Condi Rice on Obama

I couldn't help enjoying Rice's genuine excitement about Barack Obama's victory.

Published November 5, 2008 7:49PM (EST)

Am I a total sap to find Condoleezza Rice's reaction to Barack Obama's victory moving? She looked like a little girl on Christmas. She looked 20 years younger, at least. That grim mask of determination and repression was gone.

Asked about the election results, she made unsurprising but pleasant remarks about the greatness of this country: "You just know that Americans will not be satisfied until they do form that perfect union." Then she added: "I just want to close on a personal note: As an African-American, I'm especially proud, because this is a country that's been through a long journey, in terms of overcoming wounds ... That work is not done, but yesterday was obviously an extraordinary step forward."

It wasn't really what she said, but the look on her face as she said it. A genuine grin kept breaking through the mask. Her eyes were glistening. She couldn't contain her excitement, though she was trying.

I've always thought it important, in trying to understand Rice, to remember she was raised in the viciously segregated Birmingham, Ala., of the 1950s and '60s. She was friends with Denise McNair, one of the "four little girls" killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963 (and why don't we remember that as a domestic terror attack?), when Rice was only 9. I've thought it helped explain, though not excuse, her conservatism, and her cleaving to strong white mentors through her career. When she made that infamous slip and called George W. Bush "my husband," I winced for her; I didn't see it as sexual, but as an unconscious yearning for the family and stability she's never had, which she found in the Bush White House, sad as that is.

I know, plenty of people who grew up where and when she did were radicalized by it instead, and devoted their lives to civil rights and social justice. I know, she bears enormous responsibility for the nightmare of the Iraq war. But since this is a day to appreciate the opening to change that Obama's election creates, I think it's a day to be happy to see Condi Rice happy, and to hope she puts her experience and intelligence to work undoing the wrongs of the Bush administration.

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By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections Barack Obama