Condoleezza Rice: Will Work for Legacy

Condoleezza Rice talks about her legacy — and her next move.

By Philip Weiss
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (Photo: Martin Schoeller)

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. She was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, by parents who worked in the segregated high school system. (Her father was a guidance counselor and football coach; her mother taught science and music.) The "Yes we can" refrain of the Barack Obama campaign could have been the theme of Rice’s youth, when she pushed herself to be a figure skater, a concert pianist and, finally, a Sovietologist. She entered one formerly white world after another, impressing virtually everyone she met. "She’s brilliant," says former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who first met Rice 20 years ago. After receiving tenure as a political science professor at Stanford, she served president Bush Sr. in a variety of national security roles, returned to Stanford as provost in 1993, and headed back to Washington in 2001 to be national security adviser to George W. Bush.Rice’s critics claim that her scholarly work was middling and say that as a policymaker she has been more tactician than strategist, with no grander vision than to carry out her boss’s plans. In the first years of the Bush administration, they say, she suppressed her own "realist" instincts — to talk with our enemies, because the world is a wild, dangerous place — in favor of the more simplistic Bush policy of refusing to negotiate with "evil."Yet it is her adaptability that has allowed Rice to move past mentors like Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft and sidestep Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, reshaping her role into that of "confidante to a president who was unsteeped in foreign policy," Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s former chief of staff, says. "They would go backdoor to the Oval to the president, and she wasn’t going to win. [So] she made a conscious decision to spend more time with the president and less time in the National Security Agency battling the decision process."That strategy is paying off for her, Wilkerson says. "She’s wrested the president away from the vice president and achieved some victories that have gone unheralded." He cites as one example Rice’s work to build a strategic relationship with Turkey.Now, as she and the president near the end of their tenure, Rice is trying to forge a late-term deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. "I think this has been her crusade," says Scowcroft, who is said to have been disappointed by his erstwhile protege’s support for the Iraq war. "She has worked particularly hard at it. She’s done a terrific job; her patience and determination have gotten us this far. I really think she has brought the president along." Author and activist Phyllis Bennis, a leading critic of the Iraq war, says Rice "is the one who has apparently taken the lead with her many visits to the [Mideast] region." But Bennis wonders about Rice’s motives: "She was desperate, and remains so, to transform her legacy. Bush’s is a legacy of failure. And she’s a young woman. She’s got another career or several in front of her." Bush may assume history will absolve him, Bennis adds. "But I don’t think Condoleezza Rice is prepared to wait for history."Brokering a lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the Holy Grail of international relations, and some doubt Rice’s ability to achieve it. "It’s never smart to be overly predictive or even overly optimistic about the prospects for Middle East peace," Rice concedes. "But I do think some conditions are different now." Both sides, she says, are committed to a two-state solution. "And I think that they have, over the past several years, come to know President Bush as a man of his word … and have come to trust him and therefore believe they want to try to get this done during his remaining time in office."Her Next MoveRice is only 53, and as Bennis says, there are likely to be several more chapters, and perhaps several more transformations, to come. At times during our interview, Rice seems to be weighing the merits of a return to academia: "It’s nice sometimes to be in a position where you can get up every day and try to do something [about the state of the world] — and sometimes it’s nice to be in a position where you can find it fascinating and try to analyze it from afar." Rice insists she’s not as driven as people think. "When I talk to students — and I still think of myself more than anything as a kind of professor on leave — they say, ‘Well, how do I get to do what you do?’ ... And I say, ‘Well, you have to start out by being a failed piano major.’ And my point to them is don’t try to have a 10-year plan. Find the next thing that interests you and follow that."Rice says that if she does return to university work, she "fully expects" it will be at Stanford. "The truth of the matter is, I belong west of the Mississippi, and I’ll most likely head back to California." But as Glenn Kessler points out in his biography The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy, "She is not a popular figure on [the Stanford] campus, both because of her stormy tenure as provost and because of a general liberal revulsion at Bush administration policies." And it’s hard to imagine that academia will be enough for Rice. As we talk, she is most animated when she speaks of a possible role in professional sports. "My mother taught Willie Mays," she reminds me twice. "I wouldn’t mind going into sports management at some point. But my latest thing is that I’d like to run a team. I’ve decided that would be more fun." One of her oldest friends, Mary Bush, a former Reagan administration official, echoes the thought: "She loves football. She absolutely loves it." During the 1970s and 1980s Rice dated several football players, including wide receiver Gene Washington, who played for the Detroit Lions and the San Francisco 49ers. For a while there was feverish speculation that Rice might become the commissioner of the National Football League, but that evaporated when NFL executive vice president Roger Goodell was promoted to the top slot in 2006. "My ship came in, and I wasn’t able to get on it," Rice says with a laugh.The wild card is politics. In late 2004, a grassroots Draft Condi movement sprang up to encourage Rice to run for president (and, conservative activists reasoned, provide a powerful rejoinder to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy). So would she consider running for office? "That’s really hard for me to imagine," Rice says. "I have been around politics now a lot. I have to say I’m really enjoying not being a part of a campaign in 2008." What about vice president? The Republican rumor mill often places her as the running mate to John McCain; as provost at Stanford and Bush’s better half in the Middle East, Rice has always been comfortable playing second fiddle. At a press conference in February, reporters raised the idea of such a dream team, but Rice dismissed it: "I’ve said all along what I’m going to do. You can all come and visit me in California." It’s probably best to take Rice at her word. Mary Bush says her friend is determined to take time away from "center-of-the-world jobs," perhaps to write a book about foreign policy. And Scowcroft remembers a time in the Bush 41 administration when Rice vetoed his plea that she remain in Washington because she had promised to return to Stanford after two years. "Surely you mean to stay?" he asked incredulously. "No," she told him. "I said two years."Beneath the SurfaceIn an interview with People magazine in December 2006, Laura Bush speculated that Rice would not want to run for president: "Probably because she is single, her parents are no longer living, she’s an only child. You need a very supportive family and supportive friends to have this job."I make the same point to Rice and ask her whom she leans on. "I have very strong extended family," she answers, "a lot of very close friends and, of course, faith, which is very important. I’m not someone who is cut off from people…. Though I am an only child and sometimes, when I’m around people too much, I have to have one night alone, you know." When I ask Washington why it didn’t work out between the two of them, he corrects me. "I think it has worked out," he says. "We’re great friends. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way, but for a male and female to be great friends for 20 years, I think that’s pretty impressive."Rice’s single status has long been a source of fascination for some; rumors that she is gay have occasionally been reported in newspapers and on the Internet. "I quite like men," she told Elisabeth Bumiller, author of Condoleezza Rice: An American Life. "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. But I think that’s what it’ll come down to."I ask her whether she could vote for Obama."I’m not going to answer that question."I point out that she was once a Democrat, and Rice dissolves in a nearly girlish laugh."I’m not going to tell you who I’m going to vote for!"Rice is more reserved when it comes to Hillary Clinton. She thinks "highly of her as well," she says, but turns the question at once to the issue of gender."People notice if you are black," she says. "People notice if you are female. We are certainly not either colorblind or gender-blind in this country, so I’m not suggesting that it isn’t a factor. But I think in the final analysis, people will take a look at the positions and they’ll take a look at the issues."Has Rice experienced a growing gender- and colorblindness in her own life?"I don’t know that it’s colorblindness," she responds. "There is a kind of transcendence if you hold certain positions. You know, more than anything for people, I’m the secretary of state — " Here she smiles with a hint of irony. "But it’s not always a bad thing, either, that there is some consciousness of race and gender. I’ve found that in places where women have not really been afforded full rights yet — for instance, in the Middle East — even very conservative politicians in the region will say, ‘You know, my daughter would really like to meet you,’ or, ‘Would you send a note to my granddaughter?’""And you do that?""I do, yeah. And similarly, I’ve found that I’ve been able to talk about democracy and democracy promotion in a slightly different way, which is to not hold the United States out as the ideal somehow. Recognizing our own history; recognizing, as I often say, that, you know, my ancestors in our first Constitution were three-fifths of a man…. And that has led people to believe, I think, that we are more humble about our own troubles in making multiethnic democracy work."The political problems before her are so complex and demanding, Rice seems almost baffled when I ask her about how she will reimagine herself in her mid-fifties, or even further on. She shakes her head."I don’t know," she says. "As I told you, I’m a terrible long-term planner. If I’d been a better long-term planner, I’d still be in music, as a musician someplace. So I’ll take it one step at a time. And for now, I don’t have terribly much time to think about the future." Philip Weiss is a New York-based journalist and author of American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps. He blogs about Middle East issues and Jewish identity at philipweiss.org.Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2008.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:08

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