A Powerful — and Controversial — ImageMeeting Condoleezza Rice at the State Department is a highly ceremonial matter. Three waiters in black tie stand at attention as I make my way into a huge, gilt-encrusted hall normally used for hosting dignitaries. Rice’s aides warn me and my photo crew that we must keep our voices down: Secretary Rice, who returned very late the night before from yet another trip to the Middle East, is in the next room, having lunch. One of the aides figures out which path the secretary will take toward us across the carpet and moves the wires for the photographer’s lights well out of the way. Another carries three glasses of water to three different places in the hall and sets them on embossed napkins, anticipating his boss’s thirst.Rice’s arrival punctures the formality. She steps right over the wires in her high heels, smiles and says hello to everyone. Her voice is soft; she has a gracious and even doe-like manner. She moves from one spot to another for the photographer, chatting easily. She readily agrees to play the piano for the shoot and does a medley of classical openings. The photographer asks her to lose the smile and play something "darker." Frowning slightly, Rice segues rapidly from Mozart to Brahms.Afterward, we sit down together in the Monroe Room, a small official chamber with salmon walls and mahogany furniture. Two aides drop into armchairs, two security guys hover by the door, and a State Department recording engineer tapes the secretary’s every word, but Rice makes the situation feel intimate. She settles cross-legged onto a 19th-century sofa, and when I thank her for showing up after a long flight, she jokes that she might drop off to sleep in the middle of the interview. Then, sitting up straight, she describes her regimen for staying energetic."Two things you have to do," she says. "Exercise every day, and try to get approximately enough sleep." Approximately enough? "I don’t function well on less than six hours, so if I have to go to bed a little earlier than most people, that’s just fine." As for exercise: every day but Sunday. The only child of striving parents, Rice has been this way ever since her hyperscheduled upbringing. "I’ve always been engaged in a lot of activities…. I think for my parents it was a kind of high-priced childcare," she says with a smile. "I’ve always found free time a little overrated. I’m one of those people who like structure, and that’s helped me. But I’m apparently not very much fun to vacation with — at nine o’clock we’ll do this, and at 10 o’clock we’ll do that."As the clock ticks away on the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency, his record on foreign policy is mixed, to say the least, and Rice may never live down her faithful execution of his vision. I ask her how she feels about the Bush administration’s image in the world right now."Do I wish it were different in some sense? Yes," she says, with that firm nod familiar from television. "But I think there is also a bit [of a tendency] to look on the past with rose-colored glasses. You know, I came of age in foreign policy in the early 1980s, and I remember the millions of people in the streets in Germany protesting the American deployment of missiles there, and Ronald Reagan being hung in effigy…. So you know there’s a bit of rewriting of history on how popular the United States of America has ever been." And after 9/11, she says, the administration had to do some "really hard things."It’s difficult to connect the lovely person on the couch to the unbending apparatchik of Bush’s war on terror. Her bearing is one of hammered delicacy. I do my best to break through."People have come up to you with fake blood on their hands, hissed at you, booed you in a theater," I say. The secretary nods. "Yeah, a couple of times in my life. A couple of times. Not too much.""How do you deal with that?""Look, first of all, I don’t care, all right, because — no, I don’t. If somebody cannot be civil, then they don’t deserve my attention. Now, civil debate, true disagreement with what we’ve done and even the harshest words for what we’ve done — absolutely."Desperate to Transform Her LegacyRice’s foreign policy legacy may be at stake, but no one doubts her backstory is the stuff of American myth.