In late August 2005, Condoleezza Rice stepped into a Broadway theater to see the musical “Spamalot.” At the end, when the lights came on, some in the audience noticed the secretary of State. Evidently angry about both the war in Iraq and the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, they stood up and booed. A careful, well-documented new biography, “Condoleezza Rice: An American Life,” will not dissipate such anger.
Elisabeth Bumiller, who covered the White House for the New York Times during most of George W. Bush’s presidency, has labored to present an evenhanded look at Rice. She shows some sympathy for her subject and even more understanding. But, in the end, this is a portrait of a talented, ambitious woman who has allowed intense loyalty to cloud her judgment and good sense.
In Rice’s role as national security advisor during Bush’s first term, she acted more like a marketer than a counselor, Bumiller argues. Although others persuaded Bush to go to war in Iraq, Rice was all for it. She raised no objections and never doubted the phony claims about weapons of mass destruction. “As a result,” the author concludes, Rice “failed in a basic part of her job as national security advisor, which was presenting the president with all the options, particularly dissenting opinions.”
In her quest to understand the 53-year-old Rice, Bumiller devotes a good deal of space to the early years. Rice was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1954, a few years before it became a caldron of racial conflict. Her middle-class African American parents isolated “Condi,” as she is known to her friends, from the seething hatred; this was shattered in 1963 when the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four girls, including a friend of Rice’s. The family moved away soon after, eventually settling in Denver, when Rice’s father became assistant director of admissions at the University of Denver in 1968.
Rice, who’d been training to be a concert pianist, entered the University of Denver but found her musical skills too limited for a virtuoso career. She fell under the spell of professor Josef Korbel (the father of another future secretary of State, Madeleine Albright) and switched to political science. She earned a doctorate in international studies at Denver, then in 1981 joined Stanford University’s faculty, soon attracting national attention as a specialist on the Soviet Union.
A series of prominent jobs followed. Brent Scowcroft, the national security advisor to the first President Bush, hired her as a Soviet expert. Gerhard Casper, Stanford’s new president, surprised and troubled his faculty in 1993 by appointing her as provost, essentially his second in command. She was the first woman, the first African American and the youngest (at 38) to hold that job. George W. Bush made her his foreign policy advisor for the 2000 presidential campaign and, after his election, named her national security advisor and later secretary of State.
Bumiller discerns a pattern in Rice’s relationship with patrons and bosses. Always loyal, she carries out their wishes, never challenging them or trying to usurp their authority. But she can be confrontational, even ruthless, in dealing with subordinates or even old friends.
The pattern of loyalty culminated in Rice’s extraordinary closeness to George W. Bush. Treated more like a member of the family, she was often the only aide with Bush and his wife at Camp David and Crawford, Texas. “The President loved Condi,” Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. said, adding, “but I don’t want you to take that as sexual or emotional.”
She “quickly became Bush’s confidante, friend, soother and protector,” writes Bumiller, “a relationship almost unique in modern history that did not serve the best interests of the nation.”
Bumiller interviewed Rice for the book in eight hourlong sessions. She also had two lengthy sessions with Rice for her newspaper. As a result, the book is full of fresh Rice quotes, and they help to depict the secretary of State as calculating, stubborn, hesitant to reveal her feelings and almost incapable of admitting a mistake.
Bumiller also provides a good deal of behind-the-scenes stuff. The most interesting focuses on Rice’s relations with former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
Rice chafed under Rumsfeld, who looked on her “as a glorified Russian studies graduate student who was not up to the job.” He would read or make insulting comments while she spoke at staff meetings. It took Rice some time to learn to push back.
Powell was an old friend, but Bush and others in the White House regarded him as not hawkish enough. Without any evident misgivings, Rice served as the hatchet lady, reprimanding Powell whenever he stepped over the line and harassing him to keep within it. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, was astounded at how she hounded Powell to make his 2003 U.N. Security Council speech on Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction more dramatic.
“Here was . . . the secretary of State, the honored position in the Cabinet, being essentially challenged by this woman who was once his protegee and was a staffer,” Wilkerson told Bumiller. “I had to go out in the corridor one time because I was afraid I was going to say something.”
Rice will have a difficult time shaking off one unflattering image served up by the book -- of misjudging the Palestinian electorate. While on her elliptical trainer at 5 a.m on Jan. 26, 2006, she noticed surprising words scroll across the bottom of the television screen: “In wake of Hamas victory, Palestinian cabinet resigns.” She had gone to bed sure that Hamas, which the United States had branded a terrorist organization, had lost the Palestinian parliamentary elections. She continued to exercise and then phoned her lieutenants at the State Department. They told her the television scroll was accurate. “Oh my goodness,” she told herself, “Hamas won?”
Hamas’ victory dealt a blow to Rice’s campaign to democratize the Middle East. It also raised a nettlesome question about her understanding of the region. Many journalists had written about the growing popularity of Hamas, and the Israelis had begged her not to encourage the election. But she barged ahead anyway.
Sure to be castigated by future historians for her dismal performance as national security advisor in the Iraq debacle, Rice is racing against time to burnish her legacy with an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Bumiller is persuaded she will “throw everything she has into trying to triumph in the twilight of the Bush presidency.” She may not be as intellectual as former secretaries of state Henry A. Kissinger or James A. Baker III, but she probably has “more drive than either of them,” Bumiller writes. Still, as this book shows, drive doesn’t always head you in the right direction.
Stanley Meisler, a former foreign and diplomatic correspondent for The Times, is the author of “Kofi Annan: A Man of Peace in a World of War.” He writes a news commentary on www.stanleymeisler.com.