Forget the controversies over how well (or not well) Condoleezza Rice performed as President George W. Bush's national security advisor and, in the second term, as secretary of state. Her visit Thursday to Mobile, AL served as a reminder of just how impressive a woman, and how inspirational, she is.
Secretary Rice was in lower Alabama both as part of her book-signing tour and in order to serve as the featured speaker at the annual fund-raising gala for the University of Mobile (full disclosure: I have an adjunct position at the university). The school celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding on Monday -- which just happens to be Rice's birthday as well.
Anyway, the story is now rather familiar of how a sharecropper's grand-daughter became a top-flight musician and an even better scholar, and then Soviet/Russian specialist on the national security staff during the masterful American management of the collapse of the Soviet empire. Intelligence, poise, strong work ethic, and love of country have long been Rice's calling cards.
On Thursday night, she also demonstrated again a surfeit of classiness. Rare indeed is it that a former top public official can make an entire keynote speech, holding an audience at rapt attention, without a single word of an overtly political, much less partisan, nature. Recent months have embroiled Ms. Rice's legacy in its share of controversy, but she avoided all score-settling entirely -- and, indeed, barely touched on her personal experiences during her tenure at the highest levels of American foreign policy. Refreshingly, the speech wasn't about her; it was about country, freedom, education, and optimism.
I took down as many quotes as possible, as nearly verbatim as I could manage. Read for yourself:
"We are witnessing shocks to the international system… in the last decade…. One of the reasons that you and I could sleep tonight [is that] we are defended by men and women in uniform who volunteer -- they volunteer -- to defend us."
In handling these shocks, we Americans must lead: "America is a very special country. We're not just an ordinary country." (Hillyer's comment: Take that, Barack Obama.)
"We are witnessing extraordinary events…. There is no more compelling change than what we are seeing in the streets of the Middle East. … There is a universal desire to be free… [and to demand] the dignity that comes from having those who govern you have to ask for your consent." In the long run, "authoritarianism is just not stable."
But, a warning: "The hard work is just beginning when people seize their freedom. [Democracy isn't enough. What's needed is] enshrining freedom in a set of institutions that can protect it. But that's not all. A stable democracy requires even more. It requires there to be no tyranny of the majority. [It requires individual rights against the state, but not even that is enough.] In a strong democracy [people must demonstrate commitment to] civil society and a communitarian spirit."
That's the American example: "The United States is the most individualistic society on the face of the Earth. Yet there's this paradox: The most individualistic of peoples is also the most philanthropic in the world. The truth is that the one thing the government cannot do is to deliver compassion. That has to be delivered from our communitarian spirit…. In our Christian tradition, every individual is worthy. Since every human life is worthy, every human life is worthy of compassion -- not by the state, but by the citizen."
(Rice segued into the story of her grandfather's move from growing cotton to getting an education at Stillman College and insisting that his children do the same, to pursue "a whole new horizon about who they might be and what they might be." And the lesson was that they must "make that transformative leap by faith and reason.")
"Our Creator gave us a mind and he fully expects that we should use it. [The key is] how to use that knowledge in a way that will benefit the human condition… through 'servant leadership.'"
A great sin, she said, was to exhibit a sense of "aggrievement." And, worse, "aggrievement's twin brother, entitlement. If you give in to aggrievement and entitlement, you have lost control of your own life…. You may or may not be able to control your circumstances, but you and control your response to your circumstances…. The Lord knows we need optimism….
"Whenever we're pessimistic… I would suggest that we think about the many, many times when [what seemed to be] the impossible now seems inevitable in retrospect."
Rice focused on this for a while, with a few examples. Again, for emphasis, she stressed this: "What once seemed impossible now seems to have been inevitable."
I lost track of her transition here, but she began to wrap up thusly: "Someone will lead. It should be the United States of America. [Because no nation better understands that] every life is precious. Every individual is worthy."
There: That gives at least some sense, unadorned, of Ms. Rice's speech and message. Of course it doesn't do the speech justice. It doesn't show just how well she tied her themes together, nor can it capture both the warmth and the soft-spoken, but very notable, charisma with which she delivered it.
Agree with all of her policy judgments or not, one must absolutely recognize that this is a woman of formidable intellect, bedrock values, sincere faith, and fundamental decency. It cannot be mere self-delusion to insist that these United States produces more such people, or at least more who approach such a combination of virtues, than any nation on Earth.
Now back at Stanford University, Condoleezza Rice is exactly where she belongs: A university setting is where the brightest of our young people, those who aspire to be tomorrow's leaders, are most in need of the example of uncommon sensibility and essential values that Secretary Rice embodies, projects, and teaches. But all of us, not just students, would do well to heed her lessons.