It wasn't quite Oprah's couch -- Condoleezza Rice doesn't go there -- but it was close. On Friday afternoon, as the secretary of state walked into Brunetta C. Hill Elementary School for the first time since she was a precocious sixth-grader, if you watched her eyes you could see the memories register one by one -- old classrooms, old teachers, old friends.
She sat in the school's tidy library, this hometown girl who had conquered the world, and answered questions from a selection of impossibly cute fourth- and fifth-graders, immaculate in their uniforms of white and navy blue. Rice was unstiff, unstuffy, unhurried, even unguarded. "It's not easy being secretary of state," she told one of her interrogators. "But it's fun."
When one of the kids asked whether a woman could be president, Rice answered, "Sure, why not?" Then it took just a few nanoseconds for her to add the standard non-denial denial -- "I don't want to run for office, I don't want to do that," etc. -- for the benefit of the media scrum wedged among the bookcases.
But if Rice means what she says, this three-day sentimental journey through her early life -- a very public journey, complete with motorcades and marching bands -- isn't the way to convince anybody.
See, this isn't the kind of thing secretaries of state generally do. By job description, they don't take a lot of domestic trips of any kind. And until this weekend, they certainly don't bring British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, British Ambassador David Manning and a binational retinue of minions and media to the deep South to give them an intensely personal lesson in the American civil rights movement.
This roots tour does have a larger purpose. At almost every stop, Rice has sought to draw parallels between the struggle she lived through in the violence-torn "Bombingham" of her youth and the Bush administration's crusade to spread democracy throughout the world.
"Not only is Birmingham my home, but Birmingham is evocative of the, I'll use the word terror, that also attended . . . the depths of Jim Crow," she told reporters on the flight to Alabama. The history of how African Americans won civil rights, she said, illustrates "that the United States should have a certain humility when it talks about the spread of democracy and liberty but also that freedom denied is not always denied, that, in fact, there comes a time when people are able to rise up and to get their freedom."
Well, up to a point. She's certainly right about the humility part, and there are indeed some very broad-brush common themes. The notion that people in the Muslim world aren't "ready" for democracy, for example, echoes the racist canard that black Americans weren't "ready" to properly exercise the vote. But Baghdad as Birmingham? If it is, then are we supposed to think of the restive Sunnis as freedom marchers, or do they play the role of the Klan? Exactly how do you connect these dots?
The metaphor is a stretch, but that hasn't mattered a bit to Rice's Alabama audiences, which have treated her like homegrown royalty -- or, perhaps, like a supremely successful politician visiting her heartland base.
At the Tuscaloosa airport, Rice was met by a high school band and crowds of happy children waving little American flags. Later in the day, after visiting her old school, she made a stop at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and heard all about the medical center's cutting-edge research programs, none of which seems likely to provoke an international crisis or solve the problems of the Middle East.
Yesterday morning found her back in the vicinity of Oprah's realm, the terrain of self-revelation and personal history that every modern politician must traverse. She spoke at a moving ceremony honoring the four girls killed in the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, one of the galvanizing events of the civil rights movement. One of the girls, Denise McNair, had been Rice's friend. "We played with dolls together," she reminisced.
And in the afternoon, she motorcaded to Tuscaloosa to be present at Bryant-Denny Stadium for the coin toss to kick off the Alabama-Tennessee football game. The setting was perfect: Alabama with its top 10 team, the school's best in years, facing hated rival Tennessee, with its nasty habit of coming into Tuscaloosa and beating back the Crimson Tide. The stadium was filled to the rim with 80,000 screaming fans, and the rest of the city was essentially berserk. Make that the whole state.
Onto the field, amid sheer pandemonium, walked the non-candidate. All she had to do was wave, and everybody cheered.