For people with a palate for intellectual, social and physical nourishment, the annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture at UCLA is a not-to-be-missed event.
The lecture is one of the global events sponsored by the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established by Judea and Ruth Pearl after the death of their son, a brilliant Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan in 2002.
In past years, the lecture series has hosted speakers of the caliber of journalists and authors Thomas Friedman, Ted Koppel, Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour, The New Yorker editor David Remnick as well as the late Daniel Schorr and Christopher Hitchens, who generally discussed their world views and values.
Last week, the featured attraction was Condoleezza Rice, introduced by retired Gen. Wesley Clark as the country’s 66th secretary of state — only the second woman and first African-American woman to hold the post — as well as a Rhodes scholar, accomplished musician and now political science professor at Stanford.
During the reception before the event, Rice stood patiently for half an hour as wave after wave of admirers sought to have their pictures taken with the honored guest.
At the podium, Rice proved herself a polished speaker with an impressive arsenal of facts, who recalled movingly her own sense of shock and disbelief when confirmation of Daniel Pearl’s murder reached the State Department.
In a survey of past and present American foreign policy, Rice noted that in the Muslim Middle East, Washington had too often opted for stability under autocratic rulers over freedom for their people.
She also criticized this country’s “cultural paternalism,” which mistakenly has held in some instances that the people of Africa and Latin America are not yet developed enough to live under a democratic system.
However, the general tone of her talk often veered toward that of a Fourth of July peroration, in which American exceptionalism is seen as the only guarantor of freedom, since no other country would be willing to carry such a burden.
“The United States is extraordinarily willing to sacrifice for others,” she declared, while also lauding this country as a worldwide champion of human rights.
During George W. Bush’s presidency, Rice served as national security adviser during his first term, and as secretary of state during his second term.
While her performance in the two posts had many supporters, she has also been criticized for her roles, real or alleged, in advocating the invasion of Iraq, waterboarding and other forms of torture on real and suspected terrorists, and in general lowering America’s prestige abroad during her tenure.
Given such a mixed background, it might have been expected that university students in the humanities would have lobbed a few pointed questions at the speaker.
However, when the audience was invited to participate after the lecture, the students — given first crack at questioning Rice — politely stuck to bland, technical queries, easily fielded by the accomplished speaker.