which recalls the immigration narrative. There are groups such as Mexican Americans, Korean Americans, and German Americans who retain a direct link to their immigrant ancestors. But the fact is that only a portion of those with black skin are direct descendants of African immigrants, as is President Barack Obama, who was born of a white American mother and a Kenyan father. There is a second narrative, which involves immigrants from the West Indies such as Colin Powell’s parents. And what of the descendants of slaves in the old Confederacy? I prefer “black” and “white.” These terms are starker and remind us that the first Europeans and the first Africans came to this country together—the Africans in chains.
- pp. 18-19 [Chapter Two (The Rays and the Rices)]: Theresa, unlike the younger John Rice, was an intellectual and a somewhat somber personality from the day she was born. She read constantly and seemed to take personally the suffering and sorrow around her. My father illustrated this in a story about a certain Easter. The seven-or-so-year-old John was thrilled with his new suit for the Easter program and the basket of candy that the Easter Bunny had brought. But nine-year-old Theresa cried. When my grandfather asked what was wrong, Aunt Theresa said that she was reflecting on the bad things that had been done to Jesus.
That in a nutshell captured the difference between Daddy and his sister. Daddy was an easygoing personality who didn’t always take life too seriously. He was a popular kid who would become an outgoing adult.
Theresa was reclusive, brilliant, and determined to follow in her father’s intellectual footsteps. She would later go on to become one of the first black women to receive a doctorate in English literature from the University of Wisconsin. Thus I am not even the first PhD in my family.
Aunt Theresa wrote books on Charles Dickens, including one called Dickens and the Seven Deadly Sins. When I was about eight years old, we were visiting Aunt Theresa in Baton Rouge, where she was teaching at Southern University. When I saw that she was reading A Tale of Two Cities, I asked whether she’d ever read that book before. “I have read this novel at least twenty-five times,” she said. I remember thinking that this was a terribly boring way to spend one’s life. For years it soured my thoughts of being a professor, since I associated the vocation with the drudgery of reading the same book twenty-five times.
- pp. 25-26 [Chapter Three (Married at Last)]: Daddy and Mother went to register to vote one day in 1952. Mother sailed through the poll test after the clerk said to the pretty, light-skinned Angelena, “You surely know who the first President of the United States was, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Mother answered, “George Washington.”
But when my dark-skinned father stepped forward, the clerk pointed to a container filled with hundreds of beans. “How many beans are in this jar?” he asked my father. They were obviously impossible to count.
Daddy was devastated and related his experience to an elder in his church, Mr. Frank Hunter. The old man told him not to worry; he knew how to get him registered. In those days, Alabama was Democrat country. The term “yellow dog Democrat,” as in “I’d rather vote for a yellow dog than for a Republican,” was often used during this era. “There’s one clerk down there who is Republican and is trying to build the party,” Mr. Hunter told my father. “She’ll register anybody who’ll say they’re Republican.” Daddy went down, found the woman, and successfully registered. He never forgot that and for the rest of his life was a faithful member of the Republican Party.
- pp. 33-34 [Chapter Four (“Johnny, It’s a Girl!”)]: Daddy told me that the first time he saw me in the nursery, the other babies were just lying still, but I was trying to raise myself up. Now, I think it’s doubtful that an hours-old baby was strong enough to do this. But my father insisted this story was true. In any case, he said that his heart melted at the sight of his baby girl. From that day on he was a “feminist”—there was nothing his little girl couldn’t do. I don’t know if it was then or later that he decided that even if I could not be a linebacker, I could certainly learn to love football. Maybe the football he had bought for John wouldn’t go to waste after all.
My mother and father plunged into parenthood with a vengeance. Early on they sought to build a good learning environment for me, reading stories to me every night until I was able to read myself. My mother was as determined to raise a musician as my father was to cultivate a sports fan. She bought my first piano when I was three months old, and I learned later that we would “play” songs together, Mother moving my fingers along the little keyboard.
- pp. 37-39: My mother also made sure that I watched Mighty Mouse, in which the heroic mouse sang, “Here I come to save the day!” Mother explained that this was a form of opera in which dialogue is sung, not spoken. She seemed to find high culture in just about everything.
But my favorite show was The Mickey Mouse Club, which we watched as a family every day after school. All three of us would put on our mouse ears and sing, “M-I-C (See you real soon) . . . K-E-Y (Why? Because we like you) . . . M-O-U-S-E.” It was a real family ritual, not to be interrupted by anything. One day Mr. Binham the insurance agent was in the living room pitching my parents on some new policy. He was the only white man that I can ever remember coming into our house in Titusville. In any case, it was about time to sing the Mickey Mouse song, and I was becoming agitated that my parents were otherwise occupied. Daddy politely told Mr. Binham that he’d have to wait. We put on our mouse ears and engaged in our family ritual. I felt very proud that my parents had put our time above whatever business it was they had with Mr. Binham. This small gesture was simply one of the many that communicated they always had time for me.
After The Mickey Mouse Club we would take a break from television for reading time and, as I became older, doing homework together. We would then tune in to the nationally televised news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report. My father would comment on each story, explaining the historical significance of big events. I remember watching John Glenn’s historic mission to space, which preempted all other programming for the entire mission. For a while I wanted to be an astronaut, as did most of my friends. We’d load up our “space capsule” out in the backyard, with some lucky kid getting to be the astronaut and others being confined to earth as ground controllers.
But one of my most vivid childhood memories is the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. We were glued to the set every evening during the thirteen-day standoff. It was a very scary time. We’d never bothered with a bomb shelter in the house, even at the height of the Cold War. But some of our friends did have them, fully stocked with provisions to survive a nuclear exchange. In school, we went through duck-and-cover drills. When the alarm sounded, all the children fell to the floor, huddling under their desks. My friends and I even played bomb shelter, crawling into the little space just beneath the house in response to a “nuclear attack.”
But the standoff in Cuba was no drill. Because the missiles were deployed just ninety miles from the Florida coast, the news-casters reported, probably incorrectly, that Birmingham was in range. They showed big arrows pointing right at us. I could tell that my father was worried, and I realized that this was something my parents couldn’t save me from. It was the first time that I remember feeling truly vulnerable.
Daddy explained that our country had never lost a war, and he was sure we weren’t going to lose this one. He was nevertheless visibly relieved when the Soviet ships turned around, ending the crisis. The whole episode had a surprisingly strong impact on me. I once told an audience of Cuban Americans that Fidel Castro had put the United States at risk in allowing those missiles to be deployed. “He should pay for it until he dies,” I said. Even I was surprised by the rawness of that comment.
- pp. 41-43 [Chapter Five (“I Need a Piano!”)]: . . . the activity that I enjoyed most was watching my grandmother teach piano. Grandmother Ray had about twenty students, ranging from beginners to quite advanced pianists. Her lessons started at about three o’clock every day, and she taught for a couple of hours, charging twenty-five cents a session. When the students would leave, I’d go to the piano and pretend to play, banging at the keys and “reading” the music. Then I’d ask to take some sheet music home so I could “practice.” Each day I’d leave with music, usually forgetting to bring it back the next day. To preserve her music collection, Grandmother finally gave me a regular book to take home. “Grandmother, this isn’t music!” I told her.
Grandmother Ray decided that it was unusual for a kid to know the difference and asked my mother if she could start giving me piano lessons. I was three years old, and they wondered if it might be too early but decided to give it a try. Unlike the early experiment with first grade, this worked. I loved the piano.
Grandmother started every student in a series called The Standard Revised (I still don’t know what exactly had been revised) that trained young fingers to do progressively more difficult things. Each student also learned a prescribed series of increasingly more difficult hymns, starting with “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Because I was so young, I don’t remember learning to read music, so today it is like a native language for me. This made it much easier to master sight-reading, something that I do well to this day.
My parents had bought a little electronic organ for our new house, and I’d play for hours when we got home. They claimed that it was hard to get me to do anything else, including read books or watch television. But a problem emerged as I began to play hymns: the little organ did not have enough keys. Each time that I wanted to play low notes in the bass, I was out of luck.
“I need a piano,” I told my parents several months into my lessons. Daddy made me a deal. “When you can play ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ perfectly, we will buy you a piano,” he said. Everyone in the family has exactly the same memory of what transpired. The next day I went to my grandmother’s and sat at the piano for eight hours, not even wanting to break for lunch. I practiced and practiced, and when my parents came to pick me up I played “What a Friend” perfectly!
As they’d do many times in my life, John and Angelena found a way not to disappoint. They didn’t have the money to buy a piano, but they rented one the next day from Forbes Piano Company. By the end of the week I had a brand-new Wurlitzer spinet piano.
I became good at the piano very quickly and started to play publicly. Mother found opportunities for me to play at various church functions as well as citywide events. I played several pieces at the gathering of new teachers in 1959, where I was decked out in a gray polished cotton dress with pink flowers, black patent shoes with rhinestones, and, curiously, a white fur hat. I don’t remember being nervous and have always thought that these early experiences helped me to overcome any sense of stage fright. My parents also called me into the living room to play whenever there was a visitor to the house. I hated that, perhaps sensing that the poor captive audience wasn’t really all that interested in seeing little Condoleezza perform.
My mother reinforced my inclination toward music in multiple ways. She’d buy books written for children about the great composers. I imagined what it would have been like to meet Beethoven, who scribbled musical notations on tablecloths, or Bach, who fathered twenty children. My favorite story was about Mozart’s life. I was totally enchanted by this man who had written so much and died so young at the age of thirty-five. I even developed a little crush on him, imagining myself as his wife, Constanze. Admittedly, this was a strange infatuation for a little black girl in Birmingham. Most of my friends were in love with Elvis Presley.
Mother also brought home records, which we would listen to together. One day, when I was about five years old, she brought home Aida, the Giuseppe Verdi opera. My little eyes were as big as saucers as I listened to the “Triumphal March” for the first time, and I played the record over and over. And on Saturdays we listened to radio broadcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera, “brought to you by Texaco.” Opera and classical music were totally and completely my mother’s domain. My father loved jazz but had no interest in or taste for classical music. Even so, he displayed admirable patience when my mother and I took charge of what was playing on the car radio as we ran errands on Saturday afternoon.