"No way, I don't want that job!" Condoleezza Rice had told her Birmingham girlfriend Deborah Carson. And yet here she was, three days after Bush's re-election, the president asking her to take that job: to replace Colin Powell as secretary of State. Rice laid to rest the rumor that what she really wanted was Donald Rumsfeld's post at Defense. She didn't. "The question for me is not where I go," she told Bush flatly that afternoon at Camp David. "I'll go where you want me to go. The question is do I stay. And that's what I have to grapple with."
It wasn't the first time Bush had asked Rice to do something she had decided not to do. During the 2000 campaign, she had planned to advise Bush informally; instead, Rice ended up leading his foreign policy team. "In a political sense, I think he kind of courted her," said Carson. "He really went after her. He's very charming."
And Rice was drawn to Bush. "First of all, I thought he was wonderful to be around," she recalled, sitting on the couch in her State Department office. "He was warm and funny and easy to be around. I thought he had just an incredibly inquisitive mind ... You could barely finish an explanation before he was digging into it."
Bush was also a bad boy. And Rice, according to friends and family, had a thing for bad boys. That was why, as a 20-year-old grad student, she preferred her second Fighting Irish football player boyfriend to her first, said Jane Robinett, Rice's best Notre Dame friend: John "Dubie" Dubenetzky, cocky and handsome with wavy blond hair, was less deferential than Wayne Bullock, the sweet fullback who had moved Condi's boxes into Lewis Hall.
Rice's friends insisted the attraction to Bush was platonic, but Brenda Hamberry-Green, her Palo Alto hairdresser, who had spent years commiserating with Rice over how hard it was for successful black women to find a good man, noticed a change when Rice started working for Bush. "He fills that need," Hamberry-Green decided. "Bush is her feed."
But few couples better illustrated the old adage in the black community that a black woman had to be "twice as good to get half as far" than Rice and Bush. Condoleezza was the product of two lines of African American strivers who saw themselves as "aristocratic" but were not. She attended segregated schools until the tenth grade. From the age of three she had been a study in discipline.
Bush—the grandson of a U.S. senator, scion of a Connecticut Yankee family and a product of Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School—was a gadabout until his fortieth birthday, when he decided it was time to stop drinking. Bush hadn't known who he was until he was 45, according to Rice's mentor, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Bush Sr.
By the time Rice met Bush, he had become a Christian teetotaler and a devoted family man. The two shared a strong religious faith, a belief in American power, similar senses of humor, and a conviction that sports was a metaphor for life. He admired her brains. She valued his instincts. Politically, she liked his "compassionate conservatism"—the philosophy that those who wanted to lift themselves from poverty and ignorance should be given the opportunity. That had been a leitmotif for generations of minister-teachers in the Rice family. Most important, they saw themselves as outsiders: Rice as a function of her race and gender, Bush because he had never fit in as a Texas boy with the Northeastern elitists he came to see as snobs.
"There was this connective stuff—that was really fully under way by the summer of 1999," said Rice's friend Coit "Chip" Blacker. "There's a funny kind of transfer of energy and ideas that's almost—not random, but unstructured. It's as though they're Siamese twins joined at the frontal lobe."
The mind meld grew stronger in Washington, especially after 9/11. But as much as it reassured Bush to have the woman he called his "sister" by his side, their closeness also became one of the administration's liabilities in the run-up to the war in Iraq. To Scowcroft, for whom Rice had worked in the Bush Sr. White House directing Soviet policy at the end of the cold war, the major task of the national security adviser was to be the skeptic-in-chief: "My approach to almost every question is to view it with informed skepticism ... If it doesn't work, what happens?" (Scowcroft said that in 1987.) But Rice tended to enable the president's missteps rather than check them. The basis of the relationship had been formed in the campaign: she molded his instincts, she didn't challenge them. So as the administration marched toward war in Iraq, she didn't push back. She didn't question troop levels or the Defense Department's rosy post-Saddam scenarios. She didn't demand the administration devise a single, unified plan for after Saddam's statue fell.
Some administration officials say Rice as national security adviser concentrated too heavily on advising the president, rather than managing the national security "process." They point to her remark at a Washington dinner party in 2004, when she said, "As I was telling my husb—" before abruptly correcting herself, "As I was telling President Bush ... " (Rice told me she doesn't think she ever made the comment; "I swear I don't remember any such slip ... I don't think it happened." And neither do a number of other guests at the dinner, though some swear they heard her say "husband.") Even Rice's friends, most of whom happen to be Democrats, say her affection for Bush blinded her to his failings. "She thought he could do no wrong," said one.
In addition, Rice's own overconfidence—the same self-assuredness that allowed her to stand in front of the White House as a little girl from segregated Birmingham, and say, "some day, I'll be in that house"—facilitated many of the pre-war mistakes. Condoleezza Rice had an absolute absence of self-doubt.
That certainty and resolve is still visible in Rice's defense of the war today. While she admits the administration made mistakes, she says they had nothing to do with "dysfunction" in the interagency process she ran. She even disputes, astonishingly, Colin Powell's claim that he held less sway with Bush than Rumsfeld did. "I've heard that, and I'd really like to know what he means. Colin Powell had as much access as anyone," Rice insists. "I'd like to know three examples, four examples, five examples ... Colin used to come have dinner with the president. I don't think Don ever did that."
As secretary of State, Rice has persuaded Bush to shift his stance on some key issues: offering direct U.S.-Iran talks for the first time since the 1979 hostage crisis if Tehran would end its nuclear enrichment program (Iran demurred) and making a deal with North Korea to halt its nuclear buildup (it hasn't stopped yet). But the reason Rice stayed on for the second term, she told me, visibly humbled, perhaps schooled by the mistakes of the previous six years, was "I thought there was more we could do. Over the first three years we'd basically broken down a lot of the old system. And," she sighed, "and I've been very cognizant of the need to put it back together in a different configuration, one that lays a foundation. And so I thought, 'Well, I'll try to do that.' "
Speaking with uncharacteristic pauses, Rice said the last words gently. Crossing and uncrossing her legs, tugging at the bottom of her cherry skirt, she looked weary for the first time, an image that belied the aura of Alabama steel that surrounded her public persona.
Of course, her friends and her stepmother Clara Rice offered a simpler explanation for why she stayed: "she just can't say no to that man."