She thought she was heading to a casual dinner to celebrate her 50th birthday with some friends at a Yuppie restaurant in northwest Washington. But when her limo turned in to the British Embassy's driveway last week, Condoleezza Rice experienced an unusual moment of confusion. Greeted by the tuxedo-clad ambassador, Sir David Manning, Rice could only sputter, "David, why are you dressed in black tie?" Her answer was waiting inside, where 120 friends were enjoying a rare secret kept from the president's ultradiscreet national-security adviser. Rice was stunned. The president was 15 minutes away, Rice was told, and she had to change quickly into a red dress tailored especially for the occasion by her favorite designer, Oscar de la Renta. "The warrior- princess image is so wrong," says one close friend. "The reason we all dressed up is because Condi likes to dress up."

Three days later Rice was stepping out (this time in a yellow suit) next to President Bush as his newly nominated secretary of State. For a second time the normally unflappable performer--a classical pianist and onetime competitive ice skater--seemed to lose a little of her famous self-control. As the president spoke warmly of her deceased parents, Rice appeared to blink back tears.

Such public displays of emotion are as rare as an unplanned schedule on a Saturday night. Rice is a creature of meticulous self-discipline, not unlike the man she has served and revered for the last six years. Like the president, she's also fiercely loyal, forceful and driven by a deeply moral world view. "There's a religious quality," said one former administration official who worked closely with Rice. "When people are seen as evil or wrong, her tendency is to freeze the debate, and the analysis stops." Unlike her predecessor Colin Powell, Rice draws her power from that bond with the president himself.

On paper, Rice has little in common with George Walker Bush. She was born into a middle-class family in segregated Birmingham, Ala.; he was born into a vastly privileged family in New Haven, Conn. But when they first sat down for a serious policy discussion at the home of former secretary of State George Shultz in April 1998, they clicked. Shultz had organized a foreign-policy seminar for the untutored Texas governor, and Rice quickly emerged as his personal trainer. Rice assembled a wider team of foreign-policy advisers through the 2000 campaign, but once in office, her role as presidential tutor was reversed. One friend describes Rice as "star-struck" by the president; another simply says Rice "really admires" him. There's no question they're close--Condi often weekends with the Bushes in Camp David--but it's also clear who gives the orders. "Even when he was a new president and had a lot to learn, I always thought he was the dominant figure," said one former European official.

Those tight ties should free Rice from Powell's burden. Powell admitted to reporters that he rarely traveled abroad because he felt the need to stay in Washington to watch his back. Rice, in contrast, will be far more assured that her advice will reach the president. "Internecine concerns are not going to be a problem for her," said one confidante. For nervous State Department officials, the critical question is whether Rice will lean toward Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon (as she did in the White House, despite their differences of style and age) or reflect Powell's instincts for compromise. Rice's friends suggest the question's already been answered. "The president is pretty clear about what the agenda is," said one former colleague. "My money is on Condi to get it done, and she'll do it with joy." If there are any surprises at the State Department over the next four years, they're unlikely to come from Condoleezza Rice.