For Rice, Unexpected Sanctuary by the Bay

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 28, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO, May 27 -- The secretary of state was braving an appearance in hostile territory. The protests could have gotten ugly. The questions could have gotten hard.

Instead, in midnight-blue San Francisco, a city still in mourning over the presidential election, Condoleezza Rice was granted sanctuary. At a noon speech Friday at the Commonwealth Club of California -- the topic was spreading democracy throughout the world -- Rice was greeted with a standing ovation. She was interrupted by applause several times and was asked questions about as challenging as those at a presidential town hall meeting.

True, Code Pink and other antiwar groups, numbering about 250 protesters in all, kept police and traffic busy outside Davies Symphony Hall, where Rice addressed a capacity crowd.

Then, about five minutes into the secretary's 30-minute speech, three audience members donned black hooded robes and stood with their arms outstretched, referencing the infamous photos of detainees abused by U.S. military police at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. Chanting "Stop the torture, stop the killing, U.S. out of Iraq," they were quickly ushered out by a police SWAT team, as the audience cheered and applauded.

"It's a wonderful thing that people are able to speak their minds in our democracy," Rice responded. "In Baghdad, Kabul and soon in Beirut, they, too, will be able to speak their minds."

From then on, it was smooth sailing for the secretary of state, who considered her visit a homecoming, having spent years in the Bay Area as a professor and provost at Stanford University. Gloria Duffy, chief executive of the Commonwealth Club and a close friend of Rice's, moderated the question portion of the program, sifting through cards written by audience members. The ones she picked seemed to underscore the forum's nonpartisanship.

What "special qualities" did John Bolton bring to the job as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations? Could she discuss a possible timetable for leaving Iraq? What did she want her legacy to be?

On Bolton, whose confirmation vote was delayed on Thursday by Senate Democrats, Rice said the appointee, who has been accused of bullying intelligence officials who disagree with his conservative ideology, represents "a strong voice for reform."

"There's no doubt in anyone's mind that the United Nations needs reform," Rice said. "Let's be real: When you have a commission on human rights and Sudan is on it, nobody can take it seriously. John Bolton has been critical of the United Nations but, frankly, it's not hard to be critical. John's a pretty tough person and he can have rough edges at times, but there are many people who work for him who would walk through a wall for him."

On a timetable for leaving Iraq, Rice said: "The president talks not about an exit strategy, but a success strategy. It would not be a good thing to leave before the job is finished."

Asked about how ongoing terrorist attacks square with her saying that progress is being made, she recalled visiting a young Iraqi soldier, a woman, at a Baghdad hospital who had lost a leg and still had expressed great enthusiasm for the mission to democratize her country. "Sometimes," Rice said, "we give more attention to the terrorists like al-Zarqawi than we do to the Sabrinas of the world who are desperately trying to secure freedom and democracy in Iraq."

Rice said that country's democracy "is not going to look like the United States of America, but it's not going to look like Saddam's Iraq. And thank God for that, because it was time to get that monster out of the center of Baghdad."

She acknowledged that Iraq's new government has had difficulties, but she said the leadership has not made a compromise "as bad as the one in 1789 that made my ancestors three-fifths of a man, so let's be humble about what they're going through." She was referring to a constitutional compromise in which three-fifths of a state's slaves were counted in deciding the state's representation in Congress.

There was some grumbling from the press row that the questions sounded as if they were written by the same friendly person. But the audience was rapt, clearly appreciative of Rice's scholarly knowledge of the Soviet Union and its demise, which she called a pivotal moment in world history.

On her legacy, Rice paid homage to her predecessors and talked about aiming for big goals. She said she believes that one day there would be democracy and freedom and peace in the Middle East.

From the applause and ovation that followed, the audience heartily wanted to believe her.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company