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Today's Christian, September/October 2002
Condoleezza Rice's Secret Weapon
How our National Security Adviser finds the strength to defend the free world.
She has been called "the most powerful woman in the world" and "Bush's secret weapon." As an international studies scholar and later provost at Stanford University throughout the '80s and '90s, and now as President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice has drawn both fire and praise for her extraordinary mixture of Southern charm, intellectual tenacity, and no-nonsense leadership.
Her name was inspired by the Italian musical notation con dolcezza, meaning to play "with sweetness." Today, however, it conjures many other meanings: poise, strength, conviction. Rice may be sweet, but she's no pushover.
At 47, she is the stern but cautious driver behind America's foreign policy, the first female and the second African American (after Colin Powell) to serve as national security adviser to the president, and a committed Christian who unabashedly talks about her dependence on God.
Being a "deeply religious person" has helped Rice rise to the challenge of serving a nation that has been shaken to its foundations by terrorism and international conflict. And that has meant turning frequently to prayerand not the kind laced with a "laundry lists of requests." When she needs "guidance and strength of conviction," says Rice, she often reads Romans 5, "which essentially says, Glory also in tribulation, because tribulation breeds perseverance and perseverance patience, and with patience comes hope. And hope is never disappointed, because of faith in the glory of God."
"When I'm concerned about something, I figure out a plan of action, and then I give it to God," she told Essence magazine earlier this year. "I just ask to be carried through it. God's never failed me yet."
"America will find that she is a wise person," George W. Bush said when he selected Rice in December 2000. "I trust her judgment."
The nation got a quick preview of Rice's polish and charisma when she addressed the Republican National Convention in 2000. "Democracy in America is still a work in progress," she told the convention. "But even with its flaws, this unique American experience provides a shining beacon to peoples who still suffer in places where ethnic difference is a license to kill." But it has been Rice's frequent media appearances since September 11 that have given America an extended glimpse of the woman that President Bush and his father before him have come to embrace as a family member.
Working in the senior George Bush's White House a decade ago, Rice had an impressive stint as a Soviet affairs adviser on the National Security Council staff. These days, she is in front of the cameras and behind the scenes doing something that at times seems impossible in a post-September 11 worldgleaning order from chaos.
Rice, who is single, works 14-hour days, and since 9/11 no member of President Bush's team has spent more time consulting him on foreign policy issues. She is a key strategist in the campaign against terrorism. According to Businessweek, she is probably the most influential national security adviser since Henry Kissinger in the 1970s.
She has been active in helping the president devise a strategy for brokering peace between Israel and Palestine. And she recently displayed grace under attack as she weathered the barrage of media interrogations following revelations that perhaps the White House didn't act on early warnings about the September 11 attacks. "There was no specific time, place, or method mentioned," she calmly told reporters.
It wasn't the first time Rice has been embroiled in public controversy. As provost of Stanford University, over the vocal opposition of many faculty and students, Rice navigated difficult fiscal waters. She chopped tens of millions of dollars from Stanford's debt-ridden budget and saw the school emerge two years later with balanced books and the promise of a fresh infusion of funding from impressed benefactors. Though her hardnosed decisions won her plenty of enemies, she also gained the respect and affection of many and proved herself to be a rock-solid manager as well as a vigorous scholar. "Condi was not running any popularity contest," Stanford political science professor and Rice's longtime friend Coit Blacker told The Washington Post after her appointment as national security adviser. "She was effective as provost because of her ability to make tough decisions and stick to them even if they made people unhappy."
Daniel Clendenin, another Rice acquaintance, who heads the graduate staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Stanford, says he admires Rice's courage and faith. "She is a woman of prayer," he says.
Faith, hope, and education
Condoleezza Rice ("Condi" to those who know her well) was born on November 14, 1954, in Birmingham, Alabama. The Alabama of Rice's childhood was a strange world of legislated racism, where often the first words that black children learned to read were on the signs above water fountains and on restroom doors: COLORED ONLY.
Her devoted parentsAngelena, who taught music and science at an all-black high school, and John, who pastored Birmingham's Westminster Presbyterian Church, was dean of the historically black Stillman College, and later the vice chancellor of the University of Denversaw to it that their daughter had the best things in life. Though not without struggle, they gave her a rare family pedigree, a devout faith, and a strong sense of self-worth.
As the only child of educators, the importance of learning was impressed upon Rice from day one. She learned to read when most children were still struggling to walk and by the age of 3 had begun lessons in a wide range of areasclassical piano, figure skating, ballet, French. A precocious child, both by heritage and personal ambition, Rice was in eighth grade by age 11, entered the University of Denver at 15, and went on to earn her doctorate in international studies. By age 26, she was an up-and-coming assistant professor at Stanford.
"My family is third-generation college-educated," Rice has said. "I should've gotten to where I am."
Still, nothing was left to chance. In a Washington Post interview last year, she spoke of her parent's master plan for her lifeone designed to expose her to the world but at the same time insulate her from the scourges of segregation.
"My parents were very strategic," Rice explained. "I was going to be so well prepared, and I was going to do all of these things that were revered in white society so well, that I would be armored somehow from racism. I would be able to confront white society on its own terms."
It was impossible, however, for her to remain totally unscathed by the pain of racial injustice in the Jim Crow South. In 1961, Angelena Rice and her 7-year-old daughter were eyeing pretty dresses at a Birmingham department store when a white saleswoman blocked Condi from trying on an outfit in the fitting room, which she said was reserved for white customers; the clerk directed them to a storage room designated for blacks. But Mrs. Rice was having none of that. She coolly informed the saleswoman that her daughter would change in the fitting room or that she would take her moneyand the saleswoman's prospective commissionto another store. Taken aback by the challenge, the clerk ushered them into a remote dressing room and stood guard at the door hoping no one would notice. It was a moment Rice will never forget.
Another unshakeable memory was formed in September 1963, when a dynamite blast rocked the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Among the four little black girls killed in that infamous hate crime was Rice's 11-year-old friend and schoolmate Denise McNair.
Though Rice's family supported the burgeoning civil rights movement, like many middle-class blacks in that day, they were not active participants. "My father was not a march-in-the-street preacher," Rice told the Post. Instead, John Rice believed in fighting racial injustice "with your mind."
It was this guiding principle that inspired Provost Condoleezza Rice to help found the Center for a New Generation, an after-school academy in the impoverished community of East Palo Alto, California, just down the road from Stanford. Today the center serves about 125 children with tutoring, music lessons, and college preparation courses.
For the Rice family, education and faith in God were not only forms of personal enrichment but weapons for rising up and overcoming. From the days of slavery, Rice has said, her family seized education and used it as a tool of liberation.
She speaks proudly of her "Granddaddy Rice," who died two years before her birth. One day John Rice, Sr., decided that he "needed to get book learning" and began looking for places where "a colored man could go to school." He ended up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1918 at Stillman College, a small, white-run seminary that trained black men as Presbyterian ministers. He was born Methodist and one of nine children of former house slaves but decided that becoming a Presbyterian was his ticket to an education and an influential social post that he could use to help others. It appears to have been a wise choice. Granddaddy Rice's family has been Presbyterian ever since.
An unflappable faith
She calls herself "just an average Christian." But Condi Rice is as comfortable speaking publicly about her faith in God as she is about strategic arms reduction and routing out terrorism.
As Stanford's first female, non-white, and (at 38) youngest provost, Rice found that her colleagues' skepticism about religious belief was at times challenging. But that was not a hindrance. In fact, she says defiantly, "I've been totally unflappable in my religious faith, and believe that it is the principal reason for all that I've been able to do. My faith in God is the most important thing. I never shied from telling people that I am a Christian, and I believe that's why I've been optimistic in my life."
The Rev. Frank VanderZwan is a witness. "She never shrinks from her faith," gushes VanderZwan, an associate pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, which sits in the shadow of Stanford University. It is the church where Rice was an active member during her years in California.
These days, when she is in town, Rice worships at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. She admits that being a person who takes her faith seriously elicits some cynicism from her peers in academia and in the Beltway.
"When you're a scholar, and immersed in standards of evidence and methods of proof, one learns to navigate with ease the world of academia that says, 'You can only believe what you can see,' " Rice has said.
But at age 12, Rice says she learned a new paradigm. During a visit to her grandmother's house, Rice's Uncle Alto became gravely ill. While her parents and other relatives rushed about the house frantically trying to get him to the hospital, Rice's grandmother sat quietly "on the bed, arms folded. I said, 'Grandmother, aren't you worried about Alto?' And she said, 'God's will be done.'" Seeing her grandmother's quiet spirit convinced her that God was in control in the midst of crisis.
Rice the intellectual isn't afraid to admit that there are times "when the burden is just too heavy." Still, the peace and love of God is real, she says. The clearest example of this came to her in 1985, when her mother died of breast cancer. (Her father died of heart disease in December 2000.) In the midst of her devastation, Rice recalls being filled with a strength that she says neither intellect nor reason could explain. She "understood for the first time in my life the peace that passes all understanding."
Rice recounted these personal experiences for the congregation at Menlo Park Presbyterian five years ago when her pastor invited her to deliver the sermon at all five of the Sunday services. With her father seated in the second row from the back of the large sanctuary, Rice shared about her spiritual journey and the lessons on faith and perseverance that she received as a child.
The wonders of God's world are being revealed every day, Rice told the congregation. "There is so much more to know." Unraveling those truths and making discoveries means that as Christians, "we should wrestle with our faith, questioning and trying to understand better our relationship with God."
Music of her heart
Rice remembers a time when she had to die to one love in order to discover a greater one. At 15, with her sights set on becoming a concert pianist, she entered the University of Denver to study music. She was in her sophomore year when she realized that being "just pretty good" wouldn't get her to the concert stage. In fact, she thought it would guarantee her a position as an accompanist, or worse"teaching 13-year-olds to murder Beethoven for a living."
It wasn't long before she discovered her new callinga major in international politics with a concentration in Soviet studies. "It was like falling in love. I just suddenly knew that's what I wanted to do," Rice told Essence. Rice had her University of Denver mentor Joseph Korbela Soviet specialist and the father of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albrightto thank for her newfound love affair with "Soviet politics, Soviet everything."
When Rice graduated cum laude at 19, she had no idea what she was going to do with the major, but she knew that the job market had to be brighter for political scientists than it was for concert pianists. Rice was right. Her journey led her all the way to a corner office in the White House, just precious steps from the president.
During the presidential campaign, The Nation magazine predicted that if Bush won, Rice would become one of this administration's brightest stars, "Rock star big," the magazine pundits proclaimed, "a major cultural figure." Most of those predictions have come to pass: Rice, who admits she's a fan of fine jewelry and nice clothes, has graced spreads in Vogue, Essence, and Oprah's magazine. And she is a regular fixture on the nation's TV screens. The media is engrossed by her Renaissance-woman styleher notable talent as a classical pianist (she recently performed onstage with cellist Yo Yo Ma), her athletic prowess (she works out daily and was a competitive ice skater in college), and her fanatical love for professional football (at times, she has suggested that her dream job would be running the NFL).
Still, the fateful events of September 11 have tempered the celebrity hype surrounding Condoleezza Rice and forced us to see her first and foremost as one of the key leaders in our nation's government during this strange period of American uncertainty.
"This campaign [against terror] has put a certain moral clarity back in international politics," she told Businessweek. "[The aim is] to leave the world not just safer.
And through it all, this woman of both charm and strength has been doing what she knows bestbathing her decisions in prayer and turning the ultimate outcome of things over to her God. "I have a very, very powerful faith in God," she has said.
When Rice was leaving Stanford in 1999 to join the Bush campaign full time, one of her many farewell parties was a gathering of about 100 members of the university's African American community. During the event, Rice was moved to tears by a soloist's heartfelt performance of two of her favorite hymns, "I Need Thee Every Hour" and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."
One suspects those songs have taken on an even deeper meaning for Rice now, as she faces the most daunting challenge of her remarkable career.
A Christian Reader original article. B. Denise Hawkins is a writer living in the Washington, D.C. area.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today International/Today's Christian magazine (formerly Christian Reader).
September/October 2002, Vol. 40, No. 5, Page 18
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