"I just haven’t actually ever found anyone I wanted to be married to." (When I tried in a follow-up interview to ask Rice about the rumors regarding her sexuality, State Department press representative Pamela Stevens said, "The secretary does not care to respond to ‘rumors.’" She called the question "completely unfair, unfounded, and biased," and later told my editor she was refusing to forward the query.)I tell Rice how independent she seems. Whom does she turn to after an especially bad day? She answers by telling me about one of her trips to the Middle East, when Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert refused to even appear before reporters together. "We were in Berlin afterward … and it had not been my best day in the Middle East. I wasn’t sure where we were going, and it seemed awfully tough," she says. "I got to the hotel, and there was a piano in the suite. Somebody had thoughtfully left a copy of Brahms’s piano works, and I played for about an hour. Somehow Brahms — with Brahms, you know, you can’t think about anything else. If you’re going to play Brahms, you have to concentrate on Brahms. And after an hour, [the bad mood] wasn’t there anymore."But sure, I have people — and I don’t generally have to call them. My life is public enough that if somebody thinks I’ve had a bad day, I get home and I’ve got four or five different messages."Even so, self-reliance is an aspect of Rice’s amply documented tough streak. In the Bumiller book, Rice’s close friend Coit Blacker, director of the Institute for International Studies at Stanford, speaks of her laser eyes.When I ask Rice about the gaze, she smiles and shrugs. "Well, you certainly have to have focus to do this job. And you have to sometimes demonstrate that you are going to defend the interests of the United States and that you’re going to be very tough in doing that. But I don’t think of myself as a tough person.""You’ve read some of those descriptions," I say."Yeah, I have," she responds. "And some of them are of a person I barely recognize."I nod in agreement. The woman I’ve met has taken pleasure in any number of small moments during the past hour. But, as she has acknowledged on a number of occasions, she is not "self-reflective." Friends have speculated that having to be a perfect child in the segregated South gave her a hard shell. Whatever the cause, that is the glasslike surface she presents to the world.On Obama, Gender, and RaceRice is one of the most charming people I’ve ever met. But many of her comments seem protective, and fervently loyal. She says that her great regret is that the Bush administration’s compassionate side has not been seen. For example, there’s the AIDS initiative in Africa. I mention that some reports give her credit for the idea."No, no, no, it was not mine," she interjects. "It was — I was an early and strong proponent of it, but it was the president who wanted to do something about it. You know, it’s the president who’s been the strongest international spokesman against what’s going on in Darfur and who is frustrated that the international community can’t find a way to respond. It’s the president who has supported a foreign assistance program that after being flat in the United States for decades has doubled in this administration, quadrupled for Africa, the president who intervened to stop the civil war in Liberia. You know, if I have a regret, it’s that those elements of the policy have perhaps not gotten attention because this president is a war president and so people have focused on that piece of the agenda."I get a sense in our meeting that Rice herself looks forward to the end of the war presidency. Everywhere she goes now, people ask her about Barack Obama, whom she knows through his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He’s really a very appealing and interesting person. And very smart," she says. "I’m happy I can say that I really think at this point in our country’s history, this [election] will come down to whether people think Senator Obama represents their views and their interests and holds their values [rather than focusing on his race].... I don’t doubt that there will be some turbulence, because this is different for America.