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The New Secstate, Portrait of a People, a Retiring Columnist, &C.


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I am expected to say something about the new secretary of state, because I am something of a Rice-ologist–so I will! Condi Rice is an excellent foreign-policy thinker, and an excellent human being. It speaks well of W. that he thinks well of her; it speaks well of her that she thinks well of him.

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Rice is an admirable blend of what you might call the “realistic” and the “idealistic,” though I detest those terms. Much of what is idealistic is, in fact, perfectly realistic. And so on. In any case, Rice was trained by Josef Korbel at the University of Denver. An exiled Czech diplomat, he had a clear eye and a tough mind. Incidentally, he was the father of Madeleine Albright. So you might say that two of the three most recent secretaries of state have been “daughters” of this man. Some think Rice closer to Korbel’s views than Albright is.

While Rice started out as a fairly strict balance-of-power type, she–like many others–was affected by the Reagan experience. For a 1999 piece, she told me that Reagan’s famous speech at Westminster (1982) had worried her: Would it cause a backlash? But “you know what? He was absolutely right. And most important, the Soviets knew he was right–that they were going to wind up on the ash heap of history.” In a 2002 interview, she spoke of “power” and “values” as twin pillars of our foreign policy.

At State, she will have her work cut out for her. Obviously, there is Iraq, and Iran, and North Korea . . . But there is also the State Department itself! Can she tame, or at least manage, that bureaucracy, not exactly a friend to the current president? She had better.

The man she replaces, Colin Powell, is one of the most popular men in America, and for some good reasons. But it would be difficult to judge him a success as secretary of state. For one thing, he did an uneven job of explaining and defending U.S. policies around the globe, perhaps because he did not support some of those policies. This should not be a problem with Rice. Everywhere, she is described as a “loyalist” to the president, and people say that with a sneer–as though a president should have a renegade secretary of state.

If John Kerry had been elected president, would pundits have demanded that he appoint someone in disagreement with him?

This is a charge made against Bush across the board–that he is naming “yes men” to key positions. Newsweek ran a cartoon showing the president surrounded in the cabinet room by a bunch of “happy face” figures with the word “YES” on the name plates.

In truth, I doubt very much that Condi Rice, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, Margaret Spellings, and the others are yes men. How would we know? When they present challenging views to the president, or disagree with his ultimate decision, the rest of us don’t know it, because they don’t complain to the press–they don’t seek to aggrandize themselves at the expense of the chief, or of the administration. When Colin Powell and Richard Armitage, at the State Department, disagreed with something, we tended to know about it. Gee, wonder how that happened.

Look: Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others have lost plenty of internal battles–over the U.N., the Iraq aftermath, the 9/11 commission, etc. But they are not regarded as independent thinkers or brave dissenters, à la Powell, because once the president comes to a decision, they support him, certainly in public. If they thought the president egregiously wrong, they would resign, I imagine.

And, by the way: Powell was lionized, to be sure–but John Ashcroft, Rod Paige, and the others replaced by these “yes men”? Do you recall that the liberal press praised them while they were in their posts? Neither do I.

Condi Rice has been subjected to some nasty press, some of it racial–shockingly so. This is not particularly racial, but I give you a cartoon by the beloved Pat Oliphant: It shows Rice as a parrot on Bush’s hand, and the president is saying, “How woodums wike to be secwetawy of state?” to which Rice responds, “Awwrk!! OK, chief. Anything you say, chief. You bet, chief! You’re my hero, chief!”

The truth is, Rice is a woman of considerable independence and strength–a black Republican from Birmingham, Ala., would almost have to be. A Republican academic and university administrator almost has to be!

Blessedly, it is no more than an afterthought that President Bush has named a black woman to be secretary of state–to function as “America’s face to the world.” But, if the president and secretary of state were liberal Democrats, would the press ignore race and sex? For the past couple of weeks, I have enjoyed saying that Bush seems incapable of appointing secretaries of state who aren’t black. Of course, he gets no credit.

But Bush doesn’t think of them as blacks, he thinks of them as human beings, for better or worse. And that is what used to be known as liberalism, and is now known as Republicanism. (I exaggerate only slightly.) Amazing how the world turns.

Believe me, I am second to none in my revulsion at Donna Brazile–the Democratic operative who was the Gore-Lieberman campaign manager, and who lied that black voters had been kept from the polls by “guns and dogs”–but I sat up when she said, “I had chills down my spine. I never thought in my lifetime I’d see an African-American woman being nominated as secretary of state. George Bush made that happen.”

Damn right, Brazile.

In any event, Condi Rice has an opportunity to do a world of good, at a very critical time for the world.

Ah, one more thing: In that 1999 piece, I wrote, “Here is a prediction about her: If she becomes secretary of state or even something lesser, she will be big. Rock-star big. A major cultural figure, adorning the bedroom walls of innumerable kids and the covers of innumerable magazines.” Condi was teased a lot about these sentences: especially the “rock-star big” part. Last week, I got a call from an Australian journalist who said, “Okay, she is now clearly rock-star big.” And while on the recent National Review cruise, I met a couple whose teenage niece keeps a picture of Condi on her wall. Can this young lady be alone?

Yes, rock-star big. But so much more decent, and more capable–and more musical!–than your average rock star.

In the course of that NR cruise, I was handed a newspaper clipping by a woman, who said, “Can you do something about this?” Okay–the article concerns Chris Heinz, one of the Kerry stepkids, who said, “I don’t just want to win–I want to humiliate the bastard.” I guess he meant Bush! The venue was Oberlin College (perfect for the Kerry campaign).

But, listen, for a guy who called the president a “cokehead,” that doesn’t seem so bad.

Speaking of the NR cruise: What an enjoyable and interesting bunch of people, the 400 or so who glided through the Caribbean. I have found on these cruises that everyone has a story–usually an absorbing one. And I find myself burning at the culture the Left has formed.

What do I mean? Well, to your average liberal, all of us NR travelers (fellow travelers?) are the same: white, probably upper-middle-class, conservative people. Yes, there are similarities, as is inevitable; the same is true of Nation cruisers, no doubt. But the National Review crowd contains tremendous human variety. Some were born with silver spoons in their mouths, others were born with nothing. People have been through wars, illnesses, successes, failures, marriages, divorces, good luck, bad luck–virtually everything. Some are chipper, some are grumpy; some are generous, some are crabbed; some are brilliant, some are more normal.

My point is, to the typical teacher at Oberlin, we are all the same–bunch of damn Republicans. But if you bother to talk to people–you find out quite a lot.

Mine is a simple point, I know, but this column doesn’t ignore simple points, does it? In fact, you might call it a specialty!

Readers may remember a piece I wrote for NR in March 2001 called “Clinton’s Rosenberg Case: Before We ‘Move On.’” It concerned Susan Rosenberg, the Weather Underground terrorist whose sentence Clinton commuted in those last, frenetic, despicable hours of his presidency. This action got scandalously little attention, overshadowed as it was by Clinton’s pardons of the financier Marc Rich and Roger Clinton’s drug buddies, etc.

Why do I mention Susan Rosenberg now? You have probably heard: She has been hired as a teacher by Hamilton College.

I could write for pages on this, or say merely the following, for now: This is America. This is how it works. Our academic and cultural arbiters make noises against Weather-ish terrorism from time to time, but they still revere these people, as the real McCoys–actors on life’s stage, whereas they are merely theorists or commentators. You will find it all in Collier & Horowitz.

My Cuban and Cuban-American friends are none too pleased with the Burlington Coat Factory. Why? Oh, nothing–they just “ran a television ad with a child wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.” (I quote from one correspondent.) And “they sell Che Guevara T-shirts in their 350 stores nationwide.” My friends propose a boycott of the store, and although I have never been crazy about boycotts, I admire the spirit, very much.

It would be one thing if the world yawned at murderers and enslavers. But to celebrate them? Tough to take. Very tough.

No matter how handsome “Che” looked in his beret. Oh, Stalin, if only you weren’t so pockmarked and dwarfish!

Did you have an opportunity to wish Fidel Castro well after his recent fall (not from power, unfortunately, but from a standing position)? No? Upset that the U.S. government refused to wish the dictator a speedy recovery? Well, have I got a site for you: The strikingly named www.walterlippmann.com includes this page.

The affection of people in free countries for absolute dictators is an eternal mystery, and sadness.

How about a little good news, amidst all this gloom: Terry Teachout has been confirmed to the National Council on the Arts. If you can’t abolish such things, you want Teachout involved in them! Hurray, and go get ‘em, Double T.

Thought I’d say a quick word about William Safire, who’s leaving the New York Times op-ed page after 31 years.

1. Can I forgive his endorsement of Clinton in 1992? Sure, but may I have a while longer?
2. Few understand the Middle East as well as Safire–absolutely clear-eyed, unfoolable.
3. His memoir of the first Nixon administration–Before the Fall–is one of the best White House memoirs ever written, and I’ve read a few, believe me. (There was a time in my life, long ago, when I devoured them by the score.) I can’t remember much of anything–including what was in the papers this morning–but I will never forget his sketches of Nixon, Agnew, Kissinger, Mrs. Nixon, Julie, Mitchell, and others. Never. A great book, really.
4. Has 25 years of reading Safire made me more “sensitive” to issues of privacy, the columnist’s hobbyhorse? No. In fact, he may have created a little backlash in me. I may discuss that sometime . . .
5. Will the Times feel the need to replace Safire, or will they assume that one center-rightish voice–in the form of David Brooks–is enough?
6. Will the day ever come when the Times will countenance hiring an op-ed writer who is against abortion and gay marriage?
7. Will pigs do figure-eights in the air?

Anyway . . .

Reed Irvine, the founder of Accuracy in Media, died recently, and I appreciate him for the good he did–namely in confronting the Biggest and Baddest Media. This was a form of speaking truth to power.

I recall a favorite moment from him: It was some TV news special, and Kris Kristofferson, the actor, was going on about how great Castro was–how “his people” loved him, and so on. I’m sure that Kristofferson referred to him as “President Castro,” the way almost everyone does (when they’re not calling him “Fidel”). Anyway, Irvine broke in, “When’s he up for reelection, Kris?”

I will always love Reed Irvine for that.

A few reviews: For the New York Philharmonic with the conductor James Conlon and the pianist Peter Serkin, please go here. For the Philharmonic with the conductor Sakari Oramo and the soprano Karita Mattila, please go here. For the Philharmonic–sorry, this is a Philharmonic-fest–with the conductor David Robertson and the pianist Emanuel Ax, please go here.

I close with something a reader sent me, from Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. You will have no trouble figuring out why he sent it:

For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for more than twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal.

They don’t make lefties like Steinbeck no mo’!



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