Short Cuts

Adam Shatz

Condoleezza Rice, like everyone else, is ‘worn down and discouraged by the war’, the New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller writes in her new biography (Random House, $27.95). Early morning work-outs on her ‘elliptical trainer’, shopping at expensive boutiques and American Idol provide some relief. But Rice has found her greatest ‘escape from the anxieties of her day’ – the anxieties she’s done so much to foster – by playing the piano with her chamber ensemble, whose recitals in the capital have ‘attracted a bipartisan audience’. ‘It’s the time I’m most away from myself, and I treasure it,’ Condi explains, and we wish she’d do more of it. She once dreamed of a career in classical music, and although she gave it up to study Soviet politics, you could say that she never stopped being a performer. Here she is in a red Oscar de la Renta gown, sashaying down the stairs of the British ambassador’s ‘palatial residence on Massachusetts Avenue’; there she is appearing before American troops wearing ‘a long, military-style black coat that blew open to reveal a skirt just above the knee and a pair of sexy, high-heeled black boots.’

Condi was, notoriously, one of the ‘Vulcans’ who presided over Bush’s various foreign policy disasters, but she was never a neocon. She wrote ‘leftist’ papers in graduate school and voted for Jimmy Carter before joining the Republican Party. Throughout the 1990s, her views on foreign policy were defined by a cautious realism, bearing the heavy imprint of her mentor, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under Bush père. In a Foreign Affairs article widely read at the time as a position paper for the son’s presidency, she chastised the Clinton administration for its ‘Wilsonian’ impulses and said there was no reason to panic about Iraq or North Korea since both governments were ‘living on borrowed time’. But that was before 9/11, when everything changed, including Rice’s belief in a foreign policy tempering ‘strength’ with ‘humility’.

If there is a pattern to the ‘disciplined blaze of her life’, it’s her habit of attaching herself to powerful men like Scowcroft and George W. Bush, and unflinchingly espousing their views – often startling old friends who knew her in a previous incarnation. Perhaps the most revealing thing she ever wrote was her master’s thesis on Prokofiev and Shostakovich during the Stalin era. ‘They did enough to stay on the right side of the authorities, and they tried to buy room to write what they wanted to write,’ she told Bumiller. She’s always been a keen judge of the mood in the room, and no one has ever accused her of being short of the survival skills some of her (former) colleagues lacked.

When Colin Powell was assigned the thankless task of presenting the administration’s case to the UN, she wasn’t worried about the ‘specific assertions’ in his speech but about ‘the theatrics of the presentation’. ‘Can’t you make it any better?’ she asked Powell at Langley, three days before his slide show at the Security Council. While liberal hawks wanted a ‘humanitarian’ war, Rice wanted something just as fantastical – in her own words, an ‘orderly process’. The looting of Baghdad left her ‘shaken and bewildered’, since she understood ‘how lethal it was to the image of the United States’.

Curiously, she didn’t see a threat to her own image when she went to New York on holiday two days after Hurricane Katrina. It didn’t go well. She was booed by an audience at Spamalot, and dressed down by a fellow shopper at Ferragamo on Fifth Avenue. ‘I just didn’t get it, frankly,’ Rice tells her biographer. ‘In Washington parlance,’ Bumiller explains, ‘Rice was staying in her lane of traffic. But what she soon realised was that her new celebrity status and storybook life narrative required her to care about all the issues around her.’ Having realised she was required to care, the celebrity rushed back to Washington with the bad news about Katrina: ‘Mr President, you have a race problem.’

On the other hand, nothing irritates Rice quite so much as the insinuation that she herself has a race problem – ‘I’ve been black all my life. Nobody needs to help me how to be black.’ Speciously or not, she has made much of her friendship with Denise McNair, one of the four black girls murdered in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. In a speech at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, she compared critics of American-exported ‘democratisation’ in the Middle East to Southern racists who justified segregation on the grounds that ‘blacks were unfit for democracy, somehow too childlike or too unready or too incapable of self-governing.’ Bumiller doesn’t doubt the sincerity of these reflections on the road from Birmingham to Baghdad: ‘Rice spoke with such intensity and fervour that if she was exploiting history and her own life to make a dubious political point . . . it was clear that she believed in what she was saying.’

How Rice squares her commitment to spreading democracy with her efforts to isolate Hamas after its victory in the Palestinian elections, or with her trip to Baghdad to tell the Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari it was ‘time to step aside’, isn’t something Bumiller goes into. It’s apparently enough that Condi believes what she’s saying. Did she really hear ‘the birth pangs of a new Middle East’ in the summer of 2006 when Israel invaded Lebanon? Bumiller doesn’t say, though she does tell us that Rice’s remark was ‘widely derided as ignorant and naive’. Still, she’s not without hope for her subject: if North Korea gives up its nukes and a ‘deal’ is sealed between Olmert and Abbas, Condi might even, she writes, ‘be judged a great success’.

Bumiller insists in her introduction that ‘this is not an “authorised” biography but an independent work of journalism. Rice will see it for the first time when it is published.’ The secretary of state could have done a lot worse.