OPEN UNIVERSITY OCTOBER 1, 2006
by Richard Stern
What a medley the least complex of us is. When the medley is exhibited on the large screen of public life, the discrepant elements can become components of tragedy or farce. Take the enormously gifted and attractive person who serves as our secretary of state. The child and grandchild of high-minded, accomplished people of exceptional dignity--grandfather and father Presbyterian ministers, mother a teacher of science, music, and oratory--she grew up in Birmingham exceptionally alert to the racial fires from which her parents could not protect her. A friend reported frequent calls from Condoleezza about what Bull Connor had done that day. Of the church bombing which killed her friend Denise McNair, she said, "I remember the bombing of that Sunday School at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. I did not see it happen, but I heard it happen, and I felt it happen, just a few blocks away at my father's church. It is a sound that I will never forget, that will forever reverberate in my ears. That bomb took the lives of four young girls, including my friend and playmate, Denise McNair. The crime was calculated to suck the hope out of young lives, bury their aspirations. But those fears were not propelled forward, those terrorists failed." (Commencement 2004, Vanderbilt University, May 13, 2004) (We need not point to the careful use of the word "terrorists.") Her father opposed such heroic activists as the Reverend Fred Shuttleworth and believed that by being and doing better than others, blacks would succeed. Condoleezza (con dolcezza: with sweetness) practiced ballet, figure skating and piano, a kind of insulation from the terror of the street.
In 1967, her father accepted a teaching and administrative post at the U. of Denver, where after graduating from St. Mary's, his only child graduated cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. After taking an M.A. at Notre Dame, she returned for a Ph.D. at Denver, her master in foreign policy being the Czech immigrant, Josef Korbel, the father of Madeleine Albright. Condi was a sort of second daughter to this remarkable man. (At Denver, she is said to have dated the football player Rick Upchurch.)
Her involvement in the world of foreign politics began as an advisor in Jimmy Carter's State Department, but Carter's foreign policy was supposedly a reason why she became a Republican. She held important advisory posts in the G. H. W. Bush administration and by the time she was established as a professor at Stanford in 1981, she'd already served on some of the many boards--some connected with the difficult schools of East Palo Alto, others in business, others in government--which mark a prominent career.
She co-authored a book on Germany with Philip Zelikow, another on Russia with Alexander Dallin, then was chosen by one of the great university presidents of the twentieth century, Gerhard Casper, to be provost of Stanford. Here reports of her success are mixed, partly because as provost she served as a lightening rod of the articulate discontents conspicuous in every great university.
For six years now, as the confidante, friend, advisor, tutor, and secretary of state to George W. Bush, she has revealed both her disciplined, hard-working, knowledgeable intelligence and what might be called an overly deferential, if not servile, allegiance to his almost religiously determined policies. More independent in her present role than as national security advisor, it is not clear that her own inclinations have been sufficiently independent to subtilize, if not alter these policies. Her charm, her sheer delight in the elegance of power (has there been so well-dressed, coiffed, and bejeweled a woman of power since Marie Antoinette?), her complex devotion to the president and his family incised on the consciousness formed by racial insults and injuries, make for the kind of character she has read about with devotion in the pages of her favorite Dostoevsky. Her own story is far from over. Will it be written in the key of tragi-comic subservience or of truly liberated independence?