(photo credit: AP)
Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path of Power
By Marcus Mabry
362 pages; $27.50
Condoleezza Rice met George W. Bush in 1998, when he was governor of Texas. A former staffer at the National Security Council, she was provost at Stanford University. He was preparing a run for president of the United States. For two and a half days at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, Rice and Bush fished, played tennis, worked out (Condi on a treadmill, W. on a stationary bike) and talked about American foreign policy. They bonded. He found her smart, funny and trustworthy. She deemed him easy to be around, with an "incredibly inquisitive mind." Before long, a friend observed, it was "as though they were Siamese twins joined at the frontal lobes."
As national security adviser and now secretary of state, Marcus Mabry suggests, Rice has been the "unfailing avatar" of Bush's faith that the US could - and should - change the world. And she's the most powerful black woman in American history. In Twice as Good, Mabry, chief of correspondents at Newsweek magazine, provides the first in-depth biography of the famously private Rice. Drawing on interviews with family and friends, he examines her formative years in segregated Alabama, where her parents taught her to be "by turns, icy and charming, and always sharp" - and to believe in "the veracity of her own judgments and those closest to her." These traits, Mabry demonstrates, account for Rice's remarkable rise to power.
John Rice, a Presbyterian minister (and later an administrator at Stillman College and the University of Denver), and Angelena Rice, a schoolteacher, were fiercely protective of their only child, born in 1954 in Birmingham, Alabama. Although by no means affluent, they paid for private lessons in piano, ice skating and tennis, and education at an all-girls' Catholic school. Uninvolved in the civil rights movement, they emphasized that individual will was "the locomotive of human progress."
When Angelena went shopping with Condi in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, she insisted that the youngster try on clothes in a dressing room reserved for whites. And she prevailed.
Condi learned to compete and win, not compromise or empathize. Being barred from Kiddieland because she was black didn't bother her, she has recalled. Even after a classmate was killed in the bombing of a Baptist church, she worried more about the Cuban Missile Crisis than marauders of the Ku Klux Klan. When told that she didn't have the talent to become a concert pianist, Rice moved on. "I don't do life crises," she explained. "What's the point?"
A course in international politics, taught by Joseph Korbel, the father of Madeleine Albright, provided a new professional direction. Rice graduated as the "Outstanding Senior Woman" at the University of Denver and completed a PhD there with a dissertation on the Soviet and Czech militaries. In 1981, she was hired as an assistant professor by Stanford, in part because she was black. A superb teacher but not a distinguished scholar, Rice was a masterful networker whose contacts included Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser for George H. W. Bush, and George Shultz, Ronald Reagan's secretary of state. They helped bring her to Washington.
Rice's admirable personal characteristics, Mabry suggests, did not serve her well as a foreign policy strategist. He may be right. Like President Bush, Rice tends not to admit mistakes. She dismisses disagreement as disloyalty. And she tends to be more reactive than reflective.
Unfortunately, Mabry's analysis of Rice's performance in office is superficial. He gives too much weight, for example, to her style and her skill as a "master rhetorician." Rice was, he exclaims, the administration's best witness before the 9/11 commission, combining reasoned argument with "polite steeliness... The world had never seen anything like it."
Conversely, Twice as Good gets caught up with the media criticism of Rice for playing tennis, watching the Broadway play Spamalot and trying on Ferragamo shoes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And distracted from more substantive matters with tabloidish assertions that Jiang Zemin had a crush on her.
More importantly, Mabry is unable to specify, much less assess, Rice's contributions to Bush's foreign policy. Is she an architect or an implementer? Apparently, Rice coined the phrase "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
But did she abandon realpolitik and embrace the neo-conservative crusade to make the Middle East safe for democracy because she genuinely believed that deterrence didn't work with rogue states? Or because she was George W. Bush's poodle? Did she give the green light to Israel to attack Lebanon, refrain from calling for an immediate cease-fire and support the elections that brought Hamas to power? Or was she merely the mouthpiece for these policies? Was her offer of direct talks with Iran not only "historic," but palpable evidence that she "had not drunk the neo-con Kool-Aid" and was steering the administration back to a more pragmatic, diplomatic and multilateral foreign policy? Or a public relations ploy, crafted by Wolfowitzians (in sheep's clothing) who knew that the Iranians would find the conditions they laid down for talks unacceptable?
Although he praises her skills as a tactician and negotiator, Mabry acknowledges that Rice failed to manage interagency disputes within the American government, with devastating consequences for the war on terrorism and the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Nor has she really redressed the fatally flawed strategic vision of the Bush administration. Judged by what she has achieved, Mabry concludes, "Rice has so far fallen short."
It's a bit of an understatement.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.