CAMBRIDGE, MASS.--To watch former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speak so impressively at Harvard Tuesday night was to ask this question: what do we do to people in government and public life that squelches the very talents they bring to the job?
Rice was excoriated by the left during her tenure at State, her words parsed, her demeanor examined in the unkindest ways. Some of it was surely legitimate; the false premises sold to the American public to justify the war in Iraq, for example, are indefensible and should be challenged. But Rice, like so many people in public service in both parties, was treated like a symbol of good or evil (depending on who was doing the judging), overshadowing the remarkably impressive scholarship she brings to foreign policy discussions. Her personal life—or what was presumed to be the lack of one—was debated as though it were a reflection of her character. Never mind that we don’t allow anyone the time or privacy to actually have any kind of personal life when they go into public service; the example of the unmarried Rice in one of the most powerful jobs in the world was really meant to send a signal to women that if they want to do (or take) a man’s job, they will be forced to make personal sacrifices, and then be judged meanly for making those very sacrifices. [Read 10 Things You Didn't Know About Condoleezza Rice.]
The Rice who addressed students and community members at the John F. Kennedy, Jr., Forum displayed many of the strengths one wants in a diplomat. She was knowledgeable, passionate about her topic (African democracy and development) and free with her opinions. She answered questions frankly, acknowledging that pragmatism sometimes had to trump idealism in dealing with sketchy foreign governments. She agreed with a student questioner that elections don’t by definition create a democracy, but added that if we wait for civil societies to develop before encouraging elections, we may be waiting forever. There was a nuance and honesty to her answers rarely accommodated in the cable TV shout-down culture public officials must now navigate. And the students at stereotypically liberal Harvard (where I am a fellow) didn’t hammer Rice with gotcha questions. They genuinely wanted to talk about the future of Africa, and Rice (remarkably energetic after just getting off a plane from Korea) was eager to engage with them. Now a professor at Stanford University, Rice is clearly enjoying the intellectual freedom of academic life.
This isn’t only about whether the war in Iraq was a good idea, or based on trumped-up evidence of weapons of mass destruction. It’s not just about the foreign policy vision of the Bush administration. Those are valid questions on their own, but there is another overarching issue, and that is how we treat people, regardless of their political persuasion, when they choose public service. Government service is a big responsibility and it carries the burden of great accountability. It shouldn’t be a justification for treating the people who commit to public service as demons or deities.