• U.S.

Condi Rice Can’t Lose

9 minute read
Romesh Ratnesar

The seas were angry, and European communism was in the throes of collapse. It was December 1989, and George Bush had arrived for a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev on the stormy waters off Malta in the Mediterranean. He introduced the Soviet President to his advisers, stopping near a reed-thin, 35-year-old African-American woman. “This is Condoleezza Rice,” Bush told Gorbachev. “She tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union.” Gorbachev looked her over–startled, in that setting, by the adviser’s race, gender and youth. “I hope you know a lot,” he said.

She did. As a staff member of the National Security Council and then as special assistant to the President, Rice helped craft the strategy that brought the cold war to its peaceful end. Now supporters of George W. Bush are repeating Gorbachev’s hope. Since bumbling through an embarrassing round of malapropisms and misstatements that raised questions about his ability to lead the world, Bush has turned to a coterie of foreign policy wonks to help mold his views on international affairs (and teach him the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia). This week Bush will get his first chance to show off what he has learned, when he delivers a speech outlining his plan to revitalize the U.S. military. But he is still dependent on his team of advisers. Foremost among them, as both confidant and spokesperson, is the 44-year-old Condi Rice.

Rice, formerly provost of Stanford University, is in line to become, if Bush wins, either National Security Adviser, Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. She would be destined to be–not only because of her race and gender but also because of her wit and spark–a politico-celebrity superstar. “She doesn’t seem to try to push herself forward in any particular way,” says former Secretary of State George Shultz, who is also advising Bush. “But she has such a level of capability…that she winds up getting asked to do all sorts of things.”

For now, her task is to shape the Bush position on Russia–an area where the campaign hopes to score points against Al Gore. In an interview with TIME last week, Rice chided the Clinton Administration for continuing to support economic assistance to the Russian government despite widespread evidence of graft. “The last thing you wanted to do was accept the rhetoric of reform…when there’s no evidence that the Russians were undertaking any of the difficult steps,” she said. And Rice seared the Administration for its coziness with Boris Yeltsin and for allowing its agenda to become “synonymous with the agenda of the President of Russia.”

Her approach to Russia reflects the pragmatic realism of the Bush team’s world view. In interviews, Rice has gently criticized Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for her triumphalism–“Carrying power quietly is sometimes a good thing,” Rice says–and expressed disquiet at seeing the U.S. military mobilized for far-flung humanitarian interventions. Her discomfort with the moralistic rationales for sending troops into Kosovo was reflected in Governor Bush’s waffly initial statements. Once the decision to intervene was made, she and Bush supported it but felt it should have been carried out more forcefully. On the use of force, she says Bush will differ from the current Administration “not just on when to use it, but how.”

And yet Rice’s differences with the Democrats are not rooted in a great ideological clash. The members of the Bush foreign policy brain trust–all of whom worked in the Reagan or Bush White House–belong to a generation that came of age in the twilight of communism. Rice has been a fixture at confabs of the foreign policy establishment, such as the Aspen Institute, where last month she and her Bush Administration mentor Brent Scowcroft engaged in typically elevated and polite debate with Democratic stalwarts such as Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Rice believes U.S.-Russia relations should be reoriented to focus on security issues like nuclear disarmament rather than political and economic reform; the Administration is already moving in that direction. Although she would halt talk of Russia as a strategic partner, she doesn’t seek confrontation. “Sometimes Russia’s interests will conflict with ours, and sometimes they will coincide,” she says. Nor does she engage in who-lost-Russia attacks. “Russia hasn’t been lost.”

Indeed, her bipartisan tone leads one former Bush official to note that Rice could have ended up working for a Democratic administration. But Rice would rather see her beloved Stanford football team lose than work for a Democrat. By both upbringing and philosophy, she is a committed Republican realist in the tradition of Kissinger, Scowcroft and Colin Powell. Rice’s father, a university administrator, joined the G.O.P. in 1952, at a time when Dixiecrats still ruled the South. In 1960 the six-year-old Rice went into a voting booth and instructed her mother to “pull the elephant.” Her mother listened.

Growing up in segregated Birmingham, she recalls hardly knowing that white people existed. Then, in 1963, her friend Denise McNair was killed in the church bombing that helped ignite the civil rights movement. The family moved out of Alabama, eventually relocating to Denver. But living under Jim Crow instilled in Rice an astonishing resilience. “I came out of that not bitter but with a sense of entitlement,” she says, “to do whatever I wanted to do, to be whoever I wanted to be.”

For most of her youth, she wanted to be a concert pianist; she still practices for an hour a day and gives recitals on the Stanford campus. But after entering the University of Denver at age 15 (she skipped two grades in school), her professional music prospects dimmed, and she began to feel “an inexplicable pull toward the study of Russia and communism and Eastern Europe.”

Her mentor at Denver was the Czech refugee Josef Korbel, Madeleine Albright’s father. This coincidence serves to highlight her differences with Albright, who has become the foremost proponent of an ideal-driven foreign policy. While Rice says that in foreign policy “America’s values are extremely important,” she hews closer to the tradition of Korbel and other realists, such as Hans Morgenthau, who place greater weight on defending strategic interests and tending to the balance of power.

In 1981, before she had even completed her Ph.D., she was offered a professorship at Stanford. Scowcroft met her in 1986, at a dreary dinner with various foreign policy graybeards. “Here was this young slip of a girl who would speak up unabashedly,” he told TIME. “I determined to get to know her.” After he was named Bush’s NSC adviser, he placed one of his first recruiting calls to Rice.

She mesmerizes colleagues with a mixture of soft-spoken gentility and effusive warmth. But beneath that lies a steely determination. “The roadside is littered with the bodies of those who have underestimated Condi,” says Stanford political scientist Coit Blacker, a close friend. Former CIA chief Robert Gates recalls Rice’s accosting a Treasury Department official who tried to undermine her authority. “With a smile on her face she sliced and diced him,” Gates says. “He was a walking dead man after that.” During her bravura six-year tenure as Stanford provost, her aversion to identity politics at times unsettled some faculty and students. Once, when an African-American student complained that Rice was inattentive to campus minorities, she shot back. “You don’t have the standing to question my commitment,” she said. “I’ve been black all my life.”

Friends say Rice has no burning desire to return to Washington. “She doesn’t have to be Secretary of Defense to be happy,” Blacker says. That contentment is a product of her faith: a devout Presbyterian, Rice told White House staff members not to page her during Sunday churchgoing hours. “She is ambitious,” says Stanford professor Steve Krasner, a close friend. “But she is also a very religious person who believes there is an element of fate beyond her control.”

Her advisory role with the younger Bush began when both were vacationing at his father’s compound in Kennebunkport, Me., last summer. His education as a statesman has been gradual; initially the priority was simply “to come to terms with who he was in foreign policy.” Robert Zoellick, another adviser, says that when he has sent Bush briefing papers, the Governor “wouldn’t spend time on the outline. He would go straight to the questions and answers. It’s a very interactive style.” But even while trying to cast the best light on her pupil last week, Rice could not escape making the tutelage sessions sound somewhat remedial. “If I were sitting down across from the Premier of China,” Bush would ask members of his team, “what would be the three top things I would focus on with that Premier?”

Rice dismisses the ridicule of Bush’s slips–his referring to the people of Kosovo as Kosovians, or Greeks as Grecians–as a “parlor game” played by elites. “Governor Bush has not spent the last 10 years of his life at Council on Foreign Relations meetings,” she says. “He’s spent the last 10 years of his life building a business and being Governor of a state.” And, she says, “the presidency is not just the President. It’s a whole team of people who are going to get things done.” But as another quick study from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, once learned, a President will have to do more than scurry to advisers whenever questions about America’s interventions in the world arise. One of Rice’s big challenges now is to help Bush show that he can answer them on his own.

–With reporting by James Carney and Douglas Waller/Washington

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