Condoleeza Rice on Katrina: 'I should have known better'

theGRIO REPORT - Rice defends Bush's response to Katrina, even though in her book she writes that as the situation worsened, she told the president, 'we clearly have a race problem'...

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Condoleezza Rice says she “should have known better” than to leave Washington as Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans in 2005, writing in her book, and admitting in a telephone interview Wednesday with theGrio, that she let the president down.

In her book, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington, former George W. Bush National Security Advisor and the nation’s 66th Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice chronicles the highs and the lows of her time in the Bush administration, describing her pivotal role in shaping policy and trying to stave off crises at the White House. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, she admits she didn’t succeed at the latter.

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Rice defends Bush’s response to Katrina, even though in her book she writes that as the situation worsened, she told the president, “we clearly have a race problem.” Rice, now a Stanford University professor, says despite that acknowledgment, Bush got a bad rap on the subject of race and the devastation of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.

“It still makes me angry that people would even think that he [President Bush] would let people suffer because they were black.”

Rice is falling on her sword over the problems leading up to, during and after Katrina. Like others in the Bush administration, she was on vacation when the storm hit in August 2005, writing in her book that as she shopped at the exclusive Ferragamo shoe store in New York, then went back to her hotel to watch television, all the while receiving updates from her State Department contacts, she didn’t think much about the dire warning of an approaching hurricane called Katrina.

Rice now says that was a mistake.

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“I should have known better than to leave for New York with that Hurricane approaching for the south for New Orleans,” she said. “Yes, I was Secretary of State. That was very much on my mind. I was one of the president’s closest advisors and the highest ranking African-American. I really do feel I let him down in the first days of Katrina.”

Rice was not the only Bush administration official on vacation at that time. Many White House staff were on summer break. Some were in Greece for a fellow staffer’s wedding. And Bush was away too, celebrating Sen. John McCain’s 69th birthday in Arizona.

“Many people probably should have been in Washington,” Rice said. “I can only account for myself.”

Rice described what she did once she returned to Washington.

“I thought my responsibility was to make sure our passport offices were going to continue to function. We had a big passport center in New Orleans, and [I wanted] to make sure our people were going to be safe. We were getting all this foreign assistance from around the world so I set up a way to deal with that. I did not want the United States to appear arrogant saying we don’t need help. Afghanistan sent us $100,000. It was a very nice gesture.”

During that time the Cuban government also offered help for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. But Rice declined on behalf of the U.S.

Cuba’s proposed help “came with certain strings attached is the short answer. It was really important that countries that were offering sincerely be taken up on it.”

While she deflects blame away from Bush and onto herself for the Katrina aftermath, Rice believes she did some things right. “I think ultimately I helped bridge tensions with the African American community,” she said, chronicling how she went to a Gulf Coast church after Katrina and saying she kept a continual line of communication open with then NAACP chief Bruce Gordon.

The NAACP was one of the first organizations, before the cameras caught the pictures, to detail how African-Americans were being affected by the New Orleans levy break.

Rice says funds raised for Katrina also went to help the college community there.

“Monies were set up for a fund to help some of the small colleges in New Orleans, to include some of the HBCU’s like Xavier.”

On issues of African foreign Policy, Rice said she hoped there would be an effort by Congress and the Barack Obama administration to “maintain continuity.”

“The president’s policy in Africa, the AIDS Relief Program, The Millennium Challenge, the quadrupling of foreign assistance in Africa … those seem to be more threatened particularly in types of budget scarcity.”

“On Africa, Liberia and Haiti, we actually used American forces that has been forgotten, to help the Liberians oust Charles Taylor,” Rice said. And she said Bush had an interest in Africa from the start.

“We talked a lot really, even before he ran for the Presidency, about the potential of the African Continent,” she said. “He was one of the first people to say we should have debt forgiveness for entirely indebted countries and so forth.”

And Rice said Bush’s efforts were under-appreciated, and not just regarding Africa.

“As for the black community, I thought there was not a strong enough acknowledgment of what we did in Africa,” she said. “But also, he had the one mind of education that really resonated with me; that every child needed to be able [to learn] and it was the soft bigotry of low expectations that was preventing that.”

Turning to politics, Rice also talked about Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, saying Cain “has a kind of interesting background.” [The interview took place Wednesday morning, as new details had just begun to leak about sexual harassment allegations against the candidate.]

“So let him be out there,” she said of Cain. “Let him get tested like everybody else. Our politics can be a little rough, but we want to see people when they are under pressure; when they are under stain, because if they ever do acquire the Oval Office — the keys to the Oval Office — there’s going to be under a lot of pressure and a lot strain.”

When asked if she would ever run for president Rice says, “I am a policy person, not a politician. So you won’t see me there.”

This originally appeared on ‘American Urban Radio Networks’ on Thursday, November 3rd