Rice glad to be out of political spotlight

Condoleezza Rice does not miss her old job.

The former secretary of State no longer begins days with terrorist-threat security reports. Gone is anxiety that came with grabbing her morning newspaper.

"It's nice not to have that knot in your stomach as you go to the front door," Rice said during an interview with USA TODAY. "I loved representing this country, but eight years was a long time."

Rice, 54, is back at Stanford as a senior fellow for the Hoover Institution, a public policy research center that studies politics and economics. But she is not out of the spotlight entirely.

Last week, she defended policies of the George W. Bush administration by telling Stanford students that "we did not torture anyone" and that waterboarding was legal, safe and necessary. And she has not shied from weighing in on issues facing the new administration.

She says she agrees with President Obama's strategy to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. When asked during a session with NFL owners in late March what region poses the biggest threat to U.S. security, Rice said that it "comes in three flavors." In addition to the Iraq-Middle East and Pakistan-Afghanistan regions, she puts Mexico in the category of a possible threat to our security.

"This is getting to be a very dangerous place," she said.

She believes Russia bears watching after "something of a wrong turn" with its invasion of Georgia, attempts to subvert elections in Ukraine and crackdown on political opponents and the press.

"It's not the Soviet Union," Rice said. "But it's not the open society that we'd hoped it would be."

On the war against terrorism, Rice is a staunch defender of the policies of President Bush.

"I hope people believe I love my country and that I did my best under difficult circumstances," she says. "We didn't always succeed, but we made the country a better and safer place. I'm grateful that there wasn't another attack on American territory in the years that we were there. I'll tell you, after what happened to us on Sept. 11, every other day was Sept. 12. I worried every single day that there might be another attack.

"I recognize that you can never, ever bring back people who lost their lives — either in September 11th or in the wars that followed. But I think history has a long arc. Over time, difficult decisions turn out to be fundamental ones, right ones that lead to better circumstances down the road."

Rice says she will shed light on her years in Washington in her memoirs, due for a 2011 release and part of a three-book deal with Crown Publishers. "Right now," Rice says, "it's hard for me to remember what happened in 2005, what happened in 2006. I get them confused. So I've got to work through that.

"But I don't intend to just defend what we did. These were very consequential, troubling, difficult times. Controversial times. We did a lot of things well. I'm sure there are a lot of things we could have done better. I will try to be as accurate as I can about that as a participant can possibly be."

She says that much about the decision-making process at the White House has been misunderstood.

"You can't know how hard the decisions are, based on sometimes very little reliable information," she says. "You don't have the option not to do something. And I think you can't possibly know that unless you've been in those jobs and done them."

What next? For years, Rice has maintained an interest in sports management, particularly within the NFL. She's never missed a Super Bowl kickoff and once declared the role of NFL commissioner as her "dream job."

No wonder Roger Goodell joked as he ushered Rice on stage a few weeks ago, "This is the first time I've ever introduced someone who wants my job … to the people who hired me."

After receiving the first of three standing ovations, Rice said, "It's true, when I was talking to the Russians, the Iranians and the Venezuelans, your job seemed like a pretty good idea."

Sports is just a flirtation now. As her name circulated in February as a candidate for the Pac 10's since-filled commissioner's post, Rice had no interest.

Rice is an educator at heart, much like her parents, John and Angelena, both now deceased. Her father, a minister, was a high school guidance counselor and university administrator; Angelena was a grade-school teacher. Rice started out as an associate professor at Stanford and served as the school's provost in the 1990s.

The latter two of Rice's books, including a young adult version, will be memoirs built around her parents.

"They were ordinary people in a lot of ways," she says, "but they had an extraordinary passion about education that they passed on to me."

Rice says her biggest concern is education, particularly for those from lower socioeconomic conditions.

"If they can't read in third grade they're not going to be able to read. I plan to be a practitioner on that side," she says.

Rice is stepping up her role in the after-school enrichment and summer programs at the Center for a New Generation in impoverished East Palo Alto that she co-founded during a previous stint at Stanford.

Billionaire businesswoman Sheila Johnson says that Rice has also talked about perhaps opening two schools for girls. Johnson, who has become close to Rice through ties in an organization that promotes women's issues, has pledged support.

"We feel we need to reach out to young women and break that glass ceiling," she says.

Rice seeks more history.

"My grandfather Rice founded churches and schools all across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana," Rice says. "And my father and mother were education evangelists. So I'm trying to continue that legacy."