She has been called the President's right-hand advisor and one of the most influential women in the world. Yet when I first meet Dr. Condoleezza Rice, it's her strong, quiet presence, not her long list of accolades, that seems to embody her real power. She has a calm and authentic confidence that comes from the very root of her. Even when we sit down to talk about her role as national security advisor and the experiences that have prepared her for this challenging moment in history, there is no pretense, no power play, none of the usual false airs that characterize most interviews with politicians. She's got the power—and everyone knows it.
Rice's White House office, just doors away from the president, is a long way from the home in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, where she spent most of her childhood. Her mother, a teacher and church organist, and her father, a college dean and Presbyterian minister, gave her a name derived from the Italian musical term con dolcezza
, which means "to play with sweetness." Her parents, determined not to let segregation rob their daughter of every opportunity to soar, encouraged her to excel from an early age. She began piano lessons at 3 and was tutored in French and Spanish. She skipped first and seventh grades, and did not attend integrated schools until she moved to Denver with her parents in tenth grade. There she continued studying piano and figure skated competitively, finishing high school at 15. In 1993, years after receiving her master's degree from the University of Notre Dame and her doctorate from the University of Denver, she became the youngest, first female, and first nonwhite provost at Stanford University, where she'd been a professor.
That trailblazing must have been excellent preparation for another first—at 46 she became the only black woman to serve as national security advisor. Even before she joined the current administration, Rice, who calls herself an "all-over-the-map Republican," had worked in Washington, D.C., as George Bush Sr.'s director of Soviet and East European Affairs.
Rice's home at the famed Watergate, minutes away from the White House, where she spends 14-hour days, is filled with pieces that connect her to her past. A sofa and chair left to her by her mother. A photo of her sitting on her father's lap when she was about 6, wearing the long but curled-up bangs that every black woman would recognize. A first edition of Tolstoy's War and Peace
in Russian, which she has read twice. The grand piano her parents bought for her when she was 15. As we spend a December afternoon talking about everything from why she gave up a "normal" life and returned to Washington to the responsibility that freedom carries, Rice exudes an assuredness underscored by a quiet courage that I know are extensions of two important gifts her parents gave her—a trust in herself and a trust in God. In all my years of interviewing, I have never been prouder to spell my name w-o-m-a-n than after spending time with Condoleezza Rice. Start reading Oprah's interview with Condoleezza Rice Note: This interview appeared in the February 2002 issue of
O, The Oprah Magazine.