Condoleezza Rice

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 12 2000 3:00 AM

Condoleezza Rice

George W. Bush's celebrity adviser. 

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The iron rule of presidential campaigns is that aides should never overshadow their candidate—especially when he has a lightweight reputation. George W. Bush's campaign tries to hide consigliere Karl Rove. Bush economics adviser Michael Boskin is nearly invisible. And when was the last time you read a profile of Paul Wolfowitz, one of Bush's foreign policy honchos?

But the rule does not apply to Condoleezza Rice, W.'s other foreign policy adviser. While almost no one has heard of Gore's foreign policy counselor Leon Fuerth, everyone knows Condi. When Al Gore delivered a major foreign policy speech last week, Bush didn't answer it himself. He dispatched Rice. Her picture, not Bush's, appeared opposite Gore in the New York Times. Columnists gush over her. Newspapers and network news programs profile her.

Rice is allowed to overshadow Bush because she is exotic: a black, female, conservative foreign policy expert. She stands out in Bush's army of white men, proves that his campaign is not just about good ol' boys. But her celebrity obscures how unexceptional she is. Her ideas, work, and style place her in the absolute mainstream of Republican thought. She is Brent Scowcroft in the body of a black woman.

Reporters portray Rice's ascent as more unlikely than it is, noting that she grew up in Jim Crow Alabama and lost a childhood friend in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. But Rice's family belonged to Birmingham's bourgeois elite. Her Republican father was a university administrator, and her mother taught music and science. It was understood that she would pursue a high-powered career.

Rice aspired to be a concert pianist, but at the University of Denver she found herself enthralled by an international relations class taught by Josef Korbel, Madeleine Albright's father. This led Rice into Soviet studies, where she pursued a doctorate and specialized in military affairs. Early on she decided that national interest and the balance of power, not humanitarian principles, should determine U.S. policy. In 1981, at the age of 26, she landed a professorship at Stanford.

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David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

At a 1985 conference, Rice bowled over Republican foreign policy eminence Brent Scowcroft with her tough questions and confident manner. He became the first in a series of foreign policy mentors: George Shultz and President George Bush would follow. In 1989, National Security Adviser Scowcroft hired her as his Soviet analyst. She served three years, abetting the Soviet Union's end and Germany's reunification, meeting Mikhail Gorbachev, and impressing her bosses with her keen pragmatism and collegial disposition. After the National Security Council, she returned to Stanford and became its provost, the youngest person ever to hold the job, as well as the first woman and the first African-American.

In 1998, President George Bush brought Rice and George W. together at his Maine vacation home. They hit it off. She soon resigned as provost and became Gov. Bush's chief foreign policy adviser. Rice supervises Bush's foreign policy cabal, which includes Wolfowitz, Robert Zoellick, and Richard Perle. (Even Gore advisers concede she has assembled "a pretty good team.") Rice polishes Bush's speeches, advises him on policy specifics, serves as his sounding board.

Rice rejects the notion that she is the brains behind Bush's foreign policy. She says that Bush has "good instincts" about the subject, and she argues that even experts would have flunked the international relations pop quizzes he tanked in the fall. Still, it's easy to see her fingerprints on his statements. She wrote an article for the January/February Foreign Affairs outlining many of Bush's themes. Blasting the Clinton administration for its bobbing, purposeless foreign policy, she insisted that America pursue its "national interest" rather than squishy notions of humanitarianism and international law. The United States should treat China and Russia as competitors rather than partners, strengthen the military but use it less, and firm our ties to regional allies such as Korea and Japan, she wrote. We should avoid humanitarian interventions unless—and this is a big wiggle—there is good reason for them. We should push free trade and economic liberalization everywhere—especially China—because this invariably leads to political liberalization. We should deploy a national missile defense and scrap treaties, such as the ABM treaty, that impede the national interest. Above all, the United States must be more "resolute" and certain in its aims.

Her philosophy is not the cold warrior ethos she was raised on. According to friend and NSC colleague Philip Zelikow, who co-authored a book on German reunification with Rice, the end of the Cold War helped open her thinking. Like many analysts of her generation, she focuses more on economics, conceives of the world in multipolar rather than bipolar terms, frets more about rogue states, and hews less to ideology.

Republicans who favor a values-laden foreign policy criticize Rice for her willingness to work with undemocratic regimes, notably China. Republican isolationists suspect she is too willing to send American troops overseas. In short, she occupies the solid middle of the Republican foreign policy spectrum. (Rice's and Bush's views differ surprisingly little from Gore's. All support the Kosovo intervention, trade with China, engagement with Russia, and the primacy of Israel's security in the Middle East. "What are they going to do differently?" asks Michael McFaul, a Stanford colleague of Rice's who advises Gore on foreign policy. Jacob Weisberg noted the similarity of Bush's and Gore's foreign policies in this recent "Ballot Box.")

What is most remarkable about Rice's work for Bush is not her advice—he could hear much the same thing from Perle or Richard Cheney or others—but her friendship. She really likes Bush, and he seems to reciprocate. They share deep religious faith—both are evangelical Protestants. Both are sports fans and exercise fanatics: During one early meeting, Bush consulted with Rice while she ran on a treadmill. Both are loose and funny but capable of hardheaded pragmatism when it's required. "We have very similar personalities," she says.

Some Rice admirers tout her for secretary of defense in a Bush administration, others for secretary of state. But many peg her as national security adviser. That, after all, is the foreign policymaker who works most directly with the president. "She would be at the center and close to Bush," says a friend of hers. "Bush would feel more comfortable in the White House with her around." 

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