Lifting the Shadow Can Condoleezza Rice Emancipate Herself from Bush?
As the disastrous Bush administration drags down its members, only one of them, Condoleezza Rice, has what it takes to survive politically. Ironically, the president's close confidante, who bears part of the responsibility for all of the administration's crises, is the only one who stands a chance of scoring a comeback.
Condoleezza Rice has returned to Aspen, Colorado, more than three decades later. Apparently she is just as unsure, breathless and girlishly shy as she was the first time, when she was 17 and everything began. It was her first defeat.
Aspen, as it does every year at this time, is celebrating its annual music festival. More than 2,000 people have come to the concert tent on a mountain meadow, at $60 a ticket, to hear Rice give a piano recital and a talk -- about music, politics and herself.
Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state under former President Bill Clinton, is standing on the stage to introduce her. Rice, says Albright, "plays the piano better than any foreign minister" and is "a far better foreign minister than any pianist." Of course, this isn't saying much, since no other foreign minister has ever been a pianist and no other pianist has ever been a foreign minister. But Albright's words, as innocuous as they are, are kinder to Rice than the usual harsh words of criticism. After eight years at the side of US President George W. Bush, Rice can count herself lucky to be treated with such graciousness.
She became famous for her stern demeanor and the way she looks at people, which has gone down in history as "the look," and for the way she wrinkles her brow and her eyebrows gather darkly over her eyes. The look, feared among diplomats the world over, stood for her sharp and cold image, which enabled her to intimidate her counterparts and discouraged others from asking her any personal questions.
She wanted to be a Russia expert, a nuclear expert and, most of all, Bush's foreign policy expert. Now she has come to Aspen to play the piano, to give a public display of her passion for playing Dvorák and Brahms, a pastime she has kept confined mostly to her own living room until now.
On this evening, Rice is wearing black trousers and a canary-yellow blazer, which, uncharacteristically, is open at the front. Her hair is pulled back neatly and her makeup is much lighter than usual. On this evening, she wants to give a different impression, to come across as more approachable and, at the same time, more private.
She also wants to talk about the days when she was 17, and about her dream of playing the piano in America's great concert halls one day. She wants to win people over, to not be the stern secretary of state for a change, and part of that is talking about how she once failed -- as a musician. And how her life took a completely new direction.
When she returned home from Aspen, she told her parents that she no longer wanted to become a pianist. Instead, she said, she wanted to study international relations.
It was the great defeat of her life, and yet her admission of defeat made her more human. The audience laughs, pleased to learn about her "emotional chaos" for a change. It feels like a revelation. The next day, the Aspen Daily News writes: "How Condi Got her Groove Back."
If there is anyone, besides Bush, who ought to be held accountable for the failings of the current administration, it is Rice. For the past eight years, she has been the president's closest advisor, serving first as national security advisor and then as secretary of state.
As national security advisor, Rice saw her boss up to eight times a day, and as secretary of state she remained closer to him than anyone else in his cabinet. She saw him in the West Wing, on weekends at Camp David, at the Bush family estate in Kennebunkport, Maine and at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. She went fishing and jogging with him, helped him do crossword puzzles, became friends with his wife Laura, celebrated New Year's Eve with the family and made Sunday night dinner with the Bushes part of her weekly routine. On Palm Sunday, she and Bush sang hymns together on board Air Force Once.
She was involved in all major foreign policy decisions of the last eight years: Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the failed rapprochement with Iran, the alienation of Europe, the nuclear conflict with North Korea, prisoner abuse in Guantanamo and the establishment of secret CIA prisons in Europe. No one could ever tell who in fact was shaping US foreign policy, Bush or Rice.
The two never disagreed in public. There was never a single incident of dissonance between Rice and Bush, who seemed to be consistently on the same wavelength. Diplomats even referred to the "Rice-Bush black box" of American foreign policy, but they also accused her of keeping herself out of the fray whenever the State Department and Defense Department had one of their recurring feuds and she -- as national security advisor -- ought to have intervened. Instead, her tactic was to wait and see which department prevailed, and then take up its cause. The president's shadow offered her enough protection to keep herself hidden.
Nevertheless, Rice never triggered the same emotions Bush triggered among opponents of US foreign policy. She was never as unpopular or hated as her boss. On the contrary, until recently she was one of the country's most popular politicians. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, even briefly considered choosing her as his running mate. But concerns about being ridiculed as a Bush clone kept him from doing so.
Because of Bush's unpopularity, hardly any of his old comrades-in-arms stands a chance of embarking on a new career in politics. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell resigned early enough to gain sufficient distance from Bush, but other key figures in his administration, like former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and, of course, Vice President Richard Cheney, are contaminated by their association with his administration. Even his brother Jeb, always the favored scion of the dynasty, seems to have vanished from the political radar screen.
Condoleezza Rice is the only member of the Bush administration whose career is not finished. In fact, after this election year, her prospects will be better than ever.
- Part 1: Can Condoleezza Rice Emancipate Herself from Bush?
- Part 2: She Can Talk about Football -- and Knows Her Way around Nuclear Bombs and Missiles