The Mystery of Condi Rice: Where did she learn how to play the game?

Way back when George W. Bush was still a candidate and “Condi” was not yet an internationally recognized nickname, someone who had observed the present secretary of state in a previous incarnation told me to watch her carefully. “Everyone underestimates her, because they think she’s a token. Condi’s not a token. Condi plays the game better than anyone else.”

No, Condi is not a token, and yes, Condi played the game better than anyone else—so much so that Condi has now dispensed with pretty much everyone who underestimated her to begin with, most notably Donald Rumsfeld, but for all practical purposes Dick Cheney, too. At this point it is she, the small, athletic black woman, and not one of them, the older, gray-haired white men, who is commonly understood to be the most influential foreign-policy figure in this administration. Condi has the president’s ear, Condi calls the shots, and Condi’s particular form of pragmatism has triumphed too. Step away from questions of substance (Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan), examine the results of seven long years of infighting, and it’s hard not to conclude that she is this administration’s star player.

But where did she learn how to do it? Elisabeth Bumiller’s new book, Condoleezza Rice: An American Life is at its best when its author is dealing with precisely that question, since the answers aren’t entirely what you’d expect. Much has been made (not least by Rice herself) of Condi’s origins in 1960s Birmingham, of her friendship with a child who died in the infamous, racially motivated, bombing of a Baptist church, of the shotgun her father kept at home to protect his family from nightriders. But this “Mississippi Burning” Birmingham was not really the city that Rice herself experienced. Carefully dressed and coiffed, taught French, ballet, ice skating, and piano, Rice in fact grew up in an aspirational middle-class household which seems to have been a lot more Scarsdale than Watts.

Later in life, Rice found that she had much in common with president-to-be George W. Bush, according to Bumiller, partly because both thought of themselves as coming from elite backgrounds. Weird though that sounds, this has the ring of truth about it: Take a look at one of Bumiller’s photographs, the one that shows Soviet expert Condi, age 35 but looking 20, briefing the senior President Bush, Secretary of State Baker, Marlin Fitzwater, Brent Scowcroft, and others during a 1990 Bush-Gorbachev summit, and ask yourself if this is a woman who looks even remotely uncomfortable or out of place.

But Rice shares other things with the current president. Like him, she has always had zero interest in ideology—zero interest in “big ideas” at all, in fact. Because she’s a black woman Republican from Alabama, and because she works for George W., Condi has sometimes been mischaracterized as an ideologue: Surely she couldn’t have gotten where she is, braving all that male chauvinism and all that racism, without some fervent belief in neoconservatism, or neorealism, or whatever kind of “ism” is currently in vogue. But that completely misses the point about Rice, who is a consummate pragmatist. Sure she talks about spreading democracy—but not because she’s on some kind of crusade. She has simply judged that the United States has more stable relationships with countries which, as she often puts it, “share our values.” But that doesn’t mean she’ll drop the Saudis just because their female population is subjected to serious human rights abuse.

This sort of pragmatism—people who don’t like it call it opportunism, though I don’t think that’s quite right—has also been visible from early on. Though Soviet studies was a field that once routinely attracted zealots of the left as well as the right, Condi fell into it because, having abandoned the idea of a professional musical career, she “wandered into” a course on international relations at the University of Denver and, portentously, was captivated by a lecture on the political maneuvering that brought Stalin to power.

The lecturer was Joseph Korbel, Madeleine Albright’s father, a coincidence that Bumiller (like others) makes much of. I make more of the fact that her subsequent Ph.D. topic was Czech-Soviet military relations, a subject even more boring and idea-free than that of most political-science Ph.Ds. But it would have appealed to Korbel, a Czech, and it would set her up to enter “strategic studies”—the Cold War science of missile-counting—which was then the fast track into foreign affairs. She moved quickly from academia proper into university administration, then into the first and second Bush administrations. And no wonder: For a person who feels at home in elite settings, who is captivated by political maneuvering, and who isn’t bound to an ideology, the White House is an ideal working environment.

And as I’ve said, this particular White House fit her particularly well. To the outside world, it might have seemed as though the second Bush administration was a seething mass of conservative and neoconservative ideologists, but Rice appears to have figured out, over time, that this White House was no different from any other: What mattered was access to the president, and this president (as I’m convinced history will show) was always more interested in appearing tough and decisive than in following ideas to their logical conclusion. Though it took her a few years to establish that access—Bush seems to have spent his first four years listening a lot more closely to Dick Cheney—Rice eventually got it.

Most of the reviews of this book will doubtless focus on its second half, which dissects Rice’s tenure as national security adviser, and then her first three years as secretary of state. Bumiller has documented—from the point of view of Rice and her team—much of what was known by rumor, or from Bob Woodward’s books, about the complete breakdown in relations between the Defense Department and the State Department in the months between Sept. 11 and the invasion of Iraq, as well as the foreign-policy hiccups produced by the vice president’s back-channel conniving. As others have pointed out, and no doubt will do again, this was precisely the policy-making environment that produced the disaster of the Iraq war.

Rice’s point of view, as transmitted by Bumiller, is clear enough: “Not my fault.” While she concedes, directly or indirectly, that Cheney and Rumsfeld got the better of her—in their decisions on handling enemy combatants, for example, which emerged from private meetings with the president—she places the blame for the result squarely on them, without ever quite saying so: Until she had the staff and the prestige of the Department of State behind her, she implies, all she could do was mediate.

Others have argued that it was precisely Rice’s failure to control the warring cabinet secretaries that led to the Iraq disaster. Perhaps her experience in the first Bush White House—a more gentlemanly administration, and one in which the president’s top foreign-policy adviser actually was the secretary of state, not the vice president—led her astray. Perhaps Cheney and Rumsfeld ignored her, since they thought she was a token. Or perhaps it’s better to wait for the rest of their memoirs and decide. There will be plenty of blame to go around, eventually.

The book does have a bland overall flavor—I couldn’t quite make out whether Bumiller actually liked Rice. And it doesn’t fully answer the No. 1 burning question about Condi’s personal life, except to point out that she once almost married a professional football player, though no one seems to know why it fell through. She does seem strangely comfortable weekending with the president and Mrs. Bush, an ideal way to spend time if one were trying to avoid deeper emotional ties—as well as a neat way to cut out the influence of all those men who have wives, families, and other places to go.

But Bumiller may be reflecting the blandness, or rather the remoteness, of Rice herself. At least in my limited experience, Rice almost never says anything off the record that she wouldn’t say in a television studio. She isn’t chilly—on the contrary, she is unfailingly warm and polite—but she isn’t exactly revelatory either. Though she does drop hints. “I never had a conversation with the president about Rumsfeld moving on,” she says, for example—though it is also clear that she offered his job to Robert Gates, Rumsfeld’s replacement, while Rumsfeld was still in office. That sounds to me like she did have a hand in his moving on but isn’t anxious to claim credit for it, at least not at the moment. Which is very Condi: take no prisoners, leave no traces, express surprise that anyone is upset about it—then smile for the camera, and move on.

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