Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earned four consecutive bouts of applause from an audience of over 6,000 gathered to hear her expert opinion on how to avoid political gridlock in a country increasingly susceptible to it.
Rice made a point to avoid partisanship throughout the duration of the discussion with Purdue President Mitch Daniels, including her assessment of the recent impeachment inquiry of U.S. President Donald Trump. Rice expressed discomfort that Congress is relying on anonymous, secondhand charges to remove a sitting U.S. president from office.
“Whatever we do, let’s remember that this is a serious question, whether or not we overthrow the results of a democratic election,” Rice said. She contrasted what she views as theatrical antics currently dominating Washington with the seriousness displayed by legislators during former President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
In light of the inquiry, Rice was asked how to combat intense polarization occurring in the U.S. since Trump’s election in 2016. Rice warned audience members to avoid becoming trapped in echo chambers, conversing only with people holding similar opinions to themselves.
“A lot of issues of divisiveness are not in Washington, they’re within us,” Rice said. She urged the audience to “actually talk to somebody who doesn’t agree with you, and do it civilly,’’ adding that “none of us have a constitutional right not to be offended.”
In a call to action for those hesitant to engage in politics, Rice reminded listeners of the power they hold in our government.
“If you aren’t involved in your democracy, then you accept the democracy you get,” Rice said.
She spoke about a story from her childhood when African-Americans in Birmingham lined up to vote against 1968 Presidential candidate George Wallace, who was widely denounced as racist, even though he was poised to win in the state of Alabama regardless.
“Why do they bother?” she recalled asking her uncle. He responded with a mantra she has adopted since: “Because they know that one day, that vote is going to matter.”
Rice was asked to draw from her diplomatic expertise to discuss nations she sees as adversaries of the U.S. Daniels sought her opinion on relations with Russia, North Korea and China, among others seen as dangerous in the international realm.
“Russia, in many ways, is one of the saddest stories in the international sphere,” Rice said.
She said the Russian people are a source of untapped intellectual and economic potential hindered by the policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a leader who she views as an autocratic dictator. Rice criticized Putin’s pursuit of power, saying “he went from arrogant to megalomaniacal.”
Daniels drew attention to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, saying the devastation of Venezuela should serve to ward off what he observes as a current ideological trend toward socialism in the U.S.
“Maduro has destroyed the country. Venezuela is a very good example of the problem that socialism is,” Rice said. “The only time it’s worked is under force, and it doesn’t work for very long.”
Rice said there is a general doubt of democracy’s effectiveness growing in the international community, fueled by authoritarian China’s ever-increasing role in the global economy and the decline in productivity from several democratic countries in the European Union. She warned that “authoritarians make bad decisions efficiently as well,” referring to China’s controversial one-child policy and its reported technological abuses, ranging from theft of intellectual property to espionage.
Rice said that schools such as Purdue are likely to be affected by such abuses. She said because the Chinese government views the Internet as “a medium of social and political control,” Chinese students being educated at American universities will begin to be scrutinized for their intentions.
“There are people saying that you shouldn’t have Chinese students in your high-tech labs,” Rice said. She denounced such an approach to preventing misbehavior, saying instead that funding for the National Science Foundation should be increased to combat the issue.
Derrick Cotton, a junior in the College of Health and Human Sciences, said he was inspired in hearing from a fellow person of color who has achieved significant roles in education and government despite being raised in the segregated South. He referenced a story Rice told, in which her father encouraged her to avoid feeling victimized by racial discrimination, saying, “That’s just fine if they don’t want to sit next to you because you’re black; just make sure they move.”
“If you’re going to say that you’re part of a system that doesn’t treat you fairly, what are you doing to beat the system? Are you just sitting back and complaining or are you going to be the one who steps up and tries to change it?” Cotton said.
The audience was not limited to members of the West Lafayette community. Jeannine Lee Lake, a former Purdue student who lives in Muncie, Indiana, explained her motivation for driving to hear Rice speak.
“She’s always been calm and measured, and I feel like she’s objective even though she’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat,” Lake said. “I’ve always felt like she represented the interests of America as best she could.”
Before she achieved national recognition for her role as a member of former President George W. Bush’s cabinet, Rice taught political science at Stanford University and, in 1993, became the first woman and the first African-American to serve as provost for the university. Her career in foreign diplomacy began in 1989 when she became an assistant to former President George H.W. Bush, the father of her future boss, during the fall of the Soviet Union.
Upon George W. Bush’s assumption of office in 2001, Rice was the first black woman appointed to be national security adviser before her promotion to Secretary of State in 2005, making her the first African-American woman to hold the position. Daniels and Rice were colleagues in the George W. Bush Administration, with Daniels serving as Director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget from 2001-2003. Reportedly, Daniels’ has been publicly vying for a conversation with Rice since he became Purdue’s president in 2013.