America's Best Leaders: Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Secretary of State
The thread running through Rice's career is disciplineand drive. Born in Birmingham, Ala., Rice learned from her parents that she could be anything in life. Despite the racism and segregation of the time, she took the message to heart.
Rice awakens most mornings at 4:30 a.m., a legacy of her youth as a competitive figure skater, when she rose early to practice at the ice rink. Rice began her piano lessons at age 3 and still plays for pleasure, sometimes for a couple of hours on Sundays in her Watergate apartment. Brahms and Mozart are favorites. So is pro football, a personal passion for Rice, who also plays tennis.
Rice starts her days with an hour of exercise, then goes to the office by 7 a.m. She often takes her lunch at her desk on the seventh floor of State. A speed-reader, she has immersed herself in the details of the department's budget. Rice chairs staff meetings after 8 a.m. and again to wrap up the day at 6 p.m. In public, she typically hews closely to script, staying in sync with the president. Associates credit her with staying focused on policy goals. "She is strategic in every part of her DNA," says Robert Blackwill, a friend and former ambassador to India who has worked for Rice.
Rice also enjoys the clout that comes with genuine closeness to the president. Once a foreign-policy tutor to then Governor Bush, she evolved into a virtual member of the Bush family, watching sports on TV with the commander in chief at Camp David and taking walks with the president and Laura Bush at the ranch in Crawford, Texas. She may speak with Bush once or twice a day by phone, sometimes more. Foreign leaders have no doubt she speaks for the presidenta quality reminiscent of another presidential friend turned secretary of state, James Baker.
"She's probably the most powerful secretary of state in decades," allows Jean-David Levitte, France's ambassador to the United States.
Still, Rice has taken some knocks for her performance at the NSC. Critics contend that she neglected pre-9/11 terror warnings and failed to alert the president to shortcomings in the intelligence claims on Iraq's unconventional weapons. Rice has also been faulted for not using her NSC post to iron out disputes that pitted State against hawks at Defense and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
Rice failed to perform the needed role of policy and bureaucratic "balancer" in that job, charges Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff for Rice's predecessor, Colin Powell.
After 9/11, Rice's own foreign-policy orientation seemed to shiftin step with Bush'sfrom the realism of power politics to the idealism of what she calls "the march of democracy." The status quo, she argues, has bred terrorists in the realms of "oppression and despair in the modern Middle East."
She likens her current mission to that of another "extraordinary moment": the post-World War II task of reshaping world politics by building democracy in war-shattered lands and confronting Soviet-led communism. She believes that the statesmen of that eraPresident Harry Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Achesonwere up to the challenge. Now we will see whether Rice and her friend the president are up to theirs. -Thomas Omestad