A conversation between former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright

Listen Now
21min 10sec
(:) Kamran Jebreili/AP Photo, (R) Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
Former US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, left, speaks at the opening ceremony of the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition & Conference, ADIPEC, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; Madeleine Albright, right, attends the 2019 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner at the Washington Hilton on Saturday April 27, 2019, in Washington, DC.

They have different world views, but former secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice share a geographic touchstone in Colorado and a common mentor.

Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, was a prominent Czech diplomat before and after World War II, who emigrated with his family to the U.S. after Communists took over what was then the Czech Republic. He landed at the University of Denver, where he became a professor and then founding dean of what is now the Korbel School of International Studies.

In 1969, Rice’s family left the segregated South so her father could pursue a master’s degree at DU, where he later became a vice chancellor. She graduated from high school, enrolled at the university and found her way to Korbel’s classroom. Under his mentorship, she launched a diplomatic career that ran almost parallel to Albright’s. In 1997, under Democratic President Bill Clinton, Albright became the nation’s first female secretary of state. Eight years later, Republican George W. Bush named Rice the first Black female secretary.

The former secretaries shared their common history and their takes on the nation’s political divide in a recent video conference sponsored by DU to mark the inauguration of the university’s new chancellor. 

Below are excerpts from their conversation that have been edited for clarity and length.

How they first crossed paths

Madeleine Albright: My father died in 1977 and by then he was a pretty big deal in Denver, and so there were a lot of state tributes and things to him at his funeral and lots of flowers and various things. But among them was this ceramic pot in the shape of a piano, with leaves in it. So I said to my mother, ‘where did this come from?’ And she said, ‘It’s from your father's favorite student, Condoleezza Rice.’

Condoleezza Rice: [Korbel] kept telling me that he had this daughter and he wanted me at some point to meet his daughter, Madeleine, and so I had heard about Madeleine before she had heard about me. She was already starting to make her name in the halls of academia and government.

On Josef Korbel

Albright: He said there is nothing better than to be a professor in a free country. He also used to talk about the fact that Americans didn't fully understand how fragile democracy was, but also how resilient.

Rice: He was the best teller of stories to elucidate issues of diplomacy and international politics.

He would use not only his own stories, but stories from history and I just really remember being captivated by this person who had all of this experience, but could convey it in a way that made me want to study it.”

Rice on her father, John, who served as a vice chancellor at DU

Rice: When he came to the University of Denver in 1969, Denver had 10 Black students and he just found this appalling. They began to recruit students, a lot of them from the South, and my father started a program called The Black Experience in America. He called it an attitude-change class. He said, ‘I just want to expose the students to what the Black American experience has been like.’

He had unbelievable speakers in this series, including some that would now turn heads, Stokely Carmichael, Louis Farrakhan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dick Gregory spoke in this series.

My father was a Republican but it was hardly a kind of hit parade of conservative speakers that he brought to talk about the Black experience in America, because he felt that we were just on the cusp of having gotten through the formal part of the civil rights movement, the passage of voting rights laws and the 1964 Civil Rights Act but we still didn't know each other very well.

Divisions in the United States today

Albright: The part that has bothered me is what do people know about where facts come from and how do people know what is happening?

A book that I wrote is “Fascism: A Warning.” I went back and I actually looked at how fascism began, which it did with Mussolini. The best quote in the whole book comes from Mussolini and he said “if you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices,’ and that is what I think is kind of happening in the United States.

The major thing Mussolini did was to identify with one group at the expense of another, who then became the scapegoats.That is what worries me now. We have been, I think in many respects, artificially divided to blame somebody else. I think we need to respect why people are coming from where they're coming from, and to make it a point to listen. And we're not doing that enough. But the main issue now is, how are we getting our information?

Rice: I think that the challenge is to recognize we have these remarkable institutions that the founding fathers bequeathed us. I worry today that there is a cynicism about those institutions, a tendency to dismiss them. The founding fathers understood that you had to channel passions through institutions, and that populists appeal directly to the sometimes worst instincts of people. So I ask myself almost every day, how can we rekindle faith in those institutions, in the rightness of them and in the fairness of them? 

People have to believe that they have a chance to access the so-called American dream, but without a high-quality education you can't do that, and so I spend a lot of my time thinking about how we get to the place that we no longer have third graders who can't read, and 22-year-olds who get out of a college degree with no identifiable job skills, and 40-year-olds who can't be retrained. I see a direct link between the fact that a lot of people feel that they can't really access what is best about America and the lack of faith in our institutions.

The national security implications of COVID-19

Editor’s note: Rice was National Security Advisor when the SARS virus hit in the early 2000s.

Rice: I have to say that I think my biggest disappointment is that the international community has been pretty much sidelined. It's been the revenge of the sovereign state: ‘my PPE, my citizens, my travel restrictions.’ And if we're going to rebuild some semblance of international cooperation around these issues — which we do need because these pandemics do not confine themselves to borders — I think that's going to have to be an intentional effort to rebuild the institutions of the international community that can help with these pandemics.

Albright: This is also a good learning experience in terms of understanding that our security and our health does depend on what happens in other countries. And one of the things that I am pushing is the relationship between domestic and foreign policy, and understanding the interdependence that is out there as the real symbolism of what is happening in the 21st Century.