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.
Oprah: Were you the first person to call the president after the September 11 attack?
Condoleezza: Yes. I was at my desk in the White House at around 8:45 when my executive assistant came in and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought, "What a strange accident." I called the president and said, "Mr. President, a plane hit the World Trade Center." And he said, "What a weird accident." Around nine, after I went to a staff meeting, my assistant handed me a paper that said a second plane had hit the World Trade Center, and I thought, "My God, this is a terrorist attack."
Oprah: Was that your first thought?
Condoleezza: Yes. I went into the Situation Room and began trying to gather the National Security Council principals for a meeting, but Colin Powell was in Latin America. I remember thinking, "Is he in danger?" Then I turned to see a television report of a plane hitting the Pentagon. There was also a false report that a car bomb had gone off at the State Department. Moments later someone came up and said, "Get to the bunker. The vice president is already there." Before I left, I talked to the president again about whether he would come back to the White House. We didn't want him to because Washington was under attack. When I got to the bunker, it occurred to me to call my aunt and uncle in Birmingham and say, "Tell everybody I'm okay." Then I began calling other governments to make sure they knew the U.S. government was up and running, and I began tracking plane tail numbers so we could ground civil aviation.
Oprah: Did you feel personally threatened?
Condoleezza: It didn't occur to me to feel threatened. Maybe I felt threatened subconsciously, because I called my family. But I just felt like we had a lot to get done.
Oprah: I'm sure those of you in high places were aware that something like this could happen.
Condoleezza: We had been doing a lot of work in the administration on the Al Qaeda network because they'd caused several incidents before, like the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa. So we knew there was the possibility of an attack, but I think we'd always assumed it would be abroad—that had always been our experience.
Oprah: Is there part of you that thinks we should have known more?
Condoleezza: No. We have excellent intelligence. The problem is that you have to be able to put together intelligence information in a particular way, and there wasn't anything that led us to put it together in this way.
Oprah: Is that because of what some would call American arrogance—the feeling that we cannot be touched on our own territory?
Condoleezza: I don't think it was arrogance but a lack of experience with this kind of thing. What was shocking is the degree to which our openness was turned against us. The weapons were commercial air flights, and these were people who came in on legal visas. The very openness that we have to protect as Americans was turned against us—and that was hard to deal with.
Oprah: In the days after the attack, I heard many leaders saying, "We can't let the terrorists win." But didn't they already win that first round by using our freedom against us?
Condoleezza: No. Despite the tragedy, the toughness of America was reaffirmed. As part of the presidential motorcade, I remember riding to the memorial service here in D.C. at the National Cathedral. On Massachusetts Avenue, someone had a sign that read GOD BLESS AMERICA. WE WILL NOT BE TERRORIZED. The terrorists have got to be disappointed that the attack didn't bring America down—it brought us together.
Oprah: I believe that every moment in your life prepares you for the next. What has prepared you for this?
Condoleezza: Since I was a girl I have relied on faith—a belief that I'm never alone, that the bottom will never fall out too far. That has always been a part of me, and I'm drawing on that now. I also think my time in academia prepared me more strongly than even I realized. I can't tell you how many times I taught decision simulations in which I gave my students a crisis to deal with and then sat down with them afterward to go through the lessons. I learned things like "The first reports are always wrong," which I remember saying several times on September 11.
Oprah: So you come from that place of believing that no matter what, your life will be all right?
Condoleezza: Yes—and that place is faith. I had pretty strong parents who taught me that.
Oprah: Of all the things I've read about you, what moved me most was something you said about your parents.
Condoleezza: I have often said that my parents couldn't sit at the Woolworth counter, but they believed I could be president.
Oprah: How is that?
Condoleezza: My whole community was determined not to let their children's horizons be limited by growing up in segregated Birmingham. Sometimes I think they overcompensated because they wanted their kids to be so much better. My parents were extraordinary, as were their parents, so I come from a long line of family whose belief was, You can do it, but you have to work really hard—and you're not allowed to make excuses.
Oprah: What fascinates me is that you had a sharecropper grandfather who wasn't educated himself but who believed that education was the open door.
Condoleezza: Right. And he managed to find his way to Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He paid for his tuition with cotton, and when that money ran out he became a Presbyterian minister to get a scholarship. Because of that strong family structure and an intense faith, I've never believed that God would fail me if I'm faithful.
Oprah: What defines you?
Condoleezza: I care a lot about people—those who work for me, my parents, my family. Even in these busy times, I find time for the people who have meant a lot to me throughout my life. If you get caught up in the present and aren't somehow connected to those people, you can lose your way.
Oprah: You attended segregated schools until you were in tenth grade. Even then, did you believe the sky was the limit?
Condoleezza: I haven't ever really been very self-reflective, so I was kind of oblivious during that time. I just kept going. People would say to me, "What do you want to be?" and my answer would change from week to week. Most of the time I wanted to be a concert pianist. I lived day to day, and I am still someone with no long-term plan.
Oprah: So you were open to the possibility of what could be?
Condoleezza: Right—and I did what I liked. I didn't always do what I was good at. Sometimes I was doggedly determined to do something I was clearly bad at, like figure skating. But I kept going from opportunity to opportunity.
Oprah: Growing up in Birmingham, you probably didn't have many positive images of what a black woman could be.
Condoleezza: Oh, but I did! My mother was a teacher—a stunningly beautiful woman who believed in dressing well. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember my mother bringing out a recording of Aida because she thought it was time for me to learn about opera. My parents and our whole community were so focused on making sure their children had exposure to things. We were a self-contained community, and there were extremely positive black role models.
Oprah: Tell me about the first time you went to the desegregated all-girls school in Denver.
Condoleezza: I really didn't think much about the fact that there were only three black women in my class rather than all black people. Later, when I started at the University of Denver, there was a professor who was preaching about [scientist] William Shockley, who claimed that blacks just didn't have high IQs. And from somewhere deep within myself I said to him, "Who do you think you are? I'm better at your culture than you are. I'm the one who plays Beethoven. I'm the one who speaks French. So obviously this can be taught."
Oprah: But otherwise you didn't have many racial incidents growing up?
Condoleezza: Because Birmingham was so segregated, I actually had few racial incidents there. Race was so much a part of the environment that it didn't stick out the way it did in Denver. Race was everything in Birmingham—so in a sense it was nothing. In Denver race suddenly became more of a factor because I was actually interacting with people different from me.
Oprah: Didn't your mother once insist that you use a whites-only dressing room?
Condoleezza: Yes. The lady in the store wanted me to try on my clothes in a storeroom, and my mother said I'd either try them on in the dressing room or not at all. Then, after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, we went to a restaurant for the first time, and the people there stopped eating for a couple minutes. A few weeks later we went through a drive-in, I think it was called Jack's Hamburgers, and when we drove away I bit into my hamburger—and it was all onions.
Oprah: You graduated from high school when you were 15. At what point did you know you were a very smart girl?
Condoleezza: Well, somewhere around graduate school, I did think, "I'm pretty good at this."
Oprah: There wasn't part of you in the third grade that knew you were smart?
Condoleezza: The truth is that I was a terrible procrastinator, so a lot of times I wasn't all that well prepared. I don't ever remember thinking I was an exceptional student. I did think I was a good pianist.
Oprah: But isn't there part of you now that knows you're very smart?
Condoleezza: I think I'm above average, but not much more. When you've been a professor and provost at Stanford, you know what real genius is. I've seen genius, and I'm not it.
Oprah: Didn't you think you were going to be a pianist until the day you walked into a class on Russian history?
Condoleezza: No. I thought I was going to be a pianist until I went to a music festival camp and met kids who could play from sight what it had taken me all year to learn. I thought, "Murdering Beethoven—that's what I'm going to end up teaching 13-year-olds." Technically, I can play most anything. But I'll never play it the way the truly great pianists do. So during my junior year of college, I went on a mad search for a major. I went to my parents, who had spent a fortune and all of their time turning me into a pianist, and said, "Mom and Dad, I'm changing my major." My father said, "To what?" I said, "I don't know—but I know that I don't want to be a pianist." So we had one agreement: I would still finish school in four years. In the spring of my junior year, I walked into a course in international politics taught by a Soviet specialist named Dr. Josef Korbel, who is Madeleine Albright's father. There was a particular lecture where he was talking about Joseph Stalin and how he'd isolated the opposition, and it just clicked.
Oprah: What was clickable about Joseph Stalin?
Condoleezza: I remember thinking, "Russia is a place I want to know more about." It was like love. People ask me "Why do you love Russian culture?" just like they ask "What does she see in him?" I can't explain it—there was just an attraction. I read everything I can find about it. When I'm in Moscow, I feel at home more than I do in, say, Los Angeles. During the Soviet period, it used to drive me crazy because I always thought that these great people with their marvelous culture deserved much better than they were getting.
Oprah: Wasn't it former president Carter's reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that led you to switch parties?
Condoleezza: When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and we decided to boycott the Olympics, President Carter said, "Today, I've learned more about the Soviet Union than at any other time." I remember thinking, "What did you think you were dealing with? This is a horrible government—of course they invaded some foreign country!" I thought it was time to have a tougher policy toward this repressive regime that fortunately no longer exists. And without changes in U.S. policy, it might have limped along longer.
Oprah: What did you feel after the fall of the Soviet Union?
Condoleezza: I felt joy for the Russian people, though I knew life would be tough for them. I also felt amazement at how it happened. Everything I'd been taught as a political scientist had said the state will try to survive. And this was a state with 5 million men under arms and 30,000 nuclear weapons. But on December 25, 1991, Gorbachev sat on television and simply said never mind, after 75 years of communism. They brought down the hammer and sickle and put up the Russian tricolor, and it was over. We should be grateful to Gorbachev for the graceful exit of the Soviet Union, because I'm not sure that every leader would have made that choice. They did have ways to fight back that might have brought us all down.
Oprah: Tell me about your relationship with George W. Bush.
Condoleezza: I'm very comfortable with him, and I think he's comfortable with me. I feel I can tell him anything.
Condoleezza: Well, anything in the policy realm—there are certainly other things he doesn't need to know! He's a supportive boss.
Oprah: Is he smart?
Condoleezza: He's really smart—and he's also disciplined, which I admire. He's tough, calm, and even-keeled. Any campaign has its ups and downs, and if you follow the perturbation, you'll drive yourself crazy—but he never does. He says, "We've got a good strategy, we're staying on course." He also has a great sense of humor.
Oprah: I've heard you and he have a similar sense of humor.
Condoleezza: We do. We find the same things absurd. And we both love sports and family. I tremendously admire his relationship with Laura. It's beautiful.
Oprah: It's what it appears to be?
Condoleezza: It's tender and supportive. And I love his relationship with his daughters, because I had a great relationship with my father and there's nothing like that. I also admire his relationship with his parents. I love the fact that family and God mean so much to him.
Oprah: So is he someone you'd respect even if he weren't the president?
Condoleezza: I've respected him from the first time we talked because he has the kind of intellect that goes straight to the point. You can get a bunch of academics in a room and they can talk for three hours and never actually get to the point. I have learned to admire people who challenge others to get to the point, and he's very much that way.
Oprah: Do you see him every day?
Condoleezza: Yes, and during these times, sometimes two or three hours every day. I often go to Camp David on the weekends. The president and Mrs. Bush have been very nice about having me around.
Oprah: So you're the tagalong?
Condoleezza: That's right—and Camp David is not a bad place to tag along to.
Oprah: How do you see your responsibility as national security advisor?
Condoleezza: I am responsible for making sure that I've checked things out before I tell them to the president—and for not abusing the privilege of sitting down the hallway from him. One way that national security advisors sometimes misuse their position is by pressing their own points of view rather than bringing the policy process together so the president has all the information he needs to make choices.
Oprah: So you don't read the lists that say you're the most powerful woman in America?
Condoleezza: No, because next week I'll be the least powerful woman in America!
Oprah: What does having power mean to you?
Condoleezza: Power is nothing unless you can turn it into influence. When people talk about management style, they're really talking about how someone uses power. I've been in positions where I had to be heavy-handed, and I've been in positions where I needed to bring people together and persuade them.
Oprah: I've heard you have no problems firing people.
Condoleezza: I do have problems with it. It's never pleasant to fire someone. But I strongly believe that when you take a job, you also take the risk that you may not hold that job. If I walked into the White House tomorrow and the president said, "I really don't want you to do this job anymore," you'd never hear me complaining. So when I've had to let people go, I've thought...
Oprah: This wasn't promised to you.
Condoleezza: Right. And yet I always feel bad for the dislocation it causes in people's lives. At Stanford, when I had to lay people off, I eased the transition for them in any way I could. But sometimes you have to make difficult decisions, and you have to make them stick.
Oprah: During these times, all eyes are on you. Is that a comfortable position?
Condoleezza: It's fine, but it's not one of the things I like most about the job. On the days when I think I'm going to be in the newspaper, I dread reading it.
Oprah: Do you believe this government is going to capture Osama bin Laden?
Condoleezza: We'll get him eventually, but it may take a while.
Oprah: Do you know something we don't know?
Condoleezza: No—well, probably. Osama has gotten very proficient at hiding. It's interesting that he chooses to hide while his people are being taken apart. But we're never going to give up. He'll never be safe from the United States.
Oprah: Do you worry about the terrorist cells within the United States retaliating if we capture him?
Condoleezza: We worry about terrorist cells anyway. The real goal is to make sure that Afghanistan can't be a place terrorists can operate from again. But we have learned that this organization has penetrated into lots of different countries, including the United States. The broad intelligence net that so many countries are participating in is aimed at cutting out these cells one by one—and that's going to take a long time. The good news is, we've got the entire world focused on it.
Oprah: Should Americans be concerned about bioterrorism?
Condoleezza: There are a number of threats to the United States—and bioterrorism is one of them. But the American people should not be overly concerned about bioterrorism because there are certainly ways to deal with most of the agents. The law enforcement and intelligence operation that is working on the problem is very aggressive. I can't promise anybody that there will never be an incident, but I don't think there has ever been this much attention on trying to prevent one.
Oprah: As we've received FBI warnings, many have been feeling that at any moment the other shoe could drop. Do you feel that way?
Condoleezza: No, but I can't promise that something won't happen.
Oprah: Do you tell the American people every time you root out another terrorist cell?
Oprah: So y'all are rootin', and we don't even know it!
Condoleezza: Yes. We tell you when people are arrested, but you may not know why, because we don't want to tip off other members of the cell.
Oprah: That's wise. In the early days after September 11, we were told too much: Let's just announce it to the world that if you're looking for the president, he's in the bunker in Omaha!
Condoleezza: Right. The American people do need basic information, and when there is a higher-than-usual-threat warning, it's often because there's a lot of information in the system, but nothing very specific. The alert is saying "Be vigilant. Don't let your guard down. You may see some extraordinary measures, but welcome them." Because of the way these networks are embedded in the United States, it's not inconceivable that you could be walking down the street in Chicago and hear something that might be helpful. But the FBI alerts don't mean you shouldn't go to the movies or a football game.
Oprah: I hear that football is one of your passions.
Condoleezza: My dad was a football coach when I was born, and I was supposed to be his all-American linebacker. He wanted a boy in the worst way. So when he had a girl, he decided he had to teach me everything about football. Starting from when I was about 4, we would sit on Sunday afternoons and watch football, and the day after Thanksgiving we would play the "Rice Bowl" in the backyard. 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.
Oprah: Were you very close to your father?
Oprah: When my best friend, Gayle, lost her mother, she said, "I think I lost my anchor." Is that how you felt when you lost your dad?
Condoleezza: I lost my mother first in 1985 to breast cancer—and at that point I did feel like I'd lost part of my anchor. Fortunately, I moved back to California after working in the last Bush administration, and my father and I had a lot of time together. I've heard others who have lost both parents say you feel like an orphan. I didn't feel that, but something defining in my life is no longer there. I'm nobody's little girl anymore.
Oprah: What do you do to kick back and have fun? Do you still play the piano?
Condoleezza: Last Thanksgiving I played for the first time in a long time, and I loved it. I also watch sports. I have actually sat and watched football from ten in the morning until nine at night, game after game. And I love to exercise.
Oprah: You're a rare human being! I take my skirt off to you!
Condoleezza: Well, I don't love it while I'm doing it, but I love the feeling afterward. I also love to shop. I can get lost in a store for hours.
Oprah: What do you like shopping for?
Condoleezza: Clothes—and shoes. Love the shoes!
Oprah: Do you have girly-girl moments with your friends?
Condoleezza: Oh, sure.
Oprah: Do you discuss international politics with your girlfriends?
Condoleezza: Absolutely not! I do have one friend who's a Stanford faculty member, and when we get together we bore everyone else by going off into Russia-speak. But otherwise I spend time talking with my friends about sports and what they're up to.
Oprah: How does a person get the kind of confidence you have if they don't have the parents you did?
Condoleezza: That person has to have someone. My father was that kind of person for a lot of kids.
Oprah: I've talked to hundreds of women who have reached a point in their lives where they've realized something is missing. What words of wisdom do you have for those who are in that place?
Condoleezza: Find what you love to do. When I was at Stanford, I would tell my freshmen, "Find your passion. You've got four years in college, and if at the end of it you know what makes you want to get up in the morning, that's all you need." Then I'd tell their parents, "If your kid comes home and says, 'I'm going to major in Etruscan art,' don't panic. Who knows? Maybe they'll manage to turn that into something they can actually make a living from." You're never really fulfilled unless you find something you love, and a lot of people, particularly women, spend so much time taking care of everybody else that they don't have time to learn what they love doing. And yet it's never too late to learn that.
Oprah: Where did you think studying Russian history would take you?
Condoleezza: I had no idea. So many people would ask me, "What are you going to do with that?" and I'd say, "Well, the job market's a lot better in Russian history than it is in concert piano!"
Oprah: Do you believe in affirmative action?
Condoleezza: When it's practiced well—when you don't tell people you have to have 15 percent of this or 20 percent of that, even if someone's not qualified.
Oprah: And you're pro-choice.
Condoleezza: I call myself mildly pro-choice, meaning that I think I'm where a lot of American women are—I believe in parental notification. I cannot believe that [in some states] your 15-year-old daughter has to have your permission to have her ears pierced but not to have an abortion. That seems crazy. And I mostly don't think abortion is an issue for the government.
Oprah: Would you ever run for office?
Condoleezza: That's hard for me to imagine.
Oprah: So you couldn't visualize yourself in the Oval Office?
Condoleezza: No. I think I'll be NFL commissioner.
Oprah: This month, the theme of the magazine is freedom. When I say the word freedom, what does it mean to you?
Condoleezza: It means the opportunity to soar as high as you possibly can. It means people are not going to judge you or put a block in your way because of how you look, what language you speak, or where you came from. But freedom is not the ability to do anything you want—that's a misrepresentation. There is a responsibility that comes with freedom: to use it well. That's why I've always found the hedonistic or anarchist view of freedom troubling.
Oprah: The freedom of this country is what has allowed you, a black woman from segregated Birmingham, to accomplish what you have in your life.
Condoleezza: I'd much rather be a minority in this country than anyplace else in the world.
Oprah: Do you see yourself as a minority, or do you see yourself as Condoleezza?
Condoleezza: I see myself as a minority. My black identity is very integrated in me. I'm also Condoleezza, so I react badly if people assume that they know what Condoleezza is about because she's black.
Oprah: You have a very unusual name. Did you like it growing up?
Condoleezza: I liked it but it was cumbersome. I can remember in second grade or third grade the teacher would start down the list the first day: Jo-Jo Smith, Ann Downey, Rice...Rice....
Oprah: It's working for you now.
Oprah: It's so cool to have an unusual name.
Condoleezza: There are downsides to it, but yeah.
Oprah: What do you think you'll do when you're finished with this job?
Condoleezza: I'll probably go back to being an academic. I really love ideas and writing. I already have ideas for five different books, none of which will be best-sellers. They'll be books on subjects such as the structure of American policy.
Oprah: I guess we won't be seeing your book on Oprah's Book Club!
Condoleezza: I'm afraid not! But I'm sure my books will be adopted in every political science class around the country. I do love to teach—I miss my kids. 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.
Oprah: Do you love the glamorous side of this life?
Condoleezza: I like to dress up, but I don't go to very many of the White House events—6:30 A.M. to 9 P.M. is a long day. I'd rather be in bed. I'm a bit of a homebody. I need what I call putter time.
Oprah: What do you do on Saturdays?
Condoleezza: I work but I go in an hour later, at 7:30 A.M.
Condoleezza: I know—I really slough off on Saturdays. Sunday is the day I try to preserve, though I sometimes appear on the morning news shows. I like to spend Sundays with friends and at church.
Oprah: Your schedule doesn't leave much time for a relationship.
Condoleezza: Not much. But if a relationship comes along, I'm sure I'll make time.
Oprah: When you left Washington the first time, you said you wouldn't come back because you wanted a life. What made you decide to return?
Condoleezza: I adore this president. I helped him through the campaign and I wanted to be part of getting this administration up and running. I knew there would be sacrifices in terms of time and privacy and what I could call normalcy.
Oprah: I've watched you on many of the news programs. Do you always have such a cool and calm presence?
Condoleezza: That comes from all that time I've spent teaching 18- and 19-year-olds.
Oprah: Are you ever unnerved?
Condoleezza: I try very hard to go through in my head what might be asked of me during an interview. I'm also not opposed to saying "I don't know." When I was a professor, you'd be surprised at how much time I spent fielding questions from students. Academics spend a lot of time talking. We don't make money—all we do is make our views known.
Oprah: And you've become very good at making your views known crisply. It's such a joy to talk to you. Thank you very much for your time.
Condoleezza: Thank you.