condoleeza_rice.jpgIn her newly released political memoir, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she regrets that she took a vacation to New York instead of staying in Washington to advise President George W. Bush on Hurricane Katrina. And she staunchly defends the former president against charges that prejudice or racism dictated his administration’s response in the aftermath of the storm.

Nearly 2,000 people, most of them African Americans, died in the Aug. 30, 2005, hurricane. The absence of a timely federal response to send help and maintain order led to criticisms from black community leaders, some of whom questioned whether the administration would have acted quicker and better had the storm affected primarily white neighborhoods.

“Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race,” Rice said she told the press in Mobile, Ala., following the storm. “I am to this day appalled that it was necessary to say it,” she said in her 734-page memoir, No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington.

Even though she had been on vacation for just a day, Rice said it had been important for her to return to Washington.

“I wasn’t just secretary of state with responsibility for foreign affairs. I was the highest-ranking black in the administration and a key advisor to the president. I am still mad at myself for only belatedly understanding my own role and responsibilities in the crisis.”

Rice, who made the University of Miami in Coral Gables the first stop on a national book tour, did not discuss her remorse over Katrina at the Nov. 3 presentation. But she did field questions on a range of issues in a press conference and later in a 45-minute discussion with UM President Donna Shalala, who served as secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton.

Topics included current events in Greece and Syria, as well as immigration reform and conflicts in Cuba and other parts of Central America, Latin America and the Middle East.

 In front of an audience of about 900 at the BankUnited Center Fieldhouse, the two former secretaries sat on stage in yellow fabric wing chairs and discussed Rice’s book.

Many attendees had reserved autographed copies, an arrangement through Coral Gables-based Books & Books. Owner Mitch Kaplan collaborated with UM to sponsor the event, part of the Charles E. Cobb Leadership Lecture Series at the university.

Some of Shalala’s questions were submitted by students.

 “How do you become a secretary of state?” one student asked.

Rice suggested pursuit of a passion, not a job or a career, and having role models.

“Your mentors, your role models, can come in any color, shape or size. Just find somebody who really cares about you and cares about your career. If I had been waiting for a black female Soviet specialist, I would still be waiting today,” she said, in an apparent reference to her special field of study.

Clernicole Volmeus, 25, and her cousin, Kerline Dameus, 23, were the first in line for Rice’s presentation. She is their role model, the Haitian-American women said.

“I look up to her; I’ve always respected her as a strong black woman,” said Volmeus, a senior political science major at Florida International University and a Miami Gardens resident. “She shows us that, no matter the position, it is possible to achieve it.”

Added Dameus of Boynton Beach, a graduate student in public administration at Florida Atlantic University. “For some the American dream does not exist. She is bringing hope to the younger generation.”

Rice, 56, whom Shalala called “one of the 21st century’s chief architects of American foreign policy,” served on President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council staff as a Soviet specialist from 1989-1991. She became the nation’s first female national security advisor from 2001-2005 during George W. Bush’s first term. She served as secretary of state from 2005-09, the nation’s second woman and first African-American woman to be appointed to that post.

Rice is now the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution and a professor of political economy and political science at Stanford University, where she had served as provost from 1993 to 1999. Only 38 at the time, she was the first female, first minority and the youngest provost in Stanford’s history.

Photo: Condoleezza Rice