Condoleezza Rice Biography
November 14, 1954 • Birmingham, Alabama
National security adviser
Condoleezza Rice became one of the most influential women in the world of global politics when President George W. Bush (1946–) named her as his national security adviser in December of 2000. Her role became extremely important after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon in Washington. Rice has played a crucial part in shaping the most aggressive U.S. foreign policy in modern history, with wars launched against Afghanistan and Iraq during her time in office.
Became kindergarten piano prodigy
Rice grew up during a deeply segregated era of American history. She was born in 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama, to parents who were both educators. Her father, John Wesley Rice Jr., was a football coach and high school guidance counselor at one of Birmingham's black public schools. He was also an ordained Presbyterian minister in Birmingham's Westminster Presbyterian Church, which had been founded by his own father, also a minister. Rice's mother, Angelena, was a teacher and church organist. Angelena loved opera, and so named her only child after an Italian-language term, con dolcezza. It is used in musical notation and means "to play with sweetness."
Birmingham was clearly divided into black and white spheres during Rice's childhood, and the two worlds rarely met. But her parents were determined that their only child would grow up to be an accomplished and well-rounded young woman. Rice began piano lessons at the age of three, and gave her first recital a year later. She became somewhat of a musical prodigy in the Birmingham area, performing often at school and community events. In addition to long hours spent practicing the piano, she also took French and Spanish lessons after school, and later became a competitive figure skater. "My whole community was determined not to let their children's horizons be limited by growing up in segregated Birmingham," Rice recalled in an interview with television personality Oprah Winfrey (1954–) for O, The Oprah Magazine. "Sometimes I think they overcompensated because they wanted their kids to be so much better."
"I find football so interesting strategically. It's the closest thing to war. What you're really doing is taking and yielding territory, and you have certain strategies and tactics."
Not surprisingly, Rice earned good grades in school, even at an early age. Attending segregated schools in Birmingham, she skipped the first grade entirely and was later promoted from the sixth directly into the eighth grade. Her city became a battleground during the emerging civil rights movement in the late 1950s, and the strife directly touched Rice's early life. In 1963 the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, situated in the middle of Birmingham's black community, was the site of a tragic firebombing that killed four little girls who were attending Sunday school. Rice knew two of them.
Finished high school at fifteen
Rice's family moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, around 1965, when she was eleven years old. Her father had taken a job there as a college administrator. They later settled in Denver, Colorado, where she attended an integrated public school for the first time in her life, beginning with the tenth grade. She finished her last year of high school and her first year at the University of Denver at the same time.
"The Most Powerful Woman in the World"
U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice has sometimes been described as the most influential woman in global politics. A university professor and expert on Russian history, Rice is known for her cool, calm manner. When Bush appointed her to the job in 2000, some wondered if she was qualified for it. But Janne Nolan, a friend of Rice's from her early days as a Stanford University professor, told New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann that Rice had a solid track record for proving herself. "I've watched it over and over again—the sequential underestimation of Condi," Nolan told Lemann. "It just gets worse and worse. She's always thought of as underqualified and in over her head, and she always kicks everyone's butt."
A job such as Rice's requires nerves of steel, and the French- and Russian-fluent academic, whose friends and family call her "Condi," fits the bill. She explained in an interview with Essence writer Isabel Wilkerson, "My parents went to great lengths to make sure I was confident. My mother was also a great believer in being proper." As an African American and a professional, Rice has experienced the occasional racial snub. She recalled one occasion when she asked to see some of the nicer jewelry in a store, and the saleswoman mumbled a rude remark under her breath. As Rice recalled to Wilkerson, she told the woman, "'Let's get one thing clear. If you could afford anything in here, you wouldn't be behind this counter. So I strongly suggest you do your job.'"
The confidence that Rice's parents instilled in her comes out in other ways, too. She favors suits by Italian designer Giorgio Armani, but the trim, fit national security adviser prefers her skirts to hit just above the knee. Her favorite lipstick comes from the Yves Saint Laurent cosmetics counter. When asked about her off-duty hours, Rice told Wilkerson that she watches sports and goes shopping. Wilkerson wondered about the Secret Service security detail that accompanies Rice in public, but Rice responded with a humor rarely on display in public, "They can handle shopping."
For years Rice dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. At the University of Denver she was originally a music major, but eventually gave up on her dream after spending a summer at music camp. "Technically, I can play most anything," she explained to Winfrey about her decision to change majors. "But I'll never play it the way the truly great pianists do." She fell in love with political science and Russian history after she took a class taught by Josef Korbel (1909–1977), a refugee from Czechoslovakia. In the 1990s Korbel's daughter, Madeleine Albright (1937–), became the first female U.S. Secretary of State.
Rice began taking Russian-language and history courses, and became fascinated by Cold War politics. The term refers to the hostilities between the United States and the world's first Communist state, Soviet Russia, in the years following World War II (1939–45). Each "superpower" tried to win allies to its brand of politics, and in the process each side built up a large arsenal of nuclear weapons. After she graduated from the University of Denver in 1974, Rice enrolled at Notre Dame University in Indiana, where she earned a master's degree in government and international studies.
Drifted for a time
Years later Rice admitted, in the interview with Winfrey, "I am still someone with no long-term plan." To begin her post-college career, she lined up a job as an executive assistant—in other words, a secretary—to a vice president at Honeywell, a large electronics corporation. But a company reorganization ended that career possibility. For a time she gave piano lessons. Then her former professor, Josef Korbel, suggested that she return to school, and she began work on a Ph.D. degree at the University of Denver.
Rice was a promising new talent in her field even before she earned a doctorate in 1981. Her dissertation investigated the relationship between the Czechoslovak Communist Party and its army. Soon she was offered a fellowship at Stanford University. No other woman had ever been offered a fellowship to its Center for International Security and Arms Control. She eagerly accepted, and the following year she was hired by Stanford to teach political science.
Rice became a tenured professor at Stanford in 1987. She was also a rising star in U.S. foreign policy circles. She served as the informal campaign adviser to a Colorado Democrat, Gary Hart (1936–), during his 1984 bid for the White House. She came to know a foreign policy expert, Brent Scowcroft (1925–), and was offered her first official job in government. Scowcroft had been named national security adviser by George H. W. Bush (1924–), who was elected president in 1988. Scowcroft then hired Rice as a staff member on the National Security Council.
Served in first Bush White House
The National Security Council helps analyze data and plan American foreign policy. It looks at potential global threats from hostile nations, and works to make strategic alliances with friendly ones. Rice eventually became a special assistant to the first President Bush, serving as his expert on Soviet and East European affairs. It was an important time in American foreign policy. The political system of the Soviet Union was crumbling, and by 1991 the Communist governments allied with Soviet Russia had been peacefully ousted throughout the Eastern Bloc (as the communist nations in Eastern Europe were known).
But Rice tired of the toll the White House job took on her personal life, and she resigned in 1991. She went back to teaching at Stanford, and in 1993 became the university's first-ever female provost, which essentially made her second-in-command at the school. She was also the first African American to be selected for the position. "That was the toughest job I ever had," she told Nicholas Lemann in a New Yorker profile. She was charged with eliminating a large budget deficit, and the university had also been accused of misusing government grant money intended for military research. There was internal turmoil as well, and some faculty members complained about Rice's no-nonsense manner. "I told people, 'I don't do committees,'" she explained to Lemann.
Rice remained on friendly terms with the Bush family and came to know one of the sons, George W., during visits to the Bush summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. In 1999 George W. Bush decided to try and win the Republican Party's nomination as its presidential candidate for 2000. He hired Rice to lead his team of foreign policy advisers, and she quit the Stanford job. She began working closely with Bush, who was governor of Texas at the time and had very little other political experience, especially in foreign relations.
Bush won his party's nomination and later was declared the winner of a hotly contested November election. The president-elect immediately named Rice as his national security adviser. Though she was not the first African American ever to hold the post—Bush's new Secretary of State, Colin L. Powell (1937–), had held the job for a year in the late 1980s—she was the first woman ever to serve in the position. The national security adviser helps shape American foreign policy, both on the public front and behind the scenes, in strategy sessions with the president and his team.
Plotted strategy from underground bunker
Rice's duties also included coming up with ideas to combat threats to American interests at home and overseas. This became an important part of her job on the morning of September 11, 2001. She was in a meeting at the White House when an aide notified her that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. She quickly ended the meeting and notified the President, who was in Florida. After a second plane crashed into the other tower of the New York landmark, she and other key personnel gathered in what is known as the White House "Situation Room." When a third plane crashed into the Pentagon Building, which is the command center for the U.S. Armed Forces, Rice and the others retreated to an underground bunker. The attack was the deadliest ever to occur on American soil.
Rice worked long days in the months afterward to shape U.S. foreign policy. The first order of business involved Afghanistan, which was suspected of harboring the shadowy Islamic fundamentalist group known as Al Qaeda. It was founded by a Saudi exile, Osama bin Laden (1957–), who quickly took responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. Less than a month later, U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan. Rice also worked to create a new policy for dealing with longtime Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (1937–). The Bush White House believed that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States. In March of 2003 the United States invaded Iraq.
The fourth year of the Bush Administration was a difficult one for Rice and other top White House and Pentagon personnel. Though Hussein had been captured and the war in Iraq was officially declared over, U.S. troops stationed in Iraq had become the target of repeated attacks by insurgents. And American military operatives had yet to capture bin Laden. In April of 2004 Rice was called to testify before a
Dreams of top NFL job
Rice lives in a luxury apartment complex in Washington known as Watergate. Her mother died in 1985, and her father died the same month that Bush named her to the national security adviser post. She attends church regularly, and is known to be close to the President and his wife, Laura (1946–). At the Maryland presidential retreat known as Camp David, she has been known to watch hours of televised sports with President Bush. Both are dedicated football fans, and Rice has also been known to spend an entire day on her own watching college and pro football games.
Rice's name has been mentioned as a possible future vice-presidential candidate. Although she has joked that she would love to serve as commissioner of the National Football League, she has also said that she looks forward to returning to teaching once her service to the Bush White House comes to an end. "I miss my kids," she said in the interview with Winfrey. "In a class of 20, there are always two or three for whom the lights go on. When that happens, I think I've done for them what Dr. Korbel did for me."
For More Information
Bumiller, Elisabeth. "A Partner in Shaping an Assertive Foreign Policy." New York Times (January 7, 2004): p. A1.
"Condi Rice Can't Lose: George W. Bush's Foreign-Policy Adviser Is a Future Superstar. But Can She Save Bush from Himself?" Time (September 27, 1999): p. 51.
Lemann, Nicholas. "Without a Doubt. (National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice)." New Yorker (October 14, 2002).
Lewis, Neil A. "Bush Adviser Backs Use of Race in College Admissions." New York Times (Jan 18, 2003): p. A14.
Oppel, Richard A. Jr. "Bush Adviser Gets National Security Post." New York Times (December 18, 2000): p. A1.
Sciolino, Elaine. "Compulsion To Achieve—Condoleezza Rice." New York Times (December 18, 2000): p. A1.
"Sticking to Their Scripts." New York Times (April 9, 2004): p. A1.
Wilkerson, Isabel. "The Most Powerful Woman in the World: As National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice Has the Ear of the President. So Who Exactly Is This Daughter of 1960's Birmingham, and What Does She Bring to the Table?" Essence (February 2002): p. 114.
Winfrey, Oprah. "Oprah Talks to Condoleezza Rice: Our Calm, Cool, Collected National Security Adviser on Downtime (Piano, Football, Shopping) and Uptime (Faith, Unity, Power)—And Why the Terrorists Have Already Lost. (The O Interview)." O, The Oprah Magazine (February 2002): p. 118.