Condi Rice can't lose
George W. Bush's foreign-policy adviser is a future superstar.
But can she save Bush from himself?
By Romesh Ratnesar
September 20, 1999
Web posted at: 3:49 p.m. EDT (1949 GMT)
The seas were angry, and european communism was in the throes of
collapse. It was December 1989, and George Bush had arrived for
a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev on the stormy waters off Malta
in the Mediterranean. He introduced the Soviet President to his
advisers, stopping near a reed-thin, 35-year-old
African-American woman. "This is Condoleezza Rice," Bush told
Gorbachev. "She tells me everything I know about the Soviet
Union." Gorbachev looked her over--startled, in that setting, by
the adviser's race, gender and youth. "I hope you know a lot,"
She did. As a staff member of the National Security Council and
then as special assistant to the President, Rice helped craft
the strategy that brought the cold war to its peaceful end. Now
supporters of George W. Bush are repeating Gorbachev's hope.
Since bumbling through an embarrassing round of malapropisms and
misstatements that raised questions about his ability to lead
the world, Bush has turned to a coterie of foreign policy wonks
to help mold his views on international affairs (and teach him
the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia). This week Bush
will get his first chance to show off what he has learned, when
he delivers a speech outlining his plan to revitalize the U.S.
military. But he is still dependent on his team of advisers.
Foremost among them, as both confidant and spokesperson, is the
44-year-old Condi Rice.
Rice, formerly provost of Stanford University, is in line to
become, if Bush wins, either National Security Adviser,
Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. She would be
destined to be--not only because of her race and gender but also
because of her wit and spark--a politico-celebrity superstar.
"She doesn't seem to try to push herself forward in any
particular way," says former Secretary of State George Shultz,
who is also advising Bush. "But she has such a level of
capability...that she winds up getting asked to do all sorts of
For now, her task is to shape the Bush position on Russia--an
area where the campaign hopes to score points against Al Gore.
In an interview with TIME last week, Rice chided the Clinton
Administration for continuing to support economic assistance to
the Russian government despite widespread evidence of graft.
"The last thing you wanted to do was accept the rhetoric of
reform...when there's no evidence that the Russians were
undertaking any of the difficult steps," she said. And Rice
seared the Administration for its coziness with Boris Yeltsin
and for allowing its agenda to become "synonymous with the
agenda of the President of Russia."
The Rice file
BORN: Nov. 14, 1954, in Birmingham, Ala.
EDUCATION: B.A., Ph.D., University of Denver; studied under Josef
Korbel, Madeleine Albright's father
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: NSC staff member under George Bush; special
assistant to the President; provost of Stanford University
HOBBIES: Practicing the piano; watching football
Her approach to Russia reflects the pragmatic realism of the
Bush team's world view. In interviews, Rice has gently
criticized Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for her
triumphalism--"Carrying power quietly is sometimes a good
thing," Rice says--and expressed disquiet at seeing the U.S.
military mobilized for far-flung humanitarian interventions. Her
discomfort with the moralistic rationales for sending troops
into Kosovo was reflected in Governor Bush's waffly initial
statements. Once the decision to intervene was made, she and
Bush supported it but felt it should have been carried out more
forcefully. On the use of force, she says Bush will differ from
the current Administration "not just on when to use it, but how."
And yet Rice's differences with the Democrats are not rooted in
a great ideological clash. The members of the Bush foreign
policy brain trust--all of whom worked in the Reagan or Bush
White House--belong to a generation that came of age in the
twilight of communism. Rice has been a fixture at confabs of the
foreign policy establishment, such as the Aspen Institute, where
last month she and her Bush Administration mentor Brent
Scowcroft engaged in typically elevated and polite debate with
Democratic stalwarts such as Deputy Secretary of State Strobe
Talbott. Rice believes U.S.-Russia relations should be
reoriented to focus on security issues like nuclear disarmament
rather than political and economic reform; the Administration is
already moving in that direction. Although she would halt talk
of Russia as a strategic partner, she doesn't seek
confrontation. "Sometimes Russia's interests will conflict with
ours, and sometimes they will coincide," she says. Nor does she
engage in who-lost-Russia attacks. "Russia hasn't been lost."
Indeed, her bipartisan tone leads one former Bush official to
note that Rice could have ended up working for a Democratic
administration. But Rice would rather see her beloved Stanford
football team lose than work for a Democrat. By both upbringing
and philosophy, she is a committed Republican realist in the
tradition of Kissinger, Scowcroft and Colin Powell. Rice's
father, a university administrator, joined the G.O.P. in 1952,
at a time when Dixiecrats still ruled the South. In 1960 the
six-year-old Rice went into a voting booth and instructed her
mother to "pull the elephant." Her mother listened.
Growing up in segregated Birmingham, she recalls hardly knowing
that white people existed. Then, in 1963, her friend Denise
McNair was killed in the church bombing that helped ignite the
civil rights movement. The family moved out of Alabama,
eventually relocating to Denver. But living under Jim Crow
instilled in Rice an astonishing resilience. "I came out of that
not bitter but with a sense of entitlement," she says, "to do
whatever I wanted to do, to be whoever I wanted to be."
For most of her youth, she wanted to be a concert pianist; she
still practices for an hour a day and gives recitals on the
Stanford campus. But after entering the University of Denver at
age 15 (she skipped two grades in school), her professional
music prospects dimmed, and she began to feel "an inexplicable
pull toward the study of Russia and communism and Eastern
Her mentor at Denver was the Czech refugee Josef Korbel,
Madeleine Albright's father. This coincidence serves to
highlight her differences with Albright, who has become the
foremost proponent of an ideal-driven foreign policy. While Rice
says that in foreign policy "America's values are extremely
important," she hews closer to the tradition of Korbel and other
realists, such as Hans Morgenthau, who place greater weight on
defending strategic interests and tending to the balance of power.
In 1981, before she had even completed her Ph.D., she was
offered a professorship at Stanford. Scowcroft met her in 1986,
at a dreary dinner with various foreign policy graybeards. "Here
was this young slip of a girl who would speak up unabashedly,"
he told TIME. "I determined to get to know her." After he was
named Bush's NSC adviser, he placed one of his first recruiting
calls to Rice.
She mesmerizes colleagues with a mixture of soft-spoken
gentility and effusive warmth. But beneath that lies a steely
determination. "The roadside is littered with the bodies of
those who have underestimated Condi," says Stanford political
scientist Coit Blacker, a close friend. Former CIA chief Robert
Gates recalls Rice's accosting a Treasury Department official
who tried to undermine her authority. "With a smile on her face
she sliced and diced him," Gates says. "He was a walking dead
man after that." During her bravura six-year tenure as Stanford
provost, her aversion to identity politics at times unsettled
some faculty and students. Once, when an African-American
student complained that Rice was inattentive to campus
minorities, she shot back. "You don't have the standing to
question my commitment," she said. "I've been black all my life."
Friends say Rice has no burning desire to return to Washington.
"She doesn't have to be Secretary of Defense to be happy,"
Blacker says. That contentment is a product of her faith: a
devout Presbyterian, Rice told White House staff members not to
page her during Sunday churchgoing hours. "She is ambitious,"
says Stanford professor Steve Krasner, a close friend. "But she
is also a very religious person who believes there is an element
of fate beyond her control."
Her advisory role with the younger Bush began when both were
vacationing at his father's compound in Kennebunkport, Me., last
summer. His education as a statesman has been gradual; initially
the priority was simply "to come to terms with who he was in
foreign policy." Robert Zoellick, another adviser, says that
when he has sent Bush briefing papers, the Governor "wouldn't
spend time on the outline. He would go straight to the questions
and answers. It's a very interactive style." But even while
trying to cast the best light on her pupil last week, Rice could
not escape making the tutelage sessions sound somewhat remedial.
"If I were sitting down across from the Premier of China," Bush
would ask members of his team, "what would be the three top
things I would focus on with that Premier?"
Rice dismisses the ridicule of Bush's slips--his referring to
the people of Kosovo as Kosovians, or Greeks as Grecians--as a
"parlor game" played by elites. "Governor Bush has not spent the
last 10 years of his life at Council on Foreign Relations
meetings," she says. "He's spent the last 10 years of his life
building a business and being Governor of a state." And, she
says, "the presidency is not just the President. It's a whole
team of people who are going to get things done." But as another
quick study from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, once learned, a
President will have to do more than scurry to advisers whenever
questions about America's interventions in the world arise. One
of Rice's big challenges now is to help Bush show that he can
answer them on his own.
--With reporting by James Carney and
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: September 27, 1999