PITTSBURG, Kan. — Sitting in an armchair across from Condoleezza Rice, who had just given a short speech about America’s current place in a dangerous world, Steven A. Scott, president of Pittsburg State University, turned Thursday night to an audience of 1,000-plus and quipped: “She needs to run for president.”
Laughter and a long round of applause followed his words, as Rice, the U.S. secretary of state from 2005 to 2009, broke into a smile.
“Thank you,” she said to the audience, which filled up most of the Linda and Lee Scott Performance Hall at the Bicknell Family Center for the Arts. She paused, then added, “But no.”
“Sorry,” Scott said. “I had to get that out of my system.”
Rice was third speaker of the popular H. Lee Scott Speaker Series, following in the footsteps of former President Bill Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
During a "fireside chat," Rice and Scott touched on a number of subjects, from social media to education to race relations in the country.
Concerning the latter, Rice said that racial inequality and tensions still exist in America today, at one point calling slavery America’s “birth defect,” yet there has been progress. After all, she said, “I was born (and raised) in Birmingham, Alabama” during the 1950s. She briefly spoke about her first brush with racism at the age of 5, when a hired Santa Claus was seen holding white children on his knee while black children were kept at arm’s length.
But in one of the most poignant moments of the night, she equated how far the country has come with her swearing-in ceremony as the first female black secretary of state, taking the oath of office from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and holding up the U.S. Constitution that, long ago, had provisions allowing Southern states to count slaves as “three-fifths of a man.” “I don’t need to see the U.S. through rose-colored glasses,” she said. Her appointment at the highest level a woman has attained in the U.S. government shows that “people and society can change."
During the chat and her earlier speech, she spoke mostly about optimism — optimism that America can fix what is broken politically and heal the social rifts now dividing the country. While the United States may be moving through troubled times politically, there’s still reason for hope, she said.
Rice said the country is transitioning from the post-World War II era in which a Cold War existed and the United States made an oath to the rest of the world that an “attack on one is an attack on all.”
But that system, “which worked very well for a long time,” is no longer as effective as it once was. Sept. 11 proved that, she said, when "the fifth-poorest country in the world" launched an effective attack. Today, the U.S. faces threats from a number of areas: cyberattacks, rogue nations, an emerging China and a reinvigorated Russia.
"It won't be easy," she said. "It will take hard work ... but America's had harder times" in the past and survived.
She also praised the selflessness displayed by the current generation of college students, saying she's never seen a single generation of Americans so "public-minded" in an effort to tackle hard problems and find solutions to them. Rice is currently a professor of political science at Stanford University.
She also took time to praise both Pittsburg and the PSU students, remarking at how welcome they had made her feel. She even joked at one point that she would go back to Stanford and work to change the school's mascot from the Cardinal to a Gorilla, which brought forth applause from the audience.
"I thought she was very intelligent and focused," said Joan Hamilton of Pittsburg. Rice's speaking about growing up in the South during the 1950s really resonated with her, she said. "My husband had a cross (placed on the property) because he worked for a newspaper."
Norm Caldwell, a registered Democrat, said he was pleased with Rice's speech and that she didn't lean too far politically in her speech.
"I liked that she was right down the middle," he said.