Smart, savvy, strong-willed Rice charts her own course
(CNN) -- Condoleezza Rice's name is derived from an Italian musical term that means "with sweetness" -- but when it comes to protecting the United States and its interests, there is nothing sugary about her.
Four months into the U.S.-led war on terror, the poker-faced national security adviser is still not mincing words -- or showing any signs of weakening.
She is the first woman to hold this critical job, but talk of her gender seems to be a distant memory.
"It doesn't even matter anymore. You don't see woman, you just see ability," said Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was the director for European affairs at the National Security Council from 1995-1996.
In the early days of the Bush administration, commentators wondered if she would be able to hold her own.
"They thought she would be caught between (Secretary of State Colin) Powell and (Vice President Dick) Cheney and (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld, the sort of two tough white guys and a superhero," said Julia Reed, a Vogue magazine writer who authored a long profile of Rice.
But in just one year on the job, Rice is proving she does not play second fiddle to anyone. Rice is believed to be one of President Bush's closest advisers, exerting influence and control over matters extending beyond national security. She often is the sole member of his Cabinet to join him during weekend trips to Camp David.
She also is a close personal friend, sharing a love of sports and humor.
"When she walks in the room, it's second only to when Laura walks in the room because ... his body language is so relaxed with Rice," Reed said.
Roots in the segregated South
Rice was an exceptional student at the University of Denver. She started college at age 15 and took a doctorate from the university's Graduate School of International Studies in her early 20s.
Rice was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1954. At that time, it was nearly impossible for anyone to imagine a young black child growing up to be a confidante and adviser to the president of the United States of America.
Anyone except John and Angelena Rice, anyway.
"They wanted the world. They wanted Rice to be free of any kind of shackles, mentally or physically, and they wanted her to own the world," said her cousin Connie Rice. "And to give a child that kind of entitlement, you have to love her to death and make her believe that she can fly."
Both college-educated -- a rare feat in the segregated South -- the Rices did not want the negative mentality of segregation to seep into the psyche of their only child.
Freeman Hrabowski grew up in the same Birmingham neighborhood as Condoleezza Rice. Now, the president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, he said the adults in their community worked hard to ensure that their children felt special despite the belief of the larger world around them that African Americans were inferior.
"It was a strange notion, because we knew we were smart and we were hard working. And we'd been told that we were children of God, and God doesn't make inferiority," Hrabowski said.
Rice also was born the year of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that segregation in public schools and the principle of "separate but equal" that underpinned it was unjust.
But before segregation began to crumble, the Rices, along with the rest of the black elite in Birmingham, lived in a parallel world of sorts.
"And they simply ignored, ignored the larger culture that said you're second class, you're black, you don't count, you have no power," Connie Rice said.
Her mother, a music teacher, taught Rice to play the piano. From her father, also an educator, Rice developed a love of learning and a passion for sports.
"So formal education was terribly important to Condi's parents and in fact to both sides of her family, but it was also a kind of cultural education that's unusual even today in America," said Coit Blacker, a Stanford University professor who is a close friend of Rice. "So that she was exposed to classical music early on, to foreign languages and sports."
Blacker said during the 1950s and 1960s, for African Americans in the United States, particularly in the South, to succeed, they had to "over-perform."
"Over-performing" was nothing new to the Rice clan.
"We had fun," Connie Rice said. "It wasn't joyless, but there was an unspoken edict -- you succeeded and you did well in school, and once you start out that way, you don't know any different."
At the 2000 Republican National Convention, Rice talked about her family's long tradition of education and how it began with her grandfather.
"He was the son of a farmer in rural Alabama, but he recognized the importance of an education," Rice said.
"Around 1918, he decided he was going to get book-learning, and so he asked in the language of the day, where a colored man could go to college," she said. "He was told about little Stillman College, a school about 50 miles away, so granddaddy saved up his cotton for his tuition and he went off to Tuscaloosa."
A generation later, that commitment was still going strong. While other families took summer vacations, John Rice often took summer jobs on college campuses and he brought his wife and daughter with him.
"I don't know too many American families, period, who can claim that not only are their parents college-educated, but their grandparents are college-educated and all their cousins and aunts and uncles are college-educated," Blacker said.
Rice's accomplishments also are amazing for a child of Birmingham, considering how close to home the violence in opposition of the civil rights movement had struck. A kindergarten classmate of Rice's was one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the city's 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963.
Hrabowski, who also graduated from high school at age 15, credits the supportive adults for nurturing his academic career, especially his high school guidance counselor, John Rice.
"He was constantly working to get us to think about different universities for college," Hrabowski said. "And he was working with us on standardized tests, and giving us an opportunity to think about our dreams, our goals, our career goals."
But eventually, John Rice got a new job and his family left Birmingham for the snowy mountains of Denver, Colorado. It suited his daughter just fine, enabling her to indulge in another one of her passions: ice skating. The move to Denver also was the first time she had gone to an integrated school. But Rice did not suffer at all in her new surroundings.
"Now once you got out into the larger world and you were hit with the first messages from the dominant culture which believe that you could not fly, that in fact you were stupid and you shouldn't be able to achieve, by that time it's too late, because you got a 14-year-old who believes that she can be anything she wants to be and it's too late to destroy her self-esteem," Connie Rice said.
So when she was 15, Rice -- self-esteem intact - graduated from high school and enrolled at the University of Denver, majoring in music with dreams of becoming a concert pianist. She followed the music major path until her junior year when she enrolled in a class that drastically altered the direction her life would take.
A class changes her life direction
Josef Korbel -- former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's father -- was a mentor to Condoleezza Rice in political science. He encouraged her work in Soviet studies.
The class was taught by Dr. Josef Korbel, a Czech immigrant who dedicated his life to studying the Soviet Union and eastern European politics. He also is the father of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
His enthusiasm for the subject rubbed off on Rice immediately. She changed her major to political science, and immersed herself in the language, history and culture of the now-defunct Soviet empire.
"He instilled in her a love for international relations and a particular interest in then-Soviet affairs," Daalder said.
Upon graduating -- Phi Beta Kappa -- Rice headed to Notre Dame to get her master's degree. But she stayed in touch with Korbel, who encouraged her to return to Denver to earn a doctorate.
After receiving her doctorate, Rice was hired in 1981 by Stanford University as an assistant professor. Because she skipped a few school grades, she received her doctorate while she was in her mid-20s and was very close in age to the undergraduates she was teaching.
"She did what young, talented assistant professors do," Blacker said. "You create a certain amount of distance, so that the students don't think of you as one of them, but at the same time, you try to indicate to them that you are close enough in age that you have some empathy for what they are going through."
Rice became a popular professor and was awarded Stanford's highest teaching honor. But it wasn't just students who were impressed with the young academic: At a university dinner, she met Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser during the Ford administration.
Rice made such an impression on him that when Scowcroft was again named national security adviser for President George Bush in 1990, he appointed Rice as the National Security Council's deputy director of Soviet affairs.
Her appointment was the beginning of Rice's Washington career and the start of a lasting relationship with the Bush family.
During her time in the first Bush administration, she grew very close to the president and first lady Barbara Bush. President George Bush once told reporters that Rice was responsible for teaching him "everything he knew" about the Soviet Union.
"Russia has been her passion for a very long time, and you see her fingerprints on U.S. policy towards Russia, more than I would say on almost everything else," Daadler said.
She left the administration in 1991 to return to Stanford. But she maintained her friendship when Bush lost his bid for re-election to Bill Clinton.
A phone call leaves Rice speechless
Rice was appointed provost of Stanford University in 1993. Then in her late 30s, she was the youngest person to hold the position.
Not long after her return to Stanford, she received a phone call from the university president that left her speechless. Rice had become friendly with Stanford President Gerhard Casper and they often talked about plans for the school. But this time he had big plans for Rice.
"I did not beat around the bush, I said to her, 'Condi, I want you to be the next provost.' And there was really silence. You know, Condi is not someone who's easily stunned by anything but there was absolute silence on the other side of the table," he said, laughing.
Stanford's provost is the chief academic and budget officer who reports directly to the university president. Blacker said there have been only a few times where he has seen Rice surprised and after Casper asked Rice to be provost was one of those.
Rice was the youngest provost in Stanford's 102-year history, as well as being the first woman and the first African-American to hold the position. The surprise appointment initially created an uproar on campus, but Casper said he ignored it because he thought he was doing the right thing by appointing Rice.
"I knew it would be somewhat controversial because universities have a strong civil service expectation," Casper said. "If you are to be provost, you should have been dean, you should at least have been a department chair. She had been neither dean nor a department chair, but I was absolutely convinced that she was competent."
Rice's actions as provost were not always popular, but her supporters say she had a vision for the school and did her best to fulfill it.
"Condi's first instinct is not to conciliate," Blacker said. "Condi's first instinct is not to smooth over differences. Condi's first instinct is to figure out what needs to be done and the direction you want to go in (and) put together a strategy and then implement."
Her style was sometimes considered brash and authoritarian, not in sync with the "Stanford way." Connie Rice says her cousin "goes her own way, to her own drummer and her own pace." But Casper also noted there was a political element to tenure as provost.
"I think one more difficulty that was more on the kind of psychological side was curiously enough, not the fact that she was black -- nobody ever made reference to that -- but that Condi was a Republican and most American universities are primarily made up of Democrats," Casper said.
Moving back to Washington
Her political leanings would once again provide a fork in the winding road of her career. In 1998, her old boss, former President Bush, invited her to meet with his son, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who was laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign.
This would be the first of many meetings as well as the foundation of her working relationship and friendship with George W. Bush. Rice eventually left her post at Stanford to join Bush's campaign.
Officially, she was the coordinator of his foreign policy team. Unofficially, she was Bush's personal tutor on foreign policy, an area that was not his strong suit.
Once Bush was elected, it was no surprise that he choose to put her in a key position in his administration. In choosing his Cabinet, Bush surrounded himself with familiar faces from his campaign and veterans of past administrations, including his father's. Rice fell into both categories.
Washington insiders wondered if Rice was in above her head, given that experienced Washington hands like Cheney and Powell also would be advising the president on foreign policy issues.
"Early on, there was a sense that she was not necessarily the giant among giants," Daadler said. "There were true foreign policy giants in the room and she was not of the same caliber in the sense that she didn't share the kind of experiences that a Colin Powell, or a Donald Rumsfeld, or a Dick Cheney had had."
One of her first public tests came when a U.S. reconnaissance plane made an emergency landing in China. When the Chinese government would not release the crew or the plane -- which was loaded with sensitive intelligence-gathering equipment -- Rice quickly helped the president devise a strategy for the sensitive negotiations.
The former Soviet scholar's tough but level-headed approach has also been in evidence in Bush's decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. And after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Rice helped the president reassure the wounded country that they would work to keep America safe at all costs.
By virtue of who she is, Rice has a high profile in this administration.
"She is a novel commodity," Daalder said. "Here is a highly accomplished African-American woman, and being part of what is and always been (a) boys' club."
But it is not just that Rice is the female member of the boy's club but that Rice seems to be the premier member.
"She's got the president's ear," Reed said. "She's got this direct line, they're the same generation and it really makes a difference. Everyone's going to be jealous of her at some point.'"
A few months ago, when speculation swirled that Rice was edging out other Cabinet members, including Colin Powell, she went to great pains to dispel those rumors.
"Nobody should, by any means, be confused here. I'm not the secretary of state. The president doesn't need two secretaries of state. He's got a fine one," she said during media briefing in September.
People close to Rice say her colleagues have nothing to worry about.
"Those who work with her can trust her completely," Casper said. "Condi will never stab anybody in the back, including people in her environment who she has every reason to consider hostile."
Rice's high profile has a national security adviser popping up in some places you might not expect. She was featured in a photo spread in the October issue of Vogue and Glamour asked her five questions about her life and career. Rice's looks and her personal life are topping the hot topics lists around Washington.
"It's refreshing to see a woman with that kind of power also care about how she looks," Reed said.
The fact that Rice is 47, single and has no children has continued to raise some eyebrows as well.
Blacker questions why Rice's personal life is a topic at all.
"If Condi were a man, these questions would not be posed over and over and over again," Blacker said. "In terms of what I think, in some cases, almost amounts to an obsession with who she is as though there's some great untold story. It's maybe to be expected, but it's off base, I mean there is no great untold saga. Condi is who she says she is."
Rice says she is a deeply religious woman from the South who believes in democracy and football. In fact, she loves the sport so much, she used to work out with the Stanford football team and has said she would like to be the NFL commissioner someday.
Friends say Rice loves her job and is completely dedicated to serving the country, but also manages to have a life outside of her demanding job.
"I'm not sure what well-rounded means, but if well-rounded is meant to connote balance and groundedness, I don't know anyone better rounded if you will than Condi Rice," Blacker said.
And if her track record so far is any indication, the well-rounded child prodigy turned classical musician and ice skater-turned-professor-turned-national security adviser will continue to be in the public eye.