WASHINGTON -- An emotional Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reveled Wednesday in Barack Obama's election, calling it an "extraordinary step forward" for the nation.
A child of the segregated deep South who became the highest-ranking African-American woman ever in American government and was once considered a potential Republican presidential nominee, Rice called the Democratic president-elect "inspirational" and said his victory was proof of America's promise.
"This was an exercise in American democracy of which Americans across the political spectrum are justifiably proud," she said.
"As an African-American, I'm especially proud," said Rice, her eyes glistening with emotion, "because this is a country that's been through a long journey, in terms of overcoming wounds and making race" less of a factor in life. "That work is not done, but yesterday was obviously an extraordinary step forward."
"One of the great things about representing this country is that it continues to surprise," she told reporters at the State Department at a hastily arranged briefing just hours before leaving Washington for the Middle East on a peacemaking trip. "It continues to renew itself. It continues to beat all odds and expectations."
Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., at the height of the civil rights struggle, Rice herself overcame numerous obstacles and stereotypical low expectations. She speaks frequently about how improbable her rise to the corridors of power may seem. But she also notes that she succeeded the first black secretary of state, Colin Powell, and the first female to hold the job, Madeleine Albright.
"You just know that Americans are not going to be satisfied until they really do form that perfect union," she said, referring to the preamble of the Constitution, which begins: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union ..."
"And while the perfect union may never be in sight, we just keep working at it and trying," Rice said.
Aides said Rice would likely call Obama, as well as vanquished Republican presidential nominee John McCain, later Wednesday.
She said McCain had been "gracious" in defeat and called him "a great patriot."
"I want to note that President-elect Obama was inspirational and I'm certain he will continue to be," Rice said.
She never said who she planned to vote for, but had hinted broadly that she would support McCain by repeatedly stressing that she is a Republican.