Interview With Sandra Sobieraj Westfall of People MagazineSecretary Condoleezza Rice
December 18, 2008
SECRETARY RICE: This is Condi Rice, how are you?
QUESTION: Hi, it’s Sandra –
SECRETARY RICE: Yes, how are you?
QUESTION: – from People Magazine. Good. How are you?
SECRETARY RICE: Fine, thank you.
QUESTION: Thanks for taking time out.
SECRETARY RICE: Sure.
QUESTION: I know you are still way too busy.
SECRETARY RICE: (Laughter.) That’s okay.
QUESTION: We’re doing what we hope will be a really lovely cover story on Mrs. Bush –
SECRETARY RICE: Oh, wonderful.
QUESTION: – in the, I think, last two weeks of her tenure. So I wondered if you could give some perspective on her impact on sort of U.S. international relations, or just our reputation overseas with the work that she’s done in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, on the breast cancer initiative.
SECRETARY RICE: Yes. Well, what I would say about the First Lady is that she has been not only a great spokesperson for the United States and a great presence, but she’s been a great innovator on foreign policy. Whether it is the work that she’s done on breast cancer awareness – I mean, going into the heart of the Middle East where there’s a kind of shame of talking about those issues, or her early recognition of the importance of highlighting for Americans what was happening to women in Afghanistan, or her just incredibly committed and indefatigable defense of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, she has been really just speaking for very, very important causes, but in an innovative way.
QUESTION: And in a way that sort of floats above politics? I mean, somebody said on an ABC special I watched that she’s like Queen Elizabeth – (laughter) – and that she sort of floats above politics. Do you – I mean you –
SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think she’s not been afraid to deal with the difficult politics either. I mean, it’s – to deal with Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma is not to float above the politics, really. It’s to insist that the United Nations and the regional states be accountable for what they profess to be their values.
I think on Afghan women, she has been willing to tie that directly to the policies of the Taliban. And on breast cancer awareness, if anything, it was drawing in many of the women and leaders of that region to deal with an issue that, as I said, is still pretty taboo.
QUESTION: I meant more that – you know, regardless of how we’re seen overseas, she doesn’t seem to be saddled with that. You know, she’s still universally beloved regardless of approval ratings for the Administration.
SECRETARY RICE: Yeah, but –
QUESTION: Do you know what I mean?
SECRETARY RICE: Yeah, I do. But I don’t think that that is an issue of – I think it’s because she’s been willing to do things. She’s a wonderfully warm person who comes across that way and who comes across as – and is indeed deeply committed to people, and that comes across. And yes, as she has said to me, sometimes she’s not had to do some – make some of the hard decisions and be associated with some of the harder issues. But the issues that she’s associated with are plenty hard. And she’s done it in a way that I think has advanced those causes.
QUESTION: What do you hear about her when you’re traveling? I mean, is – do you pick up on her popularity? Do you hear it from world leaders? Do they ask for her to come?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, what we’ve done, generally, is we’ve worked together in the areas that she’s been interested in. And we’ve tried to deploy her sometimes in – whenever we’ve – for instance, on the health initiative, which are a part of our public diplomacy campaign, really to get people to see that America cares about the issues that people care about, not just about trade or politics or whatever. We’ve – I’ve actually asked her to go from time to time. And people love to receive her and it gives prominence in countries to issues that others can’t do.
QUESTION: And – I mean, I’m curious. If you ask her to go, is it because she doesn’t carry any of the baggage?
SECRETARY RICE: No.
QUESTION: Do you know what I mean?
SECRETARY RICE: No. Look, the United States is not always popular for the choices that it makes and the policies that it pursues. But I ask her to go because she’s willing to go and address issues that are hard to tackle and that need to be addressed. And that’s why when – going and doing breast cancer awareness in the Middle East is something that she’s done.
I think she’s been a great partner for the President on AIDS and on malaria where, by the way, those policies are very popular.
SECRETARY RICE: Look, if you’re talking about Africa or you’re talking about Asia or even the places in Latin America, you’re not talking about unpopularity for the United States.
QUESTION: Right, right. Was the breast cancer in the Middle East something you asked her to do?
SECRETARY RICE: We talked about it and it was something that she had first talked with Karen Hughes about. And when we talked about it, I thought it was just a terrific idea. And I did ask her to go to some other places, yes.
QUESTION: On that same issue?
SECRETARY RICE: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. You know, I’ve seen the pictures of her with the women in full cover and they’re really stunning.
SECRETARY RICE: Yeah. It’s quite touching, yeah.
QUESTION: So you’ve been there from day one.
SECRETARY RICE: Yes.
QUESTION: You’ve seen her go from, you know, I’m not going to make a speech –
SECRETARY RICE: Right, right. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I don’t want to make a speech to, you know, this.
SECRETARY RICE: Yeah.
QUESTION: What changed? I mean, how have you seen grow and change?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, I’ve worked with her on so many issues, you know, literacy and girls education and health issues and so forth. I think what’s sometimes not understood about Laura Bush is that this is someone – she is someone who had a career and interests and a profession before she even met the President. And so she was – what she’s done is to mobilize some of those skills for some issues that really need to be dealt with in international politics. But I think the point at which she really, in a sense, came out and started doing that was with Afghanistan. That was really the first time in a major way. And I think after that, that she believed, and rightly, that she could be a real force for good in the world and for American interests and values.
QUESTION: She, I guess, has expressed privately some frustration that she’s seen still as this traditional First Lady who does safe little pet projects on libraries and she’s the teacher and she must be baking cookies. And she’s, in fact, told me she’s not baked a single cookie – (laughter) – since she’s been at the White House. But have you heard her express some frustration and concern about her legacy not being appreciated?
SECRETARY RICE: I have not. I have not. But look, I can see that the – you know, the thrust sometimes is, well, these are safe things to do or these are issues that have no controversy. She’s chosen controversial issues. This is not just a matter of going and saying, you know, women’s empowerment is a good thing. This is not just going and saying women need to be healthy. This is going into the teeth of the beast, in a sense, and challenging the international community about Aung San Suu Kyi. This is not – this is controversial work and she’s not shied from it.
QUESTION: Well, I know it’s mostly that a lot of us weren’t paying attention, so we’re trying to make up for some lost time here.
SECRETARY RICE: (Laughter.) Yeah. No, she’s really been – again, I really admire her because it – yes, she’s done the things that – you know, literacy and the book festival and all of those things. But when I think about she has – what she’s taken on, it’ll be that she was one of the strongest voices, which we here at State could then support, on something like Burma.
QUESTION: Have you ever seen her get nervous before a speech or –
SECRETARY RICE: No. No, she’s got nerves of steel. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: What, so she’s –
SECRETARY RICE: Every time I’ve seen her, she’s – you know, she’s raring to go. She’s a good – she’s a very good speaker and she’s very at ease in these environments.
QUESTION: Well, and she’s even privately had a lot of stress to deal with over the past eight years. How have you seen her manage her own stress?
SECRETARY RICE: She’s never lost her sense of humor. She is connected to her family and her faith. I mean, one of the most wonderful things in watching her is watching her with her mom. You know, I have such a great appreciation for that. I lost my mother relatively early, and my mother was 61. But I’ve watched her kindness and her gentleness with her mother, who’s now well into her 80s, and you see that that’s where this comes from.
And we share the fact that we’re only children. And you know, people can think that only children are somehow a bit aloof or a bit self-centered and – but when you see somebody with their mother or with their daughter, as I’ve seen her, you realize what a truly good soul she is, and that’s what’s been able to come through to people.
I’m afraid I have to run.
QUESTION: Can I ask you one last thing?
SECRETARY RICE: Sure.
QUESTION: Have any of the things that you’ve talked – that you talk about on your walks changed now that you’re sort of at the sunset of the Administration? And are the things you talk with her about different, getting back to real life?
SECRETARY RICE: You know, it’s interesting. Well, we’ve talked a little bit about, you know, getting back and where are we – where are you going to live and what’s – she’s been – as you know, she finally found a house, and we talked a lot about that. And she’s been one of my consultants on the house I’m thinking about in Palo Alto and whether or not I really want to take on a project of that magnitude. (Laughter.) So, yes, we’re all looking forward to that.
But it’s not nostalgia, because I think – I sense with her, as I believe myself, you know, eight years is a long time and we’ve done what we can do, and now it’s time to go home. And the great thing about Laura Bush and the President is that when you’re with them, you realize that their friends are the friends that they’ve had from middle school and high school and college. And it’s not going to matter that they’ve been President and First Lady, because those are people who were with them before and they’re going to be with them after. And that’s something to be admired.
QUESTION: Well, I appreciate your time.
SECRETARY RICE: All right.
QUESTION: This may very well be one of the last times I speak with you.
SECRETARY RICE: Yes, right.
QUESTION: I want to just thank you for your eight years of service.
SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much.
QUESTION: I can’t imagine how much of your own life you sacrificed to do all of this and I –
SECRETARY RICE: Well, it’s been a tremendous honor. It really has.
QUESTION: Well, I for one, as a citizen, am grateful.
SECRETARY RICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: So, thank you.
SECRETARY RICE: Thanks very much.
QUESTION: Take care.
SECRETARY RICE: Bye-bye.
Released on January 9, 2009