EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the August 30, 1999, issue of National Review.
It’s an odd name, but one that we may all have to learn soon enough: Condoleezza. Her mother, a pianist, was thinking of the musical direction con dolcezza, or “with sweetness”; for her only child, she composed a variation on it.
Condoleezza Rice is known as Condi to her friends–and she may in time be known as secretary of state, or national security advisor, or ambassador to the United Nations. She is principal foreign-policy advisor to George W. Bush, and, according to those in a position to know, she is set–”locked in,” says one–to assume one of the top posts in a W. administration.
Although she is relatively young–44, with the look and air of a graduate student–she is not exactly a new face. She served on the National Security Council in the administration of the first George Bush, under Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor. There she was responsible for Soviet and East European affairs, at a time when Germany was reunifying, the Baltics were rebelling, and the Soviet Union itself was sputtering toward self-termination. She has an obvious personal affection for President Bush, as she does for his son, the governor of Texas. She has come to know George W. well in the last couple of years, and, by all accounts, the two get along famously. A Bush aide says that they vacation together; that they talk on the phone nearly every day; and that Bush trusts her completely, to manage his foreign-policy team and to provide counsel on other matters as well–including social issues. Asked the Republican question of the hour–Why W.?–Rice has an ingenuous answer: “Because I like him. And I think he ought to be president.”
For the last six years, Rice has been provost of Stanford University, where she has spent her entire academic career. She stepped down in July, to take a year’s leave. Provost is a powerful position at Stanford–number two, below president. Rice began the job at only 38. In fact, she has done just about everything early–the very picture of American overachievement.
She was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1954, when Jim Crow–and that regime’s local enforcer, Bull Connor–held sway. Both parents were teachers. Condi was a schoolmate of Denise McNair, one of the girls murdered in the infamous church bombing. Later the Rice family moved to Tuscaloosa, where Condi’s father, John Rice, was a dean at Stillman College, a predominantly black school. Mother and father, says Rice, “felt strongly about pushing ahead in education”; their Wunderkind, as a result, “had lessons in everything–piano, skating, ballet, French . . .” She skipped first grade, and also the seventh.
When Condi was 13, the family moved to Colorado, so that John Rice could become a vice chancellor of the University of Denver, where he had earned an advanced degree. He was–and is–a Republican (as well as an ordained Presbyterian minister). For one thing, he abhorred the Dixiecrats who were the Democratic party in the South. For another, it was simply easier to register with the Republicans. (The Democrats, typically, had demanded that he guess the number of beans in a jar.)
Condi entered the University of Denver at 15, aiming to become a pianist. She studied one summer at the famous music camp in Aspen–”affirmative action for Colorado kids,” she says. Midway through college, however, she came to the sad realization that she would not “make it” as a pianist. She did not want to become an accompanist, and she did not want “to teach 13-year-olds to murder Beethoven.” So she left the music program and cast about for a different major. First she tried English literature and “hated it”: It was simply too “squishy.” (“That’ll get me in trouble with my humanist friends.”) Next she tried government, but that, too, was “not very rigorous.” (“That’ll get me in trouble, too.”) Finally she met Josef Korbel, a former Czech diplomat, a refugee from Nazism and Communism, who headed Denver’s school of international relations. “I really adored him,” says Rice. “I really did. He’s the reason I’m in this field. I loved his course, and I loved him. He sort of picked me out as someone who might do this well.” From then on, it was “Soviet politics, Soviet everything.”
Korbel, of course, was Madeleine Albright’s father. (“Who would’ve thunk it?” admits Rice.) Rice knew the young Albright, as she, Rice, was a frequent guest in the Korbel home. The two women turned out differently in their thinking–with Rice arguably closer to Korbel’s consistently tough-minded views–but America may well have the unusual experience of two successive secretaries of state who learned about the world at the same knee.
Rice was graduated at 19 and went to Notre Dame, for a master’s degree. She returned to Denver for her Ph.D. and arrived at Stanford to be an assistant professor when she was 26. Eight years later, Scowcroft selected her for his NSC staff. While she was there, the new governor of California, Pete Wilson, considered appointing her to a U.S. Senate seat (which he himself had just vacated). She signaled to him, however, that she did not desire the appointment (“and I don’t think I would have received it anyway”). If she had received and accepted it, she–not Carol Moseley-Braun, elected from Illinois in 1992–would have been the first black woman to serve in the Senate.
In the last several years, Rice has received numerous offers to become president of a university (the natural progression from provost). It is assumed that Berkeley is among the schools that sought to lure her from Palo Alto. (Invited to confirm this, she says only, “I was offered several presidencies, put it that way.”) She decided, though, that she did not want “to go any further in higher ed,” preferring to “get back to my roots as a Russianist.” She will spend her year’s leave working on a book about the end of the Cold War, serving on her various corporate boards, and “helping Gov. Bush prepare” for the Oval Office–”a nice combination,” she smiles.
As to those “roots,” what was it, indeed, that drew her to the Soviet Union, to Russia? “I was attracted to the Byzantine nature of Soviet politics,” she says, “and by power: how it operates, how it’s used.” She read everything she could get her hands on about World War II “and about war generally.” She particularly remembers John Erickson’s “great books”–The Road to Stalingrad, The Road to Berlin. She read Dostoevsky “rather than Tolstoy.” And she encountered Solzhenitsyn: “He understood the dark side of Russia better than anyone else. Like most Russian novels, it was tragedy without redemption.”
Above all, she was influenced by “people who understood the paradox of the Soviet Union–that it was essentially weak and rotting.” Yet as weak and rotting as it was, “it was still exceedingly dangerous, and I think we’re very fortunate to have gotten through the Cold War the way we did.” Asked recently by Time magazine who should be named “Person of the Century,” she nominated Harry Truman, who “gave the U.S. an unprecedented role in international affairs” and “fundamentally reshaped the world and planted the seeds of the Soviet Union’s eventual destruction.” She calls John Foster Dulles “an extraordinarily important figure,” one “I would love to have met.” Dulles “had it right. But philosophy and timing have to come together, and, if you think about it, what happened from 1981 to 1991 was essentially rollback [Dulles’s supreme objective]. In the 1950s, though, you couldn’t do that without great costs.”
And Henry Kissinger, an un-Dulles? “I’m very fond of him. I think he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.” So she is a Kissingerian? “I’m probably a bit of a Realpolitiker in that I think that power balances determine a lot. But I think that I am not in the sense that I thought that détente was probably predicated too much on the notion of the Soviet Union as a normal state, which had its interests in the international system that could somehow be accommodated. I think the Soviets simply took that as an opportunity to expand.” Several days later she places a phone call, concerned about her description of herself as a Realpolitiker, even “probably a bit of” one. She wishes to clarify: “I am a realist. Power matters. But there can be no absence of moral content in American foreign policy, and, furthermore, the American people wouldn’t accept such an absence. Europeans giggle at this and say we’re naive and so on, but we’re not Europeans, we’re Americans–and we have different principles.”
In most everything she says and writes, Rice makes clear that she is an unabashed believer in the American experiment, in the United States as a model and force for good in the world. Of Ronald Reagan, she says, “His great strength was that he had a couple of clear principles that he held to assiduously.” American power was good; Soviet power was bad; the one had to be enhanced, the other diminished. “I’ve said to people in the press sometimes, ‘Your problem with Reagan was that, he was so clear, you couldn’t reinterpret him.’” Rice concedes that when Reagan delivered his electric “totalitarian evil” speech before the British Parliament in 1982, “even I thought, ‘Oh, that’s incredibly undiplomatic, and I hope it doesn’t provoke an incident.’ And 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. That’s what we owe him.” Reagan, stresses Rice, was blessed with timing (unlike Dulles): He “mobilized the power of the United States” and “hit on a rollback strategy that challenged the Soviets” when the moment was ripe. In addition to which, “we were extraordinarily fortunate, because it’s not clear to me that a leader other than Gorbachev might not have chosen to challenge back”–and that would have been a whole different ball game.
Conservatives, Rice maintains, “underestimate Gorbachev’s role” in the conclusion of the Cold War: “The Soviet Union might have been weak internally, but when people say, ‘Well, he had no options’–oh, he had options! He had 390,000 troops in Germany. He could have provoked a tremendous crisis over the Berlin Wall.” Gorbachev did take repressive steps in the Baltics, but, “for some reason, he always pulled up short of using maximum force, and we should all be very grateful for that.” Conservatives, Rice summarizes, underestimate the importance of Gorbachev; liberals underestimate the importance of Reagan; and “they all underestimate the importance of George Bush,” her old boss. Is this Rice the analyst talking or Rice the loyal staffer and friend? “Well, ask yourself,” she replies: “Was it inevitable that Germany unified on completely Western terms, within NATO; that Soviet troops went home, with dignity and without incident; that American troops stayed; that all of Eastern Europe was liberated and joined the Western bloc? No, it was not inevitable–and that leaves a lot of room for statecraft.”
Did the Bush administration make any mistakes? “Not while I was there,” she quips. Then she reflects, “It was a mistake to wait so long in Bosnia.” She chalks up the administration’s inaction to “fatigue”: “The Gulf War was just ending, and then we got into an election season–an earlier action was probably warranted.” She strongly supported this year’s Kosovo war, but warned against permitting “strategic air power and especially the cruise missile” to become “national drugs.” Though she is not particularly worried that the Republican party is tilting isolationist, she was dismayed at the behavior of certain Republicans in Congress, those who did “what no party should ever do: confuse the clear message that you’re trying to send to an enemy when you have forces at war.” Once American troops had arrived, she says, “the only thing to say to Milosevic was, ‘We’re going to beat you–all of us.’”
Fine, then: What about her man W., a foreign-policy neophyte? He is, notes Rice, “the governor of a border state.” But come now: Isn’t that a reach, a dose of spin? After all, many governors–including Jesse Ventura–are border-state governors. “No,” protests Rice, “a big border state–and the last president we had who had been governor of a big border state was Ronald Reagan.” At this she grins, having spun herself out. As for Bush’s foreign-policy instincts, Rice reports that they are solidly internationalist: He knows that “the United States is the critical actor in international politics and has no choice but to be involved in the world. We’re going to play a role one way or another. And we can either play it consciously and smartly, with a design, or we can sit back and pretend we’re not playing a role, and play one by our absence.”
On the critical issue of China, Rice favors strengthening the hand of the “liberalizers” in Beijing–those who suppose (erroneously, according to Rice) that economic liberalization can proceed without a political loosening: “I don’t care if they believe that. Economic liberalization is ultimately going to lead to political liberalization–that’s an iron law.” She says that she would “strongly raise human-rights issues every time with the Chinese leadership,” while recognizing that “you have to be careful not to cause a backlash against democratizing forces.” The Chinese Communists, she is convinced, are “are living on borrowed time.”
When it comes to Israel, Rice professes an emotional attachment, a pull that goes beyond the bounds of the coolly analytic. Israel, she says, “is a struggling democracy in the midst of non-democratic states that would do it great harm.” This was a nation that “nobody wanted to be born, that was born into a hostile environment, and that, without so strong a moral compass and so strong a people, might not have made it.” For the United States, Rice contends, Israel is no less than “a moral commitment.” “I’ve told you I’m a Realpolitiker, but this one is different.”
Rice characterizes herself as an “all-over-the-map Republican,” whose views are “hard to typecast”: “very conservative” in foreign policy, “ultra-conservative” in other areas, “almost shockingly libertarian” on some issues, “moderate” on others, “liberal” on probably nothing. (She calls herself “mildly pro-choice” on abortion.)
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. She is, all agree, an immensely appealing person: poised, gracious, humbly smart, still markedly southern after all these years in other parts. Her television appearances have prompted marriage proposals (“I haven’t had many lately–maybe I’m getting old”). And she is very much a jock: a tennis player, an untiring follower of college and professional sports. (She knows an ex-Stanford student, Tiger Woods, slightly, and, what’s more, “I strength-trained with his strength trainer–now there’s a connection!”) Her dream job, she has declared many times, is commissioner of the National Football League. On meeting her, the current commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, told her that he had heard she was angling for his job. “Not to worry,” she answered; “but let me know when you’re thinking of retiring.”
Not least, she is refreshingly, strikingly, at ease on the matter of race. For years she has faced questions about her skin color and sex: Have they been advantages, responsible for her rapid rise? Disadvantages? “I don’t spend too much time thinking about it,” she says. “I can’t go back and recreate myself as a white male” to test this proposition or that. She has enjoyed “a wonderful life, a great life,” graced by ideal parents, and “I have a very, very powerful faith in God. I’m a really religious person, and I don’t believe that I was put on this earth to be sour, so I’m eternally optimistic about things.” She is loath “to criticize any black person for how he or she has wanted to navigate being black in America, whether it’s Clarence Thomas or Maxine Waters.” She does allow, however, that she wishes the “black middle class would spend less time thinking about itself and more time worrying about the witches’ brew that is poverty and race. That is something that those of us who are black and privileged have a lot of responsibility for.” She herself co-founded an organization in East Palo Alto for poor young people–an instance, she claims, of Bushian “compassionate conservatism.”
Though power and fame now beckon her, Rice seems sincerely, almost strangely unambitious. “I have learned,” she explains, “to do what works for me–and that is not to look that far ahead; to do what you’re doing, do it well, and see what comes next.” Years ago “I structured my life to be a concert musician. That was all I wanted to do. And it fell apart on me. I’m never going to do that again.” But if her presidential horse finishes first in November 2000, she will find herself performing on a very wide stage indeed.