The performer lost in her performance

Condoleezza Rice was my graduate student, and a woman raised to excel. But she failed the American people because she forgot a higher duty than excellence: Truth.

Topics: Al-Qaida

The official story about Condi Rice, supported by her current tête à tête status with President George W. Bush, is that she is a conservative political activist born and bred, raised by a Republican father, whose intellectual development was formed by conservative scholars. There is obviously some truth in this story, because she has indeed joined the right wing. But there’s another side to her history. As her former professor, who taught her at the University of Denver between 1975 and 1979, I am familiar with some of it.

As I watched her performance Thursday before the 9/11 commission, I struggled to reconcile the speaker with the thoughtful young student I knew. But then it struck me that perhaps she had not changed at all.

The glamorous outlines of Condi’s life are well known. She grew up with a father who told her she was a “little star.” She was a concert pianist, a debutante in Denver, and a student of Josef Korbel, the refugee from Communist Czechoslovakia and father of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Condi has always been a dazzling performer. And as her father John Rice predicted, she has risen.

Her intellectual trajectory, however, has not followed the simple, ever-rightward course that the White House myth proclaims. In fact, both Korbel, and especially I, with whom she worked closely, were not only not conservatives, we were quite radical. Korbel was a lawyer and diplomat in the Czech Republic. Unlike many East European émigrés, he grew up a left-wing Social Democrat. Many of his friends were Communists. As Hitler threatened war, he was Czech ambassador to Yugoslavia. From his window, he told me, he would watch working-class marches against Nazism. He feared the workers, he said, but the Communists were the ones who really fought Hitler. He spent World War II in London working for the Czech resistance, writing pro-Stalin press releases: It was, of course, Stalin’s armies that inflicted the decisive defeat against Hitler on the Eastern Front.

After the war, Korbel said, his communist friends told him it was all right “to move up the hill.” Under Stalin, communist officials received high wages compared to ordinary communists and other workers. He thought — as did I — that this practice was corrupt. If communists require special monetary motivation, what is the difference between a communist and a capitalist?

If Jan Masaryk had become president of Czechoslovakia, Josef Korbel would have been secretary of state. The Communist coup of 1948 resulted in his exile. He was the protégé in the United States of the Council on Foreign Relations, who arranged a position at the University of Denver. He then wrote four quite anticommunist books of diplomatic history. But his thoughtfulness and complexity were never far from the surface.

When I came to Denver, Korbel adopted me. After reading my first article in the journal Political Theory, “Salvaging Marx from Avineri,” he had lunch with me, and said, “You are in exile, too.” He did not know the details. As a leader of the 1969 Harvard strike against the Vietnam War, I had been expelled for two years. Korbel liked the idea that there were always countries of exile one could go to, empires one could escape.

Condi took seminars with me on Marx and Marxism, explanations of Nazism and the resistance to it in World War II, Ancient Political Thought, Justice in War, and the like. In a class Korbel and I co-taught on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and Russia, she spoke up in the discussions, but hardly from a conservative point of view. Korbel had designed the Graduate School of International Studies for 25 Ph.D. students. He created a Korbel Plan for a master’s student to work with two advisors on a yearlong independent project instead of taking courses. The only student who did this was Condi. She wrote a long paper with me and Korbel on “Music and Politics in the Soviet Union.”

The main purpose of my teaching is to get people to read carefully. I ask questions about striking evidence that conventional views do not explain. Condi offered her own versions of radical criticisms of mainstream views. She was, and is, unusually thoughtful.

In short, the White House story that she learned Soviet diplomacy from a conservative — Korbel — and that her views, as a student, augured an extreme conservative approach is simply false.

Condi and her friend Chris Gibson had been undergraduates at D.U. At that time, the political science department had a racist on the faculty, of whom they told me a story. At the first class, he had announced: “It is my duty to tell you that Arthur Jensen is right and that blacks are genetically inferior in intelligence to whites.” Condi had stood up and argued with him. Faltering, he said, “You must have a lot of white blood in you.”

Condi comes from the black middle class in Birmingham, Ala. Her family, she said recently, had the attitude that “racists are dumb; I am smart.” She has humiliated other racists who, like this political scientist, have attacked her. But she does not directly attack racist ideology. She adduces herself as evidence of its error. To add to this picture, her father, John Rice, became a vice chancellor at the University of Denver. In the late 1970s, I organized support for Joe Patterson, a black union leader and electrician who was fired by the university. During the campaign, Rice told Jim Singleton, a black painter who supported Patterson, to drop out. “There are whites in the campaign,” he said. Singleton ignored him. These stories suggest the smart and striving Rices.

But John Rice’s story, too, has another side. In 1963, the Ku Klux Klan blew up a church in Birmingham and murdered four schoolgirls. John Rice, the minister, patrolled his neighborhood with a shotgun to prevent further Klan attacks. He had called Condi “little star,” had her taught the piano — she is an excellent pianist — and to be a debutante. She became, in every area, a magnificent performer. But by example, he also taught her how to stand up against racism.

The University of Denver administration of the 1970s permitted John Rice only a narrow scope. “Cooling out” black militancy was part of it. But he also taught a course on Black Nationalism. He invited Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan is an anti-Semite; he inverts racism by criticizing all whites. Yet, Farrakhan and, in a different way, John Rice were very critical of a racism which means that blacks are twice as likely as whites to die at birth, to be unemployed, or to be in the front lines in Iraq. John Rice, too, was a more complex figure than the White House fable about Condi allows.

Two of my students, Condi and Heraldo Munoz, the current Chilean ambassador to the United Nations and recently president of the Security Council, applied for internships with senators. Heraldo worked for Tim Wirth and Condi for Gary Hart, both Democrats. In 1984 and 1988, Condi worked on Hart’s presidential campaigns. Today’s story that she has always been a Republican is simply a myth.

When Condi finished at D.U., my fellow political theorist and friend at Stanford, Nannerl Keohane — now president of Duke University — recruited her to be head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Center. Condi and I joked over the phone about how she had been counted six times for affirmative action purposes — as a black and a woman in the Center, the political science department, and another division which I have now forgotten. She also told me about what a foolish man Casper Weinberger, Reagan’s secretary of defense, was. At Stanford, the main figures in the administration came through. Her job was to show them around. But we then lost touch.

At Stanford, Condi taught students like Jendayi Frazier. After working on Africa for Condi at the National Security Council, Jendayi has recently been appointed American ambassador to South Africa. Jendayi was a candidate for a position in African politics at the Graduate School of International Studies. I strongly supported her. After she was hired, we became friends. According to Jendayi, Condi continued to recommend my book “Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens,” because it gave students a careful picture, of Marx’s surprising, flamboyant public action in the German democratic revolution of 1848.

Initially, Condi and Jendayi were critical of liberal politicians who, needing funds from the rich and support from the mainstream press, compromised their fundamental principles and harmed ordinary people. They were also critical of conservatives. But that position has been subtly inverted over time. A scathing critique of liberal hypocrisies has now become support of, sadly, even more outrageous conservative ones — such as the current American occupation of Iraq in the name of “liberation.”

Condi rose in Washington as an expert in Soviet and East European military positions. She became a protégé of Brent Scowcroft, eventually serving on the National Security Council in George H.W. Bush’s administration. With her new Republican contacts, she was also appointed to the board of Chevron. Chevron named an oil tanker the Condoleezza Rice. It weighs down one’s soul, I suspect, to have a namesake oil tanker — perhaps the next Exxon Valdez — floating heavily somewhere in the ocean. Apparently, she didn’t feel good about it. Since her appointment as national security advisor to the second Bush, the name has been changed.

During the Bush campaign, I wrote Condi a letter. I offered to send her my recent book on the threat of global politics to democracy at home, “Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?” I pointed out that all recent American presidents had refused to sign international agreements like the Land Mine Treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Criminal Court that affirm a common good for most of the people of the world. I didn’t know much about Bush, I wrote, but surely a Republican could break with this practice, and sign a few common good-promoting agreements. After all, I said, the United States no longer has a great power enemy and could lead the world in the quest for peace and the rule of law.

My letter, obviously, was not prescient. Condi did not answer.

How did this comparatively thoughtful person end up missing the threat of al-Qaida? As she grew more conservative, it became useful to her to emphasize only great power politics and military arrangements. She knew Russia and Eastern Europe, but not other areas of the world. She apparently did not — despite Richard Clarke’s and Sandy Berger’s warnings — take al-Qaida seriously. In her testimony on Thursday before the 9/11 commission, she differed with Clarke’s claims that 100 meetings of the “principals” — the main secretaries not including Clarke  occurred without once discussing al-Qaida. There were only 33 meetings, she said. But 33 is many meetings without discussing al-Qaida. This is a minor tangent, not a defense.

Clarke fiercely tried to get al-Qaida before the Bush administration. He was consistently frustrated. Eventually, he and his top three aides, all of whom stayed in the White House at Condi’s request on 9/11, left government service. The Bush administration has undercut — perhaps destroyed — responsible career civil service in many areas. Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill charged that this administration has only political discussions, not policy ones. But worse yet, it may have destroyed its civil service, which is a precondition for serious evidence gathering and deliberation over policy. On 9/11, Condi prepared to give a major speech — on a missile defense system for the United States.

How did Condi end up supporting a diversionary war in Iraq? The 9/11 committee did not ask her to address Clarke’s fundamental charge. Like a “warrior princess” (her aides’ nickname) in a fairy tale, Condi simply ignored it. She was allowed to reiterate lies, for example an elliptical statement that al-Qaida had some connection with Saddam and the bizarre claim that a “strategic” offensive against al-Qaida involved Iraq. She presented no evidence for these claims.

As Paul O’Neill and Richard Clarke have reported, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and Cheney had been determined to overthrow Saddam from the earliest days of the Bush administration. (Clarke was outraged on Sept. 12 when Rumsfeld defended this position by saying there were no good targets in Afghanistan, but lots in Iraq. As Clarke said, it would be as if, after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt had gone to war with Mexico, not Japan.) But Condi is not simply an ideologue: Even in the pressure cooker of war meetings, she probably still noticed that there was no hard evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or was linked to al-Qaida. She must have known that the administration was suppressing counter-evidence from the CIA, the “bulldog” Clarke, and others.

Yet she could not say to her boss and the others: wait a minute. She could not draw a line in defense of principle: the United States’ government must wage the “War on Terrorism” on al-Qaida, not on dictators who had nothing to do with terrorism. If the president is going to launch a “preventive” attack on a sovereign state — a violation of the cardinal ban on aggression, Article 2, section 4 of the United Nations Charter — and send American soldiers to die, at least don’t do it for lies.


Condi has always been a great performer. As a pianist, as an ice skater, as a student, as a provost, as a presidential advisor, she has always been on stage. She adapts her performance to her audience: Josef Korbel and, to some extent, me once upon a time, President Bush now. She can be fierce. Donald Rumsfeld, who waged war in Iraq without a plan for the occupation, lost control to Condi and the National Security Council. But tragically, she is also a person without a core, who loses herself in her performance. National security was her responsibility. She failed in that responsibility because she was too busy perfecting her performance as a Bush team player when the Bush team, obsessed with wild fantasies of global domination, had lost touch with reality.

In contrast, Richard Clarke was not concerned about applause. He saw the threat of al-Qaida. He fought in the Bush bureaucracy to get them to pay attention. As early as the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, he had warned of the threat of planes crashed by terrorists into targets. In frustration at the Bush administration, he resigned his position of over 25 years. He apologized to the American people for 9/11.

As Sen. Kerrey’s questions indicated, Condi refuses to admit any mistakes. She goes on, skating over and over again, blaming turf wars between the CIA and FBI. The Bush administration, she suggests, had no responsibility for dropping the ball on al-Qaida.

Clarke unites what Max Weber called an ethic of responsibility and a visionary ethic of intention. He wanted to fight terror and maintain American liberties.

Condi justified the so-called PATRIOT Act by saying it was necessary to get the FBI and CIA to cooperate. She failed to mention the reactionary nostrums that fill over 300 pages of the act: for instance, spying on books people read at libraries or locking up American citizens without a right to counsel as supposed “enemy combatants” or throwing out the rule of law at Guantánamo.

In a brief statement, Kerrey insisted that the occupation forces could not deal with the current uprising in Iraq with military force. He spoke of it as a “civil war.” (In fact, the Bush occupation has united Sunnis and Shiites in a national insurrection against it.) Condi smiled, and was silent.

Condi’s speaking was rapid and articulate. She is by far the best public face for the Bush administration. She is not the cantankerous Rumsfeld, or Bush who cannot speak cogently about his own administration’s record without a minder, or Cheney the extreme rightwing oilman, or Wolfowitz, the neo-conservative ideologue.

But the fact is inescapable: Condi did not pay attention to al-Qaida before or after 9/11. The Bush administration has stonewalled the 9/11 hearings, postponing them for over two years, because they had a terrible secret to hide.

Even now, the Bush administration is striving to keep Presidential Daily Briefings classified. When Condi and committee members differ sharply over their meaning — when Condi says the Aug. 6 briefing that cited the threat Osama posed to the United States was merely “historical” and required no “action,” and the committee asks in the name of American democracy that the public see the document, she will not declassify it. Perhaps Democratic pressure will force Bush to relent.

It was Condi who led the unheard-of Bush administration attack on Richard Clarke, charging (without addressing his major claims) that this Republican civil servant for four administrations, whom she left in charge of the White House Situation Room on 9/11, was somehow distorting the Bush record. Yet she did not dare — it would have been too obviously untruthful — to attack him before the committee. Perhaps Condi’s performance, which ran on all the major channels, can take voters’ eyes off the fact that due to the invasion of Iraq, al-Qaida has only grown stronger in the past three years. Perhaps Condi can turn our eyes from the fact that the president asked American soldiers to die for lies about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s supposed links to bin Laden. Perhaps Condi can claim that all is well in Iraq while Shiites and Sunnis unite to fight the American occupation and kill American soldiers. The fairy tale continues. The performer skates on.

In Haiti, the Bush administration recently allowed the elected President, Aristide, to be removed by a coup. American Embassy personnel and marines went to Aristide’s home in the middle of night, and forced him to leave for an unidentified destination, which turned out to be the Central African Republic. Through their organization CARICOM, the Caribbean nations have condemned this coup. Jamaica has permitted Aristide to come back to the Caribbean. Prime Minister Patterson has rejected American demands, conveyed by Condoleezza Rice, to force Aristide to leave for Africa.

There are some things that Patterson, like Clarke, will not do. He is willing to pay the price. Sadly, the same thing cannot be said about Condoleezza Rice. She is lost in her performance.

Alan Gilbert is John Evans Professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is author of "Marx's Politics: Communists and Citizens," "Democratic Individuality," and "Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?"

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