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Condoleezza Rice Talks Democracy, Freedom and ‘National Myth’ at Westmont Breakfast

Former secretary of state says America's optimism and opportunity make 'the impossible seem inevitable'

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s new book, Extraordinary, Ordinary People, is a memoir of her own family. But the title was also the theme that ran throughout her keynote address Friday at the sixth annual Westmont President’s Breakfast.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been no stranger to Westmont College. She headlined Friday's Westmont President's Breakfast and has also been a commencement speaker, at the school's 1999 graduation ceremonies.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been no stranger to Westmont College. She headlined Friday’s Westmont President’s Breakfast and has also been a commencement speaker, at the school’s 1999 graduation ceremonies. Click here for a Noozhawk slide show. (Brad Elliott photo / www.elliottimages.com)

Before an overflow crowd — literally, as the 870 guests filled two ballrooms at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort — Rice spoke for nearly 40 minutes. With an academic’s skill at weaving a lesson into her story without seeming to do so, she made an unapologetic case for transformational democracy and lauded America’s “national myth” as a source of its enduring strength.

Rice, who served as secretary of state and national security adviser to President George W. Bush, cautioned that today’s headlines are often not history’s judgment. Awareness of the larger picture is crucial, she said.

Enter 9/11.

“For those of us in authority on Sept. 11,” she said of the coordinated terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., “every day after was Sept. 12. You have no idea what it was like to have 3,000 people die on your watch.

“To see people jump 81 stories to their deaths rather than face the unimaginable alternative ... to see a smoking, gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon. ... Those of us in authority vowed that it would never happen again, and we worked every day to prevent it.”

In the nearly 10 years since 9/11, no further mass attacks have been successful domestically, and Rice gave credit to America’s national security and military forces and the “vigilance of those men and women who volunteer to defend us at the front lines of freedom.”

Rice said 9/11 illustrated the need not just to defend U.S. soil, but to push outward to hit terrorists on their home turf and carry forward the torch of democracy and freedom.

“We have a responsibility to help failed and failing states heal,” she said, describing the abject poverty in Afghanistan that, in the absence of economic growth and freedom, provides a fertile environment for Islamic extremism.

Northern Mexico is also descending into similar chaos, she said, as paramilitary drug cartels spread fear and deadly violence among the government and the general population.

“It’s now resembling a failed state, with security concerns of enormous consequence to the United States,” Rice said.

The challenges are great, but she said success is possible and pointed to Colombia’s transformation from a nation in the throes of war waged by narcoterrorists, where no community was safe, to one in which children play freely in the parks of Medellin.

“That happened in 10 years’ time,” she noted.

Rice said there is a moral case for democracy and she called for America — and other democracies — to continue to advocate for the principle that everyone deserves to live in freedom, not tyranny.

“In America, in Britain, in Germany, in Japan, these nations have established the process to change their leadership peacefully,” she said. “If we don’t like something, we can ‘throw the bums out.’

“But when men and women have no way to change their government or their circumstances, something is bound to explode ... There is no way to do that peacefully.”

The current rebellions and their violent response in the Middle East are symptomatic of what happens when people no longer fear authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, but there’s also a danger for the West.

“In the Middle East, we talked stability instead of democracy, and we got neither,” she said. “(Former Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak once told me that ‘It’s either me or the Muslim Brotherhood,’ but then he went out and engaged in policies that created it.”

Now, she said, we don’t know how things will turn out, but we can’t shrink from our engagement.

“America must be on the side of our values,” Rice said. “We can’t fear democratic change just because the victors may not be what we like.”

Rice didn’t just address global issues. Noting that she’s made several visits to the Westmont campus in Montecito, including as commencement speaker in 1999, she lauded the intersection of faith and reason at the private Christian liberal arts school.

“These are not enemies of one another,” she said, calling it a message of “extraordinary importance” for today’s young people.

Speaking easily and glancing only occasionally at her notes, Rice interjected frequent asides and dry one-liners about her government service and the idiosyncrasies of Washington.

She also talked about the “national myths” that all countries have. America’s, she said, is the proverbial log cabin.

“It doesn’t matter where you came from,” she explained. “It’s where you’re going.”

From the nation’s Founding Fathers to Google founder Sergey Brin, a Russian immigrant, Rice said these men and women could not have achieved their success anywhere else in the world. Whether immigrant or native-born, their resourcefulness and opportunity could only be rewarded here.

“My grandfather, John Wesley Rice, was a sharecropper’s son in Eutaw, Ala,” she said. “He heard about Stillman College, saved up his earnings, sold his cotton and enrolled. But after a year his money had run out.

“Wondering what to do next, he heard about scholarships but was told they were only for those young men who were considering the Presbyterian ministry. My grandfather quickly replied, ‘That’s exactly what I was thinking of doing,’” she said to laughter. “And our family has been Presbyterian ever since.”

Rice is now a senior fellow on public policy at the Hoover Institution and a business school and political science professor at Stanford University, where she is a former provost. She said a big concern of hers is that all children have the access to a quality education like she had growing up, even in segregated Alabama.

“I worry when I can look at a ZIP code and can tell whether you will get a good education or whether you’ll be left out of the national myth,” she said. “If we can’t change this, we will have lost the core of who we are.”

But she cautioned that America, and Americans, must choose optimism over cynicism.

“Cynical people cannot lead,” said Rice, adding that because of America’s innate optimism, “we have made the impossible seem inevitable.”

“It’s a tremendous gift to the world that the most generous, the most prosperous, and the freest nation is also the most powerful,” she said.

The Westmont President’s Breakfast has the highest profile of the Westmont Foundation’s work on behalf of the school and the community. Launched in 1997 with the leadership of philanthropist Larry Crandell, the foundation also hosts the Westmont Downtown lecture series and provides student scholarships. Among this year’s Westmont Foundation Scholars are Westmont students Matthew Annand, a San Marcos High School graduate; Nicole Provost, a graduate of Righetti High School in Santa Maria; Clarissa Valladares of Simi Valley; and Micah Whitcomb of Ventura.

Westmont President Gayle Beebe gave opening remarks Friday and was introduced by Gerd Jordano, the longtime chairwoman of the President’s Breakfast Committee, and Westmont Foundation board president John Davies. The Rev. Jeff Bullock, rector at All Saints By-the-Sea Episcopal Church, gave the invocation, and the Westmont College Choir, under the direction of Michael Shashberger, sang “The Promise of Living” and “Blessed Assurance.”

Lead sponsor of Friday’s breakfast was Santa Barbara Bank & Trust. Other sponsors included Anodos, Axia, Davies, David Fainer Jr., HUB International, Jo and Carl Lindros, Kristin and Bill Loomis, Melchiori Construction Co., Melchiori Management Group LLC, Rabobank, A Storage Place and V3 Corp.

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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