Read an ExcerptCondi
The Condoleezza Rice Story
By Antonia Felix New Market
Copyright © 2005 Antonia Felix
All right reserved.
Coaching the Candidate
"The presidency is not just the President. It's a whole team of people who are going to get things done." -Condoleezza Rice, 1999
TO everyone in her inner circle, she is known as Condi, a name that trips off the tongue more easily than her full given name. Her mother, a pianist and organist, fashioned Condoleezza (kahn-dah-LEE-za) from the Italian term con dolcezza, which in a score of music instructs the performer to play "with sweetness." There is a tradition of Italian names on both sides of Condi's family-Theresa, Angelena, Angela, Genoa, Alto-and the unusual spin that the Rices put on her name was fitting for the distinctive individual she would become. In raising Condoleezza, John and Angelena Rice followed the direction inherent in her name, always heaping kindness upon her in their zealous efforts to educate, inspire, and motivate her to excel. Condi's rock-solid foundation of love and positive influence underlies every step she has taken, including her entry into an office just down the hall from the president of the United States.
The president has always called her Condi, while her staff members call her Dr. Rice. She appears to have escaped thepresident's penchant for nicknames, even though most of his associates as well as press people have been dubbed with one. Even heads of state are not immune -as his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin warmed in early 2002, George W. dubbed him "Pootie-Poot."
Condoleezza's foray into the Bushes' inner circle was launched at a dinner at Stanford University in 1987, when a few remarks she made changed the course of her career. Along with other members of the political science faculty, she attended an event at which President Gerald R. Ford's national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, made a speech. During the dinner afterward, which was attended by many of the top foreign policy minds in the country, Scowcroft found the conversation "dreary" until a young political science professor named Dr. Rice spoke up. "Here was this slip of a girl," he recalled. "Boy, she held her own. I said, 'That's someone I've got to get to know.'" From her comments, Scowcroft realized that she possessed a profound understanding of Soviet ideology that matched his own brand of political realism. "She saw where we could cooperate and where not," he recalled.
Scowcroft was so bowled over by Rice that she immediately came to mind when he became national security advisor in the first Bush administration. Immediately after the election in 1988, Scowcroft began selecting the staff that would join him in the White House. "One of my first phone calls was to Condi Rice," he said. Based on her scholarly expertise of the Soviet Union, he appointed her director of Soviet affairs at the National Security Council. Not only did she gain the respect of her colleagues in this post, she quickly became a personal friend of both President and Barbara Bush.
Just as his son would do a decade later, the elder George Bush relied upon Condi to tutor him on Soviet military and political history. During his term, in which the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dismantled, he forthrightly credited her for keeping him up to speed on the subject, telling one head of state that she "tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union." After Bush I's term was over, Condi returned to her teaching job at Stanford. She remained friendly with George and Barbara, and was often invited to their Houston home and their summerhouse in Kennebunkport, Maine.
She met frequently with the former president as part of what Barbara called the "book group," at times consisting of Condi, Scowcroft, and Bush, to help write a book about major global events that occurred during Bush's administration. The work was begun during Bush's first year out of office and included the input of many people. Condi made lengthy visits to Houston and Kennebunkport throughout 1997 to help Bush with the book.
The final product, A World Transformed, was published in 1998 and covers events that occurred from 1989 to 1991, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, and the Gulf War. In the introduction, Bush and Scowcroft state, "Some of the most dramatic and epochal events of the twentieth century took place during the short period of 1989 to 1991 ... did we see what was coming when we entered office? No, we did not, nor could we have planned it.... Yet, in only three years-historically only a moment-the Cold War was over." Bush credits Condi for contributing extensively to the book by helping the authors scope out its content, refreshing their memories of particular details, and sharing research she had done for Germany Unified and Europe Transformed, a book she cowrote with Philip Zelikow in 1995.
During a visit with George and Barbara Bush in Houston in 1995, George asked Condi to make a call on his son in Austin before going home. George W. was settling in as the newly elected governor-his first political office (in 1978, he had made an unsuccessful bid for a state congressional seat). Perhaps George Sr. felt that Condi could be an asset to his son down the road should his political aspirations grow beyond the state of Texas. Or maybe he wanted to introduce them because they share an obsession for sports and carry their steely self-discipline into their workout routines, a trademark of the athletic and competitive Bush clan. Such a common thread would be a strong foundation for friendship and create a context in which they could discuss politics and world affairs. Whatever his reasons, George suggested Condi meet the new governor, and she agreed.
The governor and Condi hit it off immediately, bonding like any two sports fanatics. George W. was still a co-owner of the Texas Rangers, and they chatted about baseball as they looked over George's signed-baseball collection, lovingly arranged in a set of glass display cases. Condi wowed George with stories about Willie Mays, who was a student in one of her mother's classes at Fairfield Industrial High School in Birmingham-real-life stories about Mays that probably only a handful of people have ever heard. For a baseball fan, it just doesn't get any better than that. "Governor Bush was very impressed," Condi recalled.
During that visit, George W. gained not only Condi's friendship but her respect as well. "He's really smart-and he's also disciplined, which I admire," she said. "He's tough, calm and even-keeled ... [and] he also has a great sense of humor." George Sr.'s instincts about Condi and George W. were on target; the two had a chemistry that created a bond of friendship, loyalty, and respect. As a result, Condi would figure large in the next step of his political career.
During one mini-vacation with the Bush clan at Kennebunkport in the summer of 1998, George W. and Condi had a series of intense conversations about pressing global issues of the day. The governor was considering a run for the presidency, and he knew that his friend could give him clear, straightforward summaries of complex issues. Neither of them were the type to relax and chat while sipping ice tea on the porch, so they hammered out their discussions while running side-by-side on the treadmill, whacking balls on the tennis court, or fishing. Condi didn't actually fish-she left that to George W. and his father. She isn't even fond of the water, but in this case she went along. "I don't get seasick," she said, "but I also don't like the water very much and I most certainly don't fish. I let President and Governor Bush fish and I sat and talked. We talked a lot about the state of the American armed forces and ballistic missile defense." All the while, George W. fired questions such as, "What about relations with Russia, what about relations with China? [And] what about the state of the military?"
This grueling exchange marked the beginning of Condi's long-term relationship with George W. as his closest foreign policy advisor.
In late 1999, when George W.'s campaign began to take shape, he enlisted Condi as his primary tutor on foreign policy. She had stepped down from her job as provost of Stanford University and had been contemplating a variety of options at the time. She figured she could keep exploring those options while coaching the candidate on foreign affairs.
When Condi started out on the campaign, she assumed it would be part-time and, apart from her tutoring sessions, limited to a few appearances here and there. Her friend, Deborah Carson, who had worked on Clinton's campaign in 1992, soon set her straight. "When we talked about it, she thought she would just be giving a few speeches on national security," Deborah said. "Condi told me, 'I'm not really going to be part of the campaign.' She thought they'd just fly her out and she'd give a few speeches on national security! I said, 'Well, wait a minute, you don't know campaigns. You're going to be at every chicken dinner-it's not going to happen right away, but as that thing gets going, they're going to pull you in. You're not going to be talking about national security, you're going to talk about whatever they need you to talk about at the time.' And so as the campaign progressed, we were talking and she said, 'You know, you were right.'"
Not only did Condi take charge of George W.'s foreign policy advisory group and work with him as his main tutor, she eventually got called out to make other appearances not related to foreign policy. The campaign needed her as a woman-to help get the female vote-and as a black person-to emphasize the candidate's intent to place minorities in his new administration.
From early on in the campaign, it was obvious that Condi had the candidate's ear and had the closest affinity to him. They shared an obsession for fitness and sports, and it appeared that only she could temper the complexities of foreign policy with the clarity Bush appreciated. And perhaps most importantly, they had chemistry. "I like to be around her," the governor said. "She's fun to be with. I like lighthearted people, not people who take themselves so seriously that they are hard to be around. Besides, she's really smart!" He revealed the depths of their working relationship when he described Condi as "a close confidant and a good soul." And from the start, the admiration was mutual. "I've respected him from the first time we talked," said Condi, "because he has the kind of intellect that goes straight to the point. You can get a bunch of academics in a room and they can talk for three hours and never actually get to the point."
George W.'s cadre of foreign policy advisors included eminent veterans of previous administrations (including his father's) such as Richard Armitage, Robert Zoellick, Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Blackwill, and Richard Perle. As coordinator of the group, Condi caught George W.'s bug for nicknaming and set out to find a label for the group. She chose the name of her hometown's most famous mascot, Vulcan, the Roman god who created thunderbolts and hammered metal into tools for the gods, which loomed over Birmingham, Alabama, when Condi was a child. The colossal statue, which stood on the crest of Red Mountain, had been built by the steel town for an exhibit at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. When Vulcan returned to his hometown he was placed on top of the mountain, far enough from view so that his scantily clad physique wouldn't offend anyone. The Jaycees even gave him a job, placing a neon torch in his left hand that normally glowed green but switched to bright red whenever a fatal traffic accident occurred in the city.
"I grew up right there in Birmingham with Vulcan," said Condi. "I remember as a little girl that it was red if there was an accident or green if everything was clear."
The candidate's foreign policy advisory group was committed to forging the candidate's grasp of world affairs and proving to the world that he was presidential material. Condi, who has a fondness for football metaphors, described herself as a "quarterback" for the Vulcans. "I don't try to do it all myself," she said. "Like a quarterback, I can hand off or throw downfield." She fielded this key position because George W. valued her ability to decipher complex policy issues into easy-to-digest, nuts-and-bolts language. He described her as someone who "can explain to me foreign policy matters in a way I can understand."
Whether Condi's talent for clarity is natural or has been gleaned from years of teaching political science to undergraduates, it is one of her most highly respected qualities in Washington. "She has an extraordinary ability to be clear," one European diplomat in Washington stated in a Vogue profile of Rice. "Her powers of exposition on a very wide range of complicated topics are extraordinarily strong." That point was also made by Philip Zelikow, a former colleague who worked with Condi in the first Bush administration. "One of the things that is appealing to Bush is that she can be very down to earth in cutting right to the heart of matters," he said. "People in the foreign policy world are generally not good at that."
In her role as director of Bush's foreign policy advisory team, Rice took the lead in what has traditionally been an all-male domain. She was not intimidated; rather, she approached the job with the confidence of past experience -having served in the elder Bush's administration -and with a sense of control gleaned from years of teaching at Stanford. "She is a novel commodity," observed Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council member. "Here is a highly accomplished African-American woman ... being part of what is and always has been [a] boys' club."
Part of Condi's responsibilities with the Vulcans involved working with Paul Wolfowitz to set up intensive half-day training seminars for George W. that covered defense, weapons proliferation, Europe, and other topics. The chemistry between Condi and George W. allowed this process to run smoothly, and she remarked that they had a similar approach to confronting the material. When the press questioned the governor about his lack of experience in foreign affairs, he assured them that he had strong resources behind him. "I may not be able to tell you exactly the nuance of the East Timorian situation, but I'll ask people who've had experience, like Condi Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, or Dick Cheney. I am smart enough to know what I don't know, and I have good judgment about who will either be telling me the truth, or has got some agenda that is not the right agenda."
Condi strenuously backed the governor during these press sessions. She explained that any executive, including a governor, is accustomed to facing issues about which he or she has minimal previous experience. Gathering information and making important decisions on items as they come up is a natural part of the territory, even for a president in training. Condi's executive experience came from her role as provost at Stanford, the number-two post just beneath the president, responsible for the $1.5 billion budget and administrative decisions. George's executive experience came from his years in the oil industry in West Texas, as a managing partner of a very profitable baseball team, and as governor of Texas. "As an executive," said Condi, "you're always asked to make important decisions about which your knowledge base is relatively slim. Someone might ask me to support a million-dollar physics telescope. I don't know a lot about that, but I can ask hard questions and get a sense about whether it's important, and prioritize it against other issues."
When the press pointed out the candidate's inability to name heads of state and his slips in vocabulary, Condi dismissed the attacks as a "parlor game" played by Washington pundits. She stressed the experience he had gained in both business and politics and reminded them that every president relies upon a team of advisors and experts. "Governor Bush has not spent the last ten years of his life at Council on Foreign Relations meetings," she said. "He's spent the last ten years of his life building a business and being governor of a state."
Excerpted from Condi by Antonia Felix Copyright © 2005 by Antonia Felix. Excerpted by permission.
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