The Quiet Power Of Condi Rice

The vice president had gone too far. In a speech to the VFW on Aug. 26, Dick Cheney declared that a return of U.N. inspectors to Iraq could bring only "false comfort." The obvious implication, at least to reporters covering the speech, was that the United States would have to go it alone to knock off Saddam Hussein and eliminate his weapons of mass destruction. The speech drew big headlines and stirred talk of war; within the Bush administration, it was a source of some consternation. At the State Department, Secretary Colin Powell was more than a little vexed. He thought the administration had decided, in a private meeting of Bush's war cabinet, to give diplomacy another chance and work through the United Nations before plunging into war in Iraq. Were the war hawks, Powell wondered, trying to pull a fast one and force the president's hand? Down at his ranch in Texas, President George W. Bush did not question the vice president's motives, but he, too, was perturbed by the potential fallout. Had the vice president's speech, however inadvertently, boxed him in?

It was time for someone to have a quiet word with Cheney. The president's emissary was his national-security adviser, a trim 48-year-old woman with a wide, warm smile, a polite manner and an unmistakable steeliness. Meeting with the vice president at the White House, Condoleezza Rice was friendly and low key. Cheney's speech, she blandly suggested, had been "interpreted" by the press in a way that might "limit the president's options." Rice waited for Cheney himself to suggest a solution. The veep said he was giving another speech in a couple of days. He would tone down the derisive language about inspectors and leave the door open for the United States to work through the United Nations. The newspapers duly noted the shift in the vice president's tone, but Rice's intercession did not leak.

Quiet, respectful, anonymous--but firm, just the way the president wanted it. Rice's aides call her the "anti-Kissinger," meaning that she does not need to show off her influence or present herself as a master global strategist like Henry Kissinger. That may be in part because Rice is not a strategic genius, but no one doubts her power. Rice's aides also refer to her (affectionately) as the "Warrior Princess." She is proud, elegant, fastidious about her appearance (she keeps two mirrors in her office, so she can see her back as well as her front) and utterly unflappable. Rice has Bush's complete confidence; she speaks for the president, and everyone knows it. The harder question is how much she influences his thinking and his decisions.

Rice's role bears watching as the president faces a critical turning point in his long-running face-off with Saddam. According to knowledgeable sources, Rice played an important behind-the-scenes part in convincing Bush that he had to try to disarm Iraq with U.N. inspectors before sending in the military to do the job by force. Now her task is to try to make sure the inspection regime is real and not a sham. Last week Rice met with chief U.N. inspector Hans Blix to press him to take a hard line: to remove Iraqi officials (and their families) to a safe place where they can tell the truth about Saddam's WMD program. And over the weekend, Rice's team began poring over the 12,000-page Iraqi report on its arsenal--and building the case that Saddam was already in breach of the U.N. resolution.

In Washington, the job of national-security adviser to the president can mean nothing or everything. The post has been held by worldbeaters and virtual nonentities, by honest brokers and Machiavellian schemers. By law, the secretary of State is the president's chief foreign-policy adviser; the national-security adviser runs no department and commands no troops. But he or she (Rice was the first-ever woman to get the job) is usually the first to see the president in the morning and the last at night. Depending on the chemistry and level of trust between them, the president and the national-security adviser can work about as well together as FDR and Harry Hopkins--or Reagan and many of his five national-security advisers.

Rice has a certain demeanor, assertive yet deferential, eager yet calm, that reminds Washington insiders of Strobe Talbott, the former Clinton administration deputy secretary of State once described as "the kind of young man who reassures older men." Over the years, Rice has won the attention and support of a series of powerful men. Told by aides that NEWSWEEK was pursuing this angle ("Oh, no," one adviser groaned, "they're going to say that she's good with old guys"), Rice joked that the magazine was trying to turn her into Madame de Sevigne, a 17th-century courtier and mistress of Louis XIV. "You're not really going to put me on the cover, are you?" she asked a NEWSWEEK reporter. Her distress actually seemed sincere.

Madame de Sevigne was a famous gossip. Rice is anything but. In Washington, Where's Condi? is a favorite game, a Beltway version of Where's Waldo? Everyone thinks he knows the views of Cheney, Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But Rice wants people to think of her as an enigma. She has often said that she is "determined to leave this town" without anyone outside Bush's tight inner circle ever figuring out where she stands on major issues. She claims that she "rarely" tells the president her private opinions, and if she does, she never shares her advice to the president, not even with her closest aides.

In fact Rice is engaged in a very delicate juggling act. She does interject herself in some ways, but she has to be very careful to appear evenhanded. While privately she sometimes shows her hand to another cabinet officer, publicly, and in almost every meeting that includes anyone besides herself and Bush, Rice rarely takes an open stand. She wants the president's other advisers to believe that she doesn't play favorites or whisper into the president's ear. By seeming above the fray she preserves her ability to influence decisions, however subtly.

Hers is a complicated game to play. Officials at both the State and the Defense departments complain that under Rice's management, the national-security "process," designed to bring together different government agencies to hammer out policy, has become close to dysfunctional. Decisions go unmade at the deadlocked "deputies" meetings or get kicked back or ignored by the president's "principals," his top advisers. The principals themselves tend to revisit unresolved issues or reopen decisions already made by the president, forcing him to decide all over again. Rice, who chairs meetings of the principals, does not bear all the blame. She is dealing with some huge egos who have known each other for years, respect and by and large trust each other, but aren't afraid to fight. A former senior national-security staffer who often attended meetings of Bush's war cabinet described a typical meeting: Powell gets "exasperated"; CIA Director George Tenet "yells 'Jesus Christ, what are we doing here?'"; Rumsfeld "will try to trample anybody."

Rice lets the battles rage. The departing Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill told NEWSWEEK, "I can't think of a time when I felt she [Rice] imposed herself. She never says, 'You're going to do it, whether you like it or not'." At most, says the former NSC official, Rice will put an end to occasional outbursts of "locker-room joking" by saying, "All right, boys, knock it off." In private conversation, she often shares her views with the other principals. "Individually, none of us is ever at a loss as to what Condi thinks about all this stuff," Powell told NEWSWEEK. But at meetings, especially when the president is in the room, she rarely does more than ask pointed questions.

Rice's light reins are perplexing and troubling to some who know her. After all, they say, Rice can be decisive, impatient and tough when she wants to be. When she's angry or wants to enforce discipline, she never yells, but her voice grows cold, her speech slows, her jaw clamps, her eyes narrow. Throughout her career, faced with clashing forces and loud dissenters, she has appeared unfazed and absolutely determined to get her way. To keep the president from becoming "overloaded" and the NSC from becoming "constipated," the national-security adviser needs to set limits and force decisions, says an old government hand close to Rice. Why then, he wonders, "does she seem to want to let a thousand flowers bloom?"

The answer may be because that's the way the president wants it. Bush is suspicious of bureaucracy and does not want to be fed decisions that have been precooked, watered down or papered over by his advisers. True, the president is by nature restless, with a short attention span, and he is said to disdain the kind of endless, circular seminars that Bill Clinton gloried in. Still, Bush's advisers say, the president welcomes debate on the big issues of war and peace. He wants clear choices and original thinking, and he's willing to put up with a certain amount of tumult to get it. Rice has repeatedly told NEWSWEEK that her job as national-security adviser is to sharpen arguments, not squelch them or flatten them out. "She doesn't drive to consensus," O'Neill told NEWSWEEK. "Rather, she drives towards clarity. Then he [the president] decides what the consensus is."

But Rice without question plays a critical, if largely hidden, role in the overall direction of the president's foreign policy. Bush is "instinctive," Rice often tells interviewers; her job is to translate his "good strategic instincts" into an "intellectual framework," usually in the form of major presidential speeches, particularly those on Iraq. This is probably a subtle, at times almost unspoken process, a matter of a nudge here and there, a phrase inserted into a speech that may seem minor at the time but that can nonetheless have deep long-term consequences.

Superficially, Bush and Rice are opposites: the rich white boy from Texas who goofed off in school; the middle-class black girl who was a grind. But in fact they are well matched, and not just by a well-publicized mutual fondness for working out and watching sports on TV. The two are possessed of a certain defiant independence, almost an orneriness. They know what it's like to be underestimated, and they take obvious pleasure in going their own way. Deeply religious, the Presbyterian Rice and the Methodist Bush share a messianic streak. Rice's real job is to help steer Bush's black-and-white moral impulses in the murky, morally ambiguous real world. It is a tricky course, but in a sense, her whole life has prepared her for it.

Rice once had hopes of becoming a concert pianist. She is still accomplished enough to have performed with cellist Yo-Yo Ma before 2,000 people at Constitution Hall earlier this year. Afterward, Ma asked her to name her favorite composer. "Brahms," she answered. "Why?" he inquired. Because Brahms's music was "passionate without being sentimental," said Rice. Ma asked, "Do you also think it's this irresolution in Brahms, the tension that is never resolved?"

Rice told that story to an aide without offering any larger meaning ("I'm not a very reflective person," she insists). But the fact is that she had to deal with "irresolution," with moral conflict and uncertainty, as a little girl, in ways most white people cannot begin to imagine. Rice is seen as living proof of the triumph of the civil-rights movement--and she is--but her story is more complicated and more interesting than simply discrimination overcome.

Rice was born into a secure, proud little world, a cocoon of civility carved from bigoted surroundings. In Titusville, a black middle-class enclave in Birmingham, Ala., children of black professionals--teachers, preachers, school administrators--were taught they would have to work twice as hard and do twice as well as whites, but never to think of themselves as victims. Condoleezza (named after an Italian musical term meaning "with sweetness") was a protected only child who adored her father, a high-school guidance counselor. "I never saw her as a little girl," says Julia Emma Smith, who worked with Rice's father in a church youth group. "She was around adults most of the time." A childhood acquaintance, Harold Jackson, says, "When we were running around, she was prim and proper, playing for the adult choir." There were music, dance and skating lessons. Rice felt ennobled and safe.

Then, in 1963, when Rice was 8, the Movement arrived. Civil-rights activists urged schoolchildren to march; when the kids were in the streets, they were fire-hosed by the Birmingham Police Department and chased by dogs (as the TV cameras rolled). Rice's father urged the local schoolchildren not to participate in the demonstrations, though he did take Condi downtown to watch. ("If we'd waited for the middle class to lead us, we'd still be waiting," the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a leading activist of the time, told a reporter a few years ago.) Then bombs, set off by racists, began exploding in and around Rice's neighborhood and blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four schoolgirls, one of them Rice's schoolmate. Rice's father joined the other neighborhood men, armed with shotguns, to patrol the streets at night and protect the neighborhood. Today Rice says she cannot remember being afraid, though she remembers exactly how many days of school (31) she missed that year.

The Birmingham demonstrations raised the consciousness of the federal government and the liberal establishment. Civil-rights bills became law, and affirmative action followed. Rice was a beneficiary. Realizing that she would never make it as a concert pianist, she became fascinated by the study of power; her mentor was Soviet specialist Josef Korbel, the father of future secretary of State Madeleine Albright. An able student, Rice was vaulted ahead into various prestigious fellowships in academe and government: after graduating from the University of Denver at 19 and getting a master's at Notre Dame, she taught at Stanford and worked at the Pentagon for the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell. One of the men who "discovered" her, Brent Scowcroft, the elder Bush's national-security adviser, recalls how "this slip of a girl" could stand up and ask sharp (but respectful) questions of her elders. Scowcroft gave her a job on the national-security staff, handling Russian affairs. By the time she was 40, Rice was on the board of Chevron and had an oil tanker named after her. In 1993, Rice was snapped up as the first black woman and youngest-ever provost of Stanford University.

The politically correct faculty hailed the appointment--but many soon regretted it. "She set a tone of open season on minorities and women," recalls Linda Mabry, former associate professor at Stanford Law School. During the Rice years (1993-1999), the tenure rate for women professors declined, as did the number of African-Americans on the faculty. At a faculty meeting, a political scientist tried to introduce a resolution to make affirmative action an explicit criterion in granting tenure. Rice strongly opposed it--"as long as I am at Stanford," she vowed. As they left the room, a professor remarked to Rice on the tension. "After you've talked the Ukrainians out of their nuclear missiles, this stuff is just child's play," she responded. After she fired a Chicana dean, students taunted her for being a traitor. "You can't pull that on me," she told them. "I've been black all my life."

In April 1998, Rice was asked by her Stanford colleague, former secretary of State George Shultz, to attend a foreign-policy seminar for Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "You could see then that they clicked," Shultz recalls. Rice was soon flying to Austin to tutor the GOP presidential candidate. During the campaign, Bush would sometimes blurt out a foreign-policy "instinct," and it would be up to Rice to make sense of it. This could take some doing. During the presidential debates, Bush said he wanted to pull U.S. soldiers from the Balkans, saying it was Europe's time to "put troops on the ground." In fact, most peacekeeping troops were already European. Rice valiantly tried to spin the press about "a new division of labor" with the allies, but it took about a year to soothe their feelings.

Bush's moral impulses were easier to channel after 9-11. Rice was one of Bush's advisers who instantly saw that the war on terror was global. "The initial knee-jerk reaction after 9-11 was to go after Al Qaeda," Powell told NEWSWEEK. He credits her with focusing as well on states that sponsor terrorism. Bush's description of an "Axis of Evil" caused a sensation in the press when Bush uttered the phrase in the State of the Union address this January, but in fact Rice had been privately talking to Bush about going after all rogue nations harboring WMD within a week of 9-11.

She appreciates--and tries to promote--creative chaos, but sometimes there is just chaos. Notes of national-security meetings about the assault on the Taliban leaked to The Washington Post's Bob Woodward reveal a process so freewheeling that it verges on the unmanageable. An official who participated in those meetings told NEWSWEEK that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was particularly rambunctious. Every time the State Department came up with a scheme for using U.S. troops to keep peace in Afghanistan after the war, Rumsfeld would find a way to undercut the plan. Rice didn't appear able to control the headstrong Defense secretary (though she may not have tried very hard; Rice is no fan of using the military for peacekeeping, either).

When the Middle East blew up last winter, the hawks, Cheney and Rumsfeld, wanted to exile Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. Powell argued that Arafat, though deeply distasteful, could not be simply banished without wrecking diplomacy. It fell to Rice to bridge the gap by suggesting that the United States call for "new leadership" in the Palestinian Authority, without mentioning Arafat's name. The fix was awkward and not altogether successful (Arafat is still there).

Rice has had more luck in the delicate business of balancing hawks and doves on Iraq. While she has embraced President Bush's hard line and rattled the saber as loudly as anyone on talk shows, she has tilted ever so slightly to the more dovish Colin Powell behind the scenes. Rice sometimes finds Rumsfeld's 1950s macho a little wearying. When she had a coughing fit at one meeting, Rumsfeld kept joking, asking her if she wanted him to show her the Heimlich maneuver ("He does that with everyone," said a Rumsfeld aide). On the other hand, she has a natural kinship with Powell (whose wife, Alma, also came from Birmingham's black middle class). The two tease easily. Last week Powell entered the White House Situation Room, deep in the West Wing basement, to find Rice cleaning up coffee cups left over from a principals meeting. "Well, pick stuff up," she admonished the secretary of State. "Real men don't clear tables," he replied. "Yes, they do," she said, and they laughed.

Powell and Rice worked closely together to produce a U.N. resolution on weapons inspections in Iraq that would have teeth, keep the hawks onboard--and still unanimously pass the Security Council. At the United Nations in September, U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte crafted with the British some language that got French and Russian support. Then he sent the document to Washington. When the hawks around Rumsfeld and Cheney were finished, the document was littered with traps designed to bring the inspection process to a quick end and trigger a war. As one Security Council diplomat described the document to NEWSWEEK, "We had been shown the outlines of a beautiful young girl. Now she had turned into this hag."

Slowly, without directly confronting the hawks, Powell and Rice maneuvered to find language acceptable to everyone. It took eight weeks, but the final product passed the Security Council 15-0. That doesn't mean Rice believes that war can be avoided. But she wants to make sure America has international support if war comes. She knows Bush is betting his presidency on Iraq and, characteristically, wants to protect him.

It can be equally assumed that Rice was doing exactly what Bush wanted her to do. Rice could hardly be closer to Bush. Bush has joked about Rice's "motherhenning" him, but he seems to enjoy it, or at least depend on it; all his life, Bush has had an affinity for strong women, starting with his mother. The fact is that her job is Rice's life. She doesn't socialize much, if at all. Rice told an avuncular friend that she preferred to go out with black men. On his own initiative, the friend, a prominent Washingtonian, says that he asked another well-known Washingtonian, who is black, to arrange some suitable dates. They were not a success, reports this source.

Rice begins her day at 5 a.m. to exercise. Her chief recreations are going to concerts at the Kennedy Center, watching football on TV, playing her grand piano and shopping. "She may have more shoes than Imelda Marcos," jokes her closest friend, Stanford professor Coit Blacker. In Washington, Rice has a personal shopper, and Saks Fifth Avenue has been known to open up for her after hours. She dresses beautifully and agreed to pose for Vogue, she told an aide, because she thought it might help the Republican Party with the women's vote.

Posing for a women's magazine is about as close to elective politics as she wants to get. Although she is routinely rumored to be a potential U.S. Senate or vice presidential candidate, she scoffs at the idea. Her career aim, she often says, is to become NFL commissioner. That actually represents a step down from her childhood ambition. In 1965, when Rice was 11, her father took her to Washington, where she stood in front of the White House. Her father had encouraged her to believe that she could be president one day, even though at the time most blacks were not allowed to vote. "One day I'll be in that house," she told her father. It may have seemed a preposterous wish then, but Condi Rice made it come true.


In the Dec. 16 issue ("The Quiet Power of Condi Rice") NEWSWEEK reported that during Rice's time as provost of Stanford University (1993-1999) the number of African-Americans on the faculty declined. According to Stanford, the number of African-Americans on the faculty increased from 36 to 44. NEWSWEEK regrets the error.