Feature

Our next secretary of state

As the chief architect of U.S. foreign policy, Condoleezza Rice is arguably the most powerful woman in the world. What do we really know about her?

What kind of person is Rice?A woman of incredible drive and accomplishment. Our first African-American female secretary of state rises every day at 5 A.M., jogs on a treadmill while listening to the news or Led Zeppelin, and often goes shopping after appearing on Sunday morning talk shows. A musical prodigy, she had her first piano lesson at age 3, her first recital at 4, and has performed onstage with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. She is also a former competitive ice skater who loves sports and has dreamed aloud of being commissioner of the National Football League. “I find football so interesting, strategically,” she says. “It’s the closest thing to war.”

What’s her background?Condoleezza (an Italian musical term meaning “with sweetness”) Rice was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1954, the only child of a Presbyterian minister and a biology teacher. Inspired by her parents’ admonition that she needed to be “twice as good” as whites to compete, she worked like a demon at school, skipped two grades, and entered the University of Denver before her 16th birthday. There, under the tutelage of political scientist Josef Korbel—a Czech émigré and the father of future secretary of state Madeleine Albright—she became especially interested in the politics of the Soviet Union. In 1981, after earning her Ph.D., she began teaching at Stanford. In 1993, at age 38, she was named provost—the youngest person ever to hold the post. But by then she was already well established in Washington.

How did she manage that?In 1984, Brent Scowcroft, then head of the U.S. Commission on Strategic Forces, attended a Stanford dinner discussion on arms control. Rice barraged him with pointed, penetrating questions. “Here was this slip of a girl,” Scowcroft recalls. “Boy, she held her own. I said, ‘This is someone I’ve got to get to know.’” So he arranged for Rice to meet Washington policymakers and attend high-level conferences. Then, in 1989, as the first President Bush’s national security advisor, he appointed Rice to the National Security Council. She advised the elder Bush on German reunification; in return, he introduced her to Mikhail Gorbachev as the woman “who tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union.”

Has she always been a Republican?Rice was initially a Democrat, and voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. But she felt he didn’t respond forcefully enough to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1979, so she switched to Ronald Reagan in 1980. At Stanford, she also attached herself to the Hoover Institute, the university’s conservative think tank. Her defining political moment came in 1988, when Albright, the daughter of her old mentor, called to recruit her to Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign. “Madeleine,” Rice said after an awkward silence, “I don’t know how to tell you this. I’m a Republican.”

When did she meet George W. Bush?In 1998, when he was first contemplating running for the White House and needed instruction in foreign policy. Bush and Rice hit it off immediately. “I like to be around her,” he said at the time. “I like lighthearted people, not people who take themselves so seriously. Besides, she’s really smart!” The Texas governor particularly liked the way Rice broke complicated issues down into comprehensible pieces, so he made her his chief foreign policy advisor. He dubbed her “Guru,” and renamed a spot on his Crawford ranch “Balkan Hill” after Rice gave him a primer on the Balkans while they were jogging there. It was not surprising that when he became president in 2000, she became his national security advisor.

What is her philosophy?Rice has called herself “an all-over-the-map Republican” who adapts her views to a changing world. For most of her career she subscribed to the notion of realpolitik. The purpose of foreign policy, she believed, was to advance U.S. interests; and the best way to accomplish that goal was to avoid such idealistic traps as nation building and meddling in other countries’ internal affairs. Since Sept. 11, she’s moved to the right, and adopted some of the views of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration. She now insists, for example, that the U.S. has the right to launch a military invasion to pre-empt any foreign threat. But Rice has walked a careful line between administration hard-liners and the more cautious faction led by her predecessor, Colin Powell. In the end, her views are almost always in agreement with the president’s.

Does she have Bush’s ear?Probably more than any other administration figure. Rice not only briefs Bush every day, she spends time with him exercising, watching sports on TV, and even assembling jigsaw puzzles at Camp David. “We are very comfortable with each other,” she explains. “We’ve been around each other for a long time. Also, there’s not a huge age difference, we like a lot of the same things, sports particularly, and we have a similar sense of humor. We find a lot of the same things absurd.” They are so close, in fact, that at a recent Washington dinner party, Rice said, “As I was telling my husb—” before abruptly stopping herself and continuing, “As I was telling President Bush…”

Rice and race

Brown v. Board of Education,

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