"Besides, she's really smart!"

The State Department may not be a natural fit for Rice, despite the president's confidence in his closest advisor.


Julian Borger
November 17, 2004 8:48PM (UTC)

Condoleezza Rice's 500-meter move from the White House to the State Department is a supreme act of vindication by a president who believes he has the popular will behind him. Under Colin Powell, the State Department has been the lone unruly province in George W. Bush's kingdom, paying dutiful lip service to his authority while whispering multilateralist sedition. Restored with a clear majority vote, Bush has dealt with the nagging problem in imperious fashion, dispatching a courtier so close to him as to be almost Bush royalty.

Rice, who turned 50 on Sunday, has been tutoring Bush on foreign policy since 1998. She quickly emerged as the leader of the self-styled "Vulcans" who met at the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, to craft a conservative strategy for the world, and it was clear that the then Texas governor had taken a shine to the elegant academic who shared his obsession with sports. "She's fun to be with," Bush said at the time. "I like lighthearted people, not people who take themselves so seriously. Besides, she's really smart!"

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As national security advisor for four years, Rice has been indispensable and constantly available. She has no other life, she has never married, and a handful of dates with eligible men organized by well-meaning friends have led nowhere romantically. She spends many of her weekends at Camp David with the president, watching baseball and football and doing jigsaw puzzles with the first family. Her only time off appears to be occasional sessions playing the piano with a classical music group in Washington.

At a dinner party with some senior journalists in the spring of this year, her dedication to Bush was revealed in an extraordinary Freudian slip. "As I was telling my husb-" she blurted, before correcting herself to say, "As I was telling President Bush." It says a lot about the prim reputation of both that hardly anyone in gossip-ridden Washington interpreted the slip as a sign of a romantic connection.

As Bush campaigned for reelection, Rice's colleagues and friends were suggesting that she was longing to get away and get a life of her own. She even mused publicly about becoming the commissioner of the National Football League. Before the election, a long-standing friend confidently predicted she would go back to academia, unless she got the Defense Department.

But there was to be no vacancy at the Pentagon. It is unclear what induced Rice to agree to take a job she privately said she was not keen on, but she is not the sort of person to turn down a direct request from the president. She may also have found it hard to turn down the opportunity to become the first black woman to fill a post that first belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Nevertheless, the State Department is hardly a natural fit for a woman who has always been more interested in the exercise than the balance of power.

She was born in Birmingham, Ala., and her early years were spent amid the turmoil of the civil rights battles. A young schoolmate was killed when white supremacists blew up a black church, and her father, a college teacher, had to patrol the streets to protect their middle-class neighborhood.

The young Condoleezza (the name derives from the musical term con dolcezza, which means "to play with sweetness") leapt high over every social and racial barrier. She was a prodigy -- a pianist who gave her first recital by the age of 4, an accomplished skater and a precocious intellect accepted by the University of Denver to study political science at 15. It was Josef Korbel, a Czech immigrant and Madeleine Albright's father, who inspired her interest in international politics. She wrote her thesis on the Czech armed forces and became a Sovietologist at Stanford University.

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It was Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to the first President Bush, who spotted her talent. She became an influential cold warrior in the first Bush White House just as the Cold War was ending and the Soviet Union was about to collapse.

She has been faulted, and has faulted herself, for failing to keep up with the pace of change in the eastern bloc. The first Bush White House clung to the integrity of the Soviet Union almost longer than Moscow itself, and stuck by Mikhail Gorbachev even after it became apparent that Boris Yeltsin represented Russia's future. Rice's critics say she failed to learn from that mistake, and was still fixated on Russia and China in the first few months of the younger Bush's administration. In his devastating account of that period, her former counterterrorism expert, Richard Clarke, lambasted her for failing to organize a Cabinet-level meeting on the al-Qaida threat until September 2001.

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On Iraq, Rice played both sides of the argument. She promoted an aggressive line against Baghdad but also gave tacit support for Powell's insistence on taking the issue to the United Nations.

On the few occasions that she flexed her White House muscle -- taking over postwar planning for Iraq from the Pentagon and U.S. policy in the Israel-Palestinian conflict -- the results were poor. Now, the move to the State Department will entail taking on even greater responsibility.


Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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