WALNUT CREEK -- Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claimed not to have mastered a three-iron on the golf course, but she easily took command of a sellout crowd at Monday night's Newsmakers Speaker Series lecture at the Lesher Center for the Arts.
Currently a professor at Stanford University, before her time as secretary of state Rice served on President George H.W. Bush's National Security Council staff, authored a half dozen books and founded the after-school enrichment program Center for a New Generation. She also plays the piano well enough to have performed with renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma.
Assuring the audience she was aware he primarily invited her to join him because of her job status, not her playing, Rice said she is hard at work on Schumann's A Minor Piano Concerto.
"Being totally engrossed in something is a good way to get away," she said.
The comment goes a long way toward explaining her achievements. Rice is resolute and relentless, and although moderator Bret Burkhart introduced her as a "career barrier breaker," it's easier to imagine Rice vaporizing, more than breaking, those barriers.
Growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Rice lost a playmate in the racially-motivated 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in that city in 1963.
"I remember being confused about how anyone could hate so much," she recalled. "It taught me the healing power of forgiveness: we must not be the prisoners of our history."
"I believe in the right to bear arms. We have to strike a balance, making the modern world one where we can be safe and still hold onto our constitutional rights."
Her political affiliations are equally complex and confounding. She went from an envelope-stuffing volunteer for Democrat Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign to becoming an I-voted-for-Ronald-Reagan-in-1980 Republican.
"It was a national security decision," she claimed. As a longtime expert in the Soviet Union and Eastern European affairs, Rice said she couldn't abide with what she perceived to be Carter's casual response to "a big, dangerous nation."
Her polemic positioning prompted Burkhart to ask the night's million-dollar question: "Any plan to run for President?"
"You have to really want it," she replied. "We should be glad there are people who do. I don't. I love policy, not politics."
Rice said her days now begin with a cup of coffee, a look at the news online, and the thought, "Isn't that interesting." Her students at Stanford give her positive but "hard" ratings.
Saying the "tectonic plates of international systems are shaking," Rice said the inability to mobilize immigration reform constituted America's "greatest national security threat."
For America to remain in a position of international significance, especially after the "shocks" of the terrorist attacks of 9-11, the US' economic downturn and European turmoil, will require a return to our "aspirational narrative."
"We must return to the unifying belief that it (doesn't) matter where you came from, only where you are going," she said.
Circling back to golf, Rice said she was honored to be invited onto the Augusta National Golf Club's fairway.
"Did you hesitate?" Burkhart asked, suggesting the exclusive club's former policy of denying membership to African Americans and women would have impacted her decision.
"Institutions change over time so I knew it mattered, but I didn't think of it as a social statement," she said.