No way to treat a lady

Was the New York Times profile of Condoleezza Rice sexist or just silly?

By Fiona Morgan

Published December 19, 2000 1:00AM (EST)

Retired Gen. Colin Powell's guiding principles on military engagement during the Gulf War created a doctrine of caution that has influenced U.S. peacekeeping efforts ever since, according to Sunday's New York Times. In the Monday Times we also learned crucial news about prospective National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice: She wears a dress size 6.

Let's accept that Times profiles of men may sometimes favor the silly over the substantive. Let's acknowledge that Rice isn't exactly a new figure on the national stage, and the Times has written seriously about her before. It was still shocking, on the day she became the nation's first female national security advisor, to read a profile so heavy on retrograde gender imagery.

"She eats either a bagel or cereal every day for breakfast. She is always impeccably dressed, usually in a classic suit with a modest hemline" -- a modest hemline?! -- "comfortable pumps and conservative jewelry. She keeps two mirrors on her desk at Stanford, apparently to check the back as well as the front of her hair. ('I do try to make sure everything is in place,' she explained.)"

It must be said that Rice and her friends aided and abetted the silliness of the profile. The national security advisor-to-be herself was the source of the fact that her dress size is a 6, but occasionally jumps to an 8, "because of 'muscle mass.'" We learn that she is single, works out on the treadmill and doesn't like dwell on "life crises."

The condescending tone of the piece is like one of those local TV news segments spotlighting a local girl who made good. ("Her father, who still calls his daughter 'little star,' lives close by her in Palo Alto with his second wife.") "Condi was raised first and foremost to be a lady," offers Colin Powell.

Between the lines of the heavy-on-trivialities profile, one can see glimmers of a fascinating but enigmatic subject. Born in 1954 in segregated Birmingham, Ala., she clearly had to overcome a great deal in order to achieve her duly noted career success -- not the least of which was the treadmill grind of many upwardly mobile black families in that crushing era. She was pressed into piano mastery, French and Spanish lessons, even competitive ice skating, all in childhood. It's not clear which is sadder: The fact that George W. Bush hates to read because he never took book-learning seriously, or the fact that Rice doesn't read for pleasure because her parents made her read so much growing up that reading is a chore.

No doubt her personality, as portrayed in the Times profile, has a good bit to do with her success in government -- but the profile really doesn't connect the dots. Is it relevant that she's a little lady who "gushes Southern charm"? That she's "captivating -- without ever appearing confessional or vulnerable"? We do learn that the spunky and petite charmer managed to physically block future Russian President Boris Yeltsin from leaving the room during negotiations with an advisor to then-President George Bush -- which the Times credits to a "spine of steel" masked by charm and a "girlish laugh." She comes across an obsessive hall monitor, a teacher's pet so thoroughly compliant that even the teacher gets freaked out by her rigid attachment to the role.

But we read nothing about her experience and positions on national security until the story's 27th paragraph, not quite the very end. The Times features no one who worked with Rice at Stanford, where (according to reports in the San Jose Mercury News, among other places) she earned a reputation as a tyrant. Nor does the profile quote anyone who criticizes Rice's positions on peacekeeping in the Balkans (she's against it) or national missile defense (she's for it).

The article does mention that during the campaign she terrorized Bush staffers into not talking to the press about national security issues. If we're going to see that vital subject kept tightly under wraps by an obsessive perfectionist who does not believe in the open exchange of information, then that -- not her dress size -- is what we should know.

The only thing we can tell for sure from the Times is that Rice is one piece of work. I don't look forward to watching her play the lady to the good ol' boys she works for, Bush and Dick Cheney. Southern girls learn early that honey catches more flies than vinegar, but we'd hoped there were more important qualifications for becoming national security advisor -- which you wouldn't necessarily know from reading the Times.

Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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