Condi Rice

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(HOST) As President Bush begins his second term, Commentator Cheryl Hanna has been thinking about the importance of some of his appointments to the highest levels of government.

(HANNA) I was a teenager when Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister of the United Kingdom. I was too young and uneducated to understand the Falklands War or the ideological underpinnings of Thatcherism. But I would watch her with great admiration, and came to believe that the only reason that I couldn’t be Prime Minister was because, well, I wasn’t British.

I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher during the Senate confirmation hearings of Condelezza Rice. Like Thatcher, Rice is a “first.” She will be the first African-American woman appointed Secretary of State, one of the most important positions in the world. And I’ve been asking myself: What is the significance of her appointment, and the appointments of other “firsts” like Roberto Gonzales, the first Hispanic Attorney General.

Now, let me be clear: I am a blue state kind-of-gal. I don’t agree with most of the President’s agenda, and were I a Senator, I’m not sure I’d vote to confirm Dr. Rice given her rationale for the war in Iraq. But from a non-partisan, non-ideological point of view, I have to admit that I do think Dr. Rice’s appointment is significant.

I find it particularly noteworthy that something as remarkable as an African-American woman becoming Secretary of State has hardly been commented on, even by the President, who, when asked about his appointments, said simply, “I just chose the best person for the job.” Remember, Dr. Rice was born the same year Brown v. Board of Education was decided. In just half a century, most Americans could care less about her demographic profile. What matters most is where she stands on the issues.

That sets up an interesting paradox for me. I understand the limitations of supporting someone based on the color of their skin or that second X chromosome, instead of on her policies. But I can’t dismiss the significance of having role models and people in positions of power who reflect the great diversity of this nation, and of the world, just because they don’t think like I do.

It should not be lost on any of us that we have still not achieved the dreams Dr. Martin Luther King had for a color-blind society. And even though American women have made great strides, African-American women still don’t have the opportunities their white sisters do. World-wide, there are countries where women still have no independent legal status. To me, Dr. Rice’s appointment is a poignant reminder not only of how far we’ve come, but how far we still must go.

There are millions of girls out there who don’t understand the war in Iraq or the long term implications of a first strike policy. Yet, some may be inspired by Dr. Rice to pursue positions of power in their own countries. Here in America, they might now imagine themselves as Secretary of State, or even President. And that’s progress. Because ultimately, the first step towards equal opportunity for everyone, regardless of sex or race, is believing it’s possible.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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