The economic and political challenges the United States faces are unprecedented but former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice offered a generous serving of optimism with a helping of patriotism to the thousands of REALTORS® gathered Saturday at the 2009 Conference & Expo general session.

REALTORS® know of the economic challenges as well as anyone, she said. Every lost home, every lost job is a tragedy. But the same kind of opportunity that led her great grandfather, an Alabama sharecropper, to get an education and improve his life and the lives of the generations that followed him remain in place today, Rice said, despite the dark headlines.

That's the great optimism of America. In tough times like these it's important to stay optimistic. When you're feeling down, remind yourself of things that once seemed impossible later on seemed inevitable, said Rice, invoking the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Asked by NAR President Charles McMillan the greatest threats the United States faces today, Rice identified the need to improve the education system. The U.S. has got to do better by the least fortunate among us, said Rice, who is now a political science professor and fellow at the Hoover Institution. It's a tragedy that I can look at your ZIP code and tell whether you went to a good school.

Externally, she said, the greatest threat comes from governments that are unable to provide security and freedom for their people. Failed states, not powerful ones, are the ones that endanger us most.

She paid tribute to the men and women who volunteer-volunteer- to defend our freedom and said she remained confident about the country's future.

Rice, who once dreamed of being president of the United States, admitted that many around the world find the optimism of the United States naïve. But I'd rather be naïve than cynical, she said, because a cynical nation cannot lead.

As she walked on stage, McMillan led the audience to a round of Happy Birthday for Rice, who turned 55 years old on Saturday. Rice, an accomplished pianist, responded, I've never before heard 5,000 people sing that song perfectly in tune.

In his farewell speech as NAR president, McMillan offered his own brand of optimism, telling the crowd that he learned everything he needed to know to succeed on behalf of REALTORS® as a child. Among his core lessons: Treat others with unconditional respect and positive regard, act without being judgmental, and find the common ground you have with another person.

Then he bowed to the crowd as they offered him a sustained and heartfelt standing ovation.