[Mike asks] SIZE="+2">Growing up in the Bronx, what was your most memorable experience, and
how did it shape you?
I never answer questions like that for this
reason:Everybody always wants to know what's the worst or most memorable thing that's happened to
me, my greatest achievement, my greatest failure. Life doesn't come at you that way. I have had
many memorable occasions, many memorable things happened to me growing up in the Bronx and in my
public career. I think that life, especially for young people, should be taken as a total
experience. You should not always be looking for these turning points.
were many turning points in my life, though. The thing that always comes to me late at night when
I'm thinking about my growing up years is the sense of close family. I was not anything to speak of
as a teenager and without my close family who believed in me, I wouldn't have gotten out of the
I wouldn't have been put on a road that brought me to this point without
mentors. And not mentors in the sense of, "You're my mentor, " which is very
popular now. It was those people who passed through my life as a teenager, whether it was
the gentleman who hired me to work in his toy store, or the guy who ran the drugstore on the corner
who would always stop and talk to me; I wanted to be a pharmacist though I realized I wasn't going
to be able to do that.
And so, life comes at you this way. But the most
memorable part of growing up in the Bronx was a strong network consisting of family, neighbors and
friends in a very diverse environment that said to me, You may not be showing that much potential
now, but we believe in you.
[Maria asks] You have helped set
up programs to assist children in America. Some people believe that if they don't have basic needs
they may grow up angry or violent. Do you think poverty could be something future terrorists use to
manipulate and recruit disadvantaged teens?
Not in America; we don't
really have a terrorist experience. People who become terrorists in America are
[Maria asks] But in other countries, do you
Other countries ... anybody who ultimately sees no future, no
hope in their political system or economic system, could potentially be a
And so, in any society, you have to invest in your children, you have
to educate them, you have to give them role models, you have to raise them. You cannot have a
functioning society that does not raise its children. Adults have to care for them, provide safe
places, education, healthcare, food.
The most basic necessities in life are
required to raise a child, and without them, a child grows up stilted, grows up with a propensity
for the wrong kind of behavior, and is on the path to getting in trouble.
this lead to terrorism? Yes, but at the same time, it's not the only thing that can lead to
terrorism. Look at Osama bin Laden; he has no roots in poverty, he grew up rich, but somewhere
along the line he went down a path that made him a terrorist.
All the terrorists
who came here to conduct their activities on the 11th of September were middle-class,
educated people who had nothing to do with poverty; they had fallen for a false, evil ideology and
[Olga asks] As Secretary of State, you have
to withstand amazing pressure. How do you sleep at night, knowing the decisions you make influence
so many people within the United States and across the world? How do you put up with
Because you have to. I've been doing things like this for many
years, so I have learned to deal with the pressure in a number of ways. One, there will be a new
crisis tomorrow; two, make sure you get a good night's sleep.
I was trained in
the military that no matter what's going on, get your rest, because you're the one who has to have
a clear head. I cannot afford not to get my rest; I could not afford not to take care of
myself physically, because I have to be there.
When I leave here in the
evening, I usually take home several hours of work, but I go home to a wife who's been there for 40
years. And there's a constancy and stability in my life with the people who have been there for all
these years, and no matter what's go-ing on in the office, what crisis is under way, who is calling
me all kinds of names, or what kind of criticism I'm subjected to, I go home to an environment that
is mentoring, that is a safe place.
Adults need these things just as much as
young people do; I try to keep a balance in my life, I try to remember that my job is to do the
best I can. I'm not Superman. I'm just an average guy trying to do the best I can at the job I've
Whenever the pressure gets too hard, I always think of
Jefferson's first inaugural address. It's a wonderful speech where he gives the most perfect
description of the Democratic system you can imagine.
As he ends his address, he
says something about selfless service. He said, "I go now -" this is not exact -
"I go now to the task that you have put before me, knowing that it is in your power to make
a better choice" - meaning you could do better than me, but you've chosen me, and so I'm
going to do the job to the best of my ability. I can do no more, I will do no
Those words tend to keep me anchored when the newspapers are bothering me,
or things are not going well. And you have to keep that balance in your life, you need something
other than work; you need family, you need friends, and you need your own self. What keeps me
stable now are the things that kept me stable in the Bronx 50 years
[Mike asks]I am part Native American, and there are
certain scholarships I can apply for because of my background, but I feel it's wrong to do this. Do
It depends on the nature of the scholarship. First of all,
people who create scholarships can decide how the money will be used, so I think each scholarship
should be looked at on its own terms. Is it an honest motivation that's consistent with the
principles and values of our country?
If somebody says that you are to receive
this because you are a Native-American Indian or Hispanic or Asian-American, and the scholarship is
put forward as a way of compensating for past failures to invest in these communities, I don't
find that inappropriate but, frankly, quite noble.
In European history, we just learned about Peter the Great, and for some reason
he fascinates me, as does Rasputin. What historical figure interests
I am interested in many historical figures, but there are two
that I keep referring to. One I've already mentioned is Thomas Jefferson, the other is former
Secretary of State George Marshall.
Their ability to communicate a vision, and
their concepts of selfless service to the nation have always intrigued me. I tend to look more for
my inspiration from American history than European history - not that I'm unfamiliar with European,
Asian and other history, but in terms of historical figures whom I watch the most and get
inspiration from, I'd say Jefferson and Marshall.
To some extent, George
Washington would be one also, except he was a different kind of historical figure, he was a doer,
not a thinker; he didn't leave a lot for us to read, although he had some beautiful addresses, but
his is not quite the same legacy as Jefferson's.
A contemporary figure is Martin
Luther King, of course, but I think you were referring to historical figures and Martin, although
marvelous, isn't quite historical yet; he will be in time.
Many of my friends are worried about terrorist acts after the whole 9/11 shock. Is there
anything teenagers can really do to prevent these things from happening, or contribute to helping
the nation deal with it?
I think remaining alert, being
prudent, watching what's going on in your community, watching - there may be fellow students who are
having problems that could lead to the kinds of behavior we saw so vividly in Colorado, or young
people of the kind that produced the Oklahoma City bomber.
We have domestic
terrorism; it has nothing to do with ideology, it just has to do with a sick
So, I think teenagers should be on the lookout for young people who seem
to be having the kinds of problems that if addressed now, you could avoid real
I don't like to think that teenagers in America are walking around
afraid; they're more likely to get killed in a car accident than by
We are going to have to live with terrorism; we've had it before,
we'll have to live with it in a new way for many years to come, and we should protect ourselves and
be alert, but we cannot walk around afraid.
[Mike asks] About
a year ago, I participated in a play where one of the props was a meat cleaver. When a
friend brought in this plastic prop, he was suspended for many days. Is a zero tolerance policy too
severe in some cases?
Without knowing all the circumstances or your
school policy, I would say that every school and community has to judge what is acceptable
There are instances - and I don't want to use yours without knowing
more - where it crosses the line of reasonableness, when you're so hypersensitive that you are
making youngsters too afraid of consequences. Eventually you're going to have to have some
exceptions, so I tend to avoid zero tolerance, zero anything.
I believe that if
you put in place leaders in schools and other community activities who have a sense of balance
and perspective and are not running afraid all the time, you can usually find the right answer to
There is also, in public life, a tendency to slam the pendulum too
hard to one side or the other as you're dealing with a problem, but Americans are very
common-sensical people. A famous Frenchman once said "If given enough time, even Americans
will usually find the right answer. " [laughter] And we usually do; we're exceptionally
good at problem-solving.
So, even though this might have been an overreaction,
I suspect that more sensible policies will prevail in
[Maria asks] Even though there's not much of a
problem with racism and religious tolerance in my school, there's definitely one when it comes to
homophobia. Do you think racism, religious discrimination and discrimination against homosexuals
should be treated equally?
I think any form of discrimination has to
be looked at. As you know, the military has the policy, "Don't ask, don't tell, "
so that somebody who is openly homosexual does not serve. I'm an advocate of that policy, I helped
put that policy in place and I'm accused, therefore, of supporting homophobia.
But I think it's a different matter with respect to the military because you're essentially told
who you're going to live with, who you're going to sleep next to, and it's a different set of
circumstances in a military environment.
Out of a military environment, in a
school, I think any act that suggests someone should be discriminated against or in some way
stigmatized because of their racial background, ethnic background or sexual preference is
Here in the State Department, sexual preference makes
no difference; we have gay ambassadors and employees throughout the Department. I don't know who
they are and it's none of my business, as long as they do
[Olga asks] On the lighter side, hundreds of
people in my school want to know about your relationship with President Bush. The media gives us the
sense that you have your own struggles with each other. How close are you with the President after
the meetings are over; do you have a couple of beers and watch football games
He doesn't drink.
[Olga asks] How about Christmas
He hasn't sent me anything yet.
We're very close; we were together last night at a diplomatic
reception. Laura and I are on a first-name basis and have been for years, as are my wife Alma and
He and I joke a lot; we're from different backgrounds, and I'm quite a
bit older than the President. Yeah, don't laugh. [laughter] But we have a lot of fun, we tell
jokes, we kid with each other.
[Olga asks] Anything you want
to tell us about?
Oh, no. [laughter]
We rib each
other a lot; I wore cowboy boots the other day when it was snowing, just to have fun with him, and
he said, "Are you really wearing cowboy boots?"
He is the
Texas guy - he is the Crawford, Texas guy - and within the administration, I am the
"white-wine swilling Hamptons guy. " They go to Texas for their vacation and I go
to the Hamptons, so we're different - our backgrounds are different.
terms of our relationship, it is fine, despite what you read in the newspapers; if what you read in
the newspapers were true, I wouldn't be here, because he would have seen to
But we get along just fine, and I won't repeat what he said at the
diplomatic reception last night, because I'm too modest. [laughter] He and I get along just
What makes news is not just issues, but people. Personalities make news.
You can't write a book without having dramatic conflict between people. And so, the press loves to
find tension and debate and conflict between people in order to have a story. And guess what? We
Mr. Cheney and I have worked together for years; he used to be my boss
when I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and he was Secretary of Defense; Don Rumsfeld and I
have known each other for 25 years, he was Secretary of Defense when I was a colonel; there's a
great picture in my book of me saluting him. Dr. Rice and I have worked together for years; the
President and I have known each other for a shorter period of time, but I've known him since his
father was President.
And so, we know each other. There was a great line in
an article recently about all this so-called fighting that's going on, that said, "They
know each other, they like each other, and they trust each other well enough to fight with each
We're supposed to sharpen the edges of debate, we are supposed
to argue with each other, we are supposed to examine issues fully and without filters to help the
President with issues.
So, if Don Rumsfeld comes from one point of view and I
come from another, and the Vice President does and the Director of Central Intelligence George
Tenet does, and we argue and debate and fight about it, this doesn't mean the place is
falling apart, it means it's working.
Creative tension and finding consensus
and compromise are essential hallmarks of the American political system.
it on the Hill all the time with the Democrats and the Republicans arguing, so it shouldn't
surprise anybody that it happens within an administration.
The beauty of it is
that we have a President who is strong enough to deal with personalities and their strong points of
view that often differ but coexist within his administration. The reason he can do it is
because he's strong enough to make the decisions that we all then execute. I think the nation is
served well when you have a strong President and Cabinet officers who have strong views and are
willing to argue those views.
I've said to the President, "You don't
pay me to give you happy talk, you pay me to tell you what I
I've told this to many of my bosses over the years -if you
don't want me to tell you what I think, then you need to find somebody else, because if you ask me
a question, I'm going to answer it, and it's kind of irrelevant to me whether you like the answer.
I hope you like it (that's always preferable).
This is also good advice for
young people - you've got to learn early to stand up for what you believe and take the
consequences; speak your mind, speak the truth as you see it. It may not be right, but if it's
what you think, and you have the courage of your convictions, then you ought to standup and speak
to those convictions, not with the promise of reward - which you may not get. In fact, you might
get punished, but you'll be rewarding yourself when you look in the mirror.
sometimes you will fail; one thing I wanted to talk about and kids should talk about, is how young
people should deal with failure.
I find too many young people don't fail often
enough, and therefore they're not learning, they're not experiencing something you have
to experience early in life to be successful later. How do you deal with the days that go bad, when
things are just awful, and you go to bed and don't want to getup the next morning, but you've got
to get up - how do you deal with it, how do you deal with failure?
don't put our young people in situations often enough where they're allowed to fail. When you fail,
that's how you gain experience, and hopefully with enough experience, you don't fail as
often, although I haven't proven that point
[Olga asks] One last
thing, between the two of us. Turn off the microphone. Area 51, is it for
Wait a minute, now, you're not talking about spooky people
in Roswell, New Mexico?
[Olga says] We just had
to ask that.
That's burning in the minds of teenagers out
There are no little green people in Roswell, New
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.