As Condoleezza Rice prepares to take over the US State Department from Colin Powell, Paul Harris investigates the girl from Alabama who has risen to become the Bush family’s ultimate insider
Condoleeza Rics puts a high price on loyalty, but the most valuable is certainly her own. Her unwavering devotion to President George W Bush will reap its most glittering reward this week when she takes over the State Department, becoming the most powerful black American woman in history and the world’s best-known diplomat.
Her rise to the top is a remarkable story of superhuman tenacity and single-mindedness. At its heart lies an unshakeable belief in her own ability to succeed and a ruthless dedication to advancing herself. It is a story of a life that began in the Deep South of a segregated America and has now reached the innermost sanctums of White House politics.
But it is a story that is only just beginning. For Rice’s latest assignment is fraught with danger. She is tasked with bringing the State Department firmly in hand, stifling the barely concealed dissent that marked the tenure of Colin Powell. It will not be easy and is likely to spark the most fierce bout of Washington infighting in years. But for Bush the job is vital. The State Department must be brought to heel. It is Rice’s job to win that battle for her boss.
‘Can Rice transform the State Department into an obedient tool of the administration? That is the only question in town,’ said Larry Haas, a Washington commentator and former official in the Bill Clinton White House. If she does, the Bush administration will at last be a united and monolithic bloc. The last whiff of internal dissent will have been snuffed out. Rice is in the fight of her life.
At the same time, Rice is inheriting a complex brief that spans a troubled world. The meat grinder of the Iraq war is an ever-present factor. Within days of her taking over the job, Iraqis will go the polls in what will either be a vindication of America’s decision to invade or a blood-soaked disaster. The threat of Iran and North Korea looms. Relations with the United Nations and ‘Old Europe’ are tattered and torn.
Not that Rice is nervous. She has been keeping two offices in recent weeks. One is deep in the heart of the White House, the other a ‘transition office’ on the first floor of the State Department a short stroll away on Washington’s C Street. But, starting this week, she will be in ‘transition’ no more. Friends who met her last week say she is relaxed and affable. Her familiar calm demeanour is unruffled by troubles ahead. ‘She was excited, but was the same old person. She was relaxed and happy and had a lot of time to chat,’ one friend said.
That is the Condoleezza Rice way. She is like a swan on a lake. All poise and grace on the surface, but beneath the water Rice paddles furiously, ruthlessly carving out a place at Bush’s right hand.
But who is Condoleezza Rice? When she sits down this week before the Senate for the confirmation hearings that will clear her for the job, the panel of aged politicians will see an enigma. She has risen to the highest ranks of Washington by being the ultimate insider who has the ear of Bush like no other power player in the capital. Yet Rice has remained firmly outside the whirl of Washington life. She lives alone and rarely, if ever, socialises on the ‘circuit’.
She comes from a tradition of academic study rooted in Ivy League universities, yet is a key part of an administration which has openly disdained such elites. She is central to one of the most radical Republican governments in recent American history, yet many liberals like her.
‘I am a flaming liberal,’ laughed one of her friends, ‘but she is so bright and intelligent. I just think her views are not really represented in this administration.’ That is debatable to say the least. Rice is undoubtedly deeply conservative, but part of her genius is in persuading many liberals that she secretly might be one of them.
Rice is also a black American, yet race is rarely if ever mentioned when discussing her rise to power. In a race-obsessed society, that is an enigma. Perhaps the secret lies in her childhood in the segregated Deep South of Alabama when her home town of Birmingham was marred by racial violence and dubbed ‘Bombingham’. For Rice’s family did not embrace the civil rights movement in the way many other Southern blacks did. They came from a different tradition which held that simple hard work, discipline and education would bring the American Dream to black America. Her family was solidly middle class, with a father who worked as a school guidance counsellor and part-time minister and a mother who was a teacher.
She was raised intensely as an only child of a couple who came to parenthood late. A young Rice performed in church, took piano lessons, learnt to play the flute, spoke fluent French and skipped two grades in school. Her parents stressed advancement through achievement, not through fighting any racial injustice.
Despite everything, it would be wrong to say that Rice has little awareness of racial politics. ‘She has no time for black people who are constantly talking about race, but that does not mean she has removed all consciousness of her race,’ said Nicholas Lemann, a writer who has interviewed Rice several times.
Several anecdotes exemplify Rice’s attitude to her race and also her ferocity when attacked. She famously told one interviewer: ‘Let me explain to you: I speak French, I play Bach, I’m better in your culture than you are.’
On another occasion, when Rice was an academic at Stanford, she was shopping for expensive jewellery with a friend when a white clerk made some hostile comments. ‘Let’s get one thing straight,’ Rice reportedly told him. ‘You’re behind the counter because you have to work for six dollars an hour. I’m on this side asking to see the good jewellery because I make considerably more.’
Rice was a stellar performer at high school, helped by iron discipline that saw her ignore any idea of rebellion or slacking off. ‘If she had children, they would call her ma’am and salute. She has a quasi-military approach,’ Lemann said.
She was certainly a young woman in a hurry to achieve. Her family moved to Denver when she was a teenager and she enrolled at the local university at 15. It was there she gave up dreams of becoming a concert pianist and discovered a new passion: international relations. That in turn led to an academic career, specialising in the Soviet Union, that eventually brought her into contact with politics and the Bush family. When Bush appointed her as his National Security Adviser she was already familiar to him from stays at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.
From there it has been her incredibly close relationship to Bush that has defined her continued rise. She is the paragon of discretion and quiet service to her President. ‘There is little daylight between Rice and Bush. It is hard to think of anyone closer to him,’ said Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the Riverside Campus of the University of California.
Like Bush, Rice was all transformed by the experience of 11 September, 2001. That day wiped out any remnant of the ‘Old School’ Rice who had spent years steeped in academia and the Cold War. ‘Before 9/11 Rice probably would have been many diplomats’ dream of a Secretary of State,’ said Lemann. ‘After 9/11 she was transformed into someone tackling a very new world.’
Loyalty is now probably what best describes the secret of Rice’s success. Not for her the almost public spats with Donald Rumsfeld that marred Powell’s term of office. Not for her the secret briefings to the press or the thinly veiled attacks on her colleagues. But also not for her the terrible isolation that Powell suffered. When it comes to the real decisions over the next four years, Rice will be at the heart of it all. She will bring the ideology of the White House right into the State Department. That is why she was appointed. ‘Appointing Rice is bringing the White House into State, not bringing State into the White House,’ said Bowler.
That will antagonise many of the Powellite ‘Old Guard’ in the State Department, who long for a world before the war on terror, the invasion of Iraq and the dawn of the neocons. It is up to Rice to steamroller that opposition and make her department an effective tool of pushing the Bush doctrine around the world. ‘She has a huge job ahead of her,’ said Haas. ‘State usually has a severe reluctance to ruffle feathers across the globe – but this is clearly a feather-ruffling administration.’
So far, however, Rice’s first moves have struck a note of caution. Her appointment of the pragmatic Robert Zoellick as her deputy is a traditional move, especially as it passed over the ambitions of the hawkish John Bolton, who would have been the favourite choice of the neocons.
Surprisingly, Rice has few critics in the American political spectrum. Possibly that is because of her achievements, but also perhaps because few people want to be seen to be attacking such a high-profile black woman. One critic, however, is Mel Goodman, a former top CIA analyst and author of the book Bush League Diplomacy, which attacks neoconservative foreign policy. Goodman said Rice had been a failure at the National Security Council because she was taken by surprise by 11 September. ‘She failed in her job at the NSC. It is the story that people refuse to tell,’ he said.
In a sign that Rice may be headed for troubled waters, Washington insiders are waiting with bated breath for a book by former CIA director George Tenet, who resigned last year as the agency imploded over the scandal of pre-war intelligence on Iraq. Goodman said that an initial synopsis of the book indicated who would be firmly in its sights: ‘Tenet’s going to go after Condie Rice.’
One thing is certain. Through all the troubled times ahead, Rice will always appear calm. She has good reason to feel safe and secure for she has the unquestioned support of the only man who matters: Bush. When last year she referred to Bush as ‘my husband’ it was a Freudian slip that reflected how close Rice and the Bush clan have become. When it comes to Rice, the little girl from Birmingham who now bestrides the world stage, she really is part of the family.
In Condie’s own words
I find football so interesting strategically. It’s the closest thing to war. What you are doing is taking and yielding territory and have certain strategies and tactics.
My parents had me absolutely convinced that you may not be able to have a hamburger at Woolworth’s, but you can be President of the United States.
On foreign policy
There cannot be an absence of moral content in American foreign policy. Europeans giggle at this and say we are naive, but we are not European, we are American and we have different principles.
You were told in segregated Birmingham that if you ran twice as hard, you might get half as far. And there were also people willing to run four times as hard so they could stay abreast. And once in a while, somebody was willing to run eight times as hard so they could get ahead