Condi, warrior princess


Profile Condoleezza Rice: Her name means 'with sweetness', but the multi-talented queen of the 'Vulcans' is a tough cookie, writes Conor O'Clery, North America Editor

In September 1989, Soviet opposition leader Boris Yeltsin arrived at the door of the White House, hoping to meet President George H.W. Bush. He got a shock when he was greeted by a young African-American woman, speaking Russian, who told him his appointment was with the national security adviser. Yeltsin blustered that he would not take a step further without a guarantee of meeting Bush. She told him he should return to his hotel. Yeltsin gave in and entered quietly.

This story about Condoleezza Rice is told by James Mann in Rise of the Vulcans, a history of the current White House war cabinet. "Vulcans" is the name that Rice gave to the second President Bush's foreign policy team, an inner circle of advisers dating back to earlier Republican administrations. It is also a joking reference to the huge statue of Vulcan, the Roman God of fire and metal, which dominated Condoleezza Rice's home town of Birmingham, Alabama.

Today Rice is herself national security adviser, the first woman and the first African-American to hold the title. Among her fellow Vulcans - Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Armitage - she is closest to the president. In a city where access is power, she is the first to see him in the morning and the last to see him at night. She is the only top aide to accompany George Bush to Camp David and the Texas ranch, where the Bushes regard her as family.

The coolness with which this slight woman dealt with the burly Yeltsin speaks of a remarkable ability to stand up to strong personalities. This quality marked her rise from modest beginnings in the segregated Deep South to the most powerful woman in Washington. "Condi" Rice was born in 1954, and named after the Italian musical term for "with sweetness" by her parents, the Rev John Rice, a Presbyterian minister, and Angelena Rice, a teacher. An only child, from the beginning she showed exceptional intellectual talent and poise. She took piano lessons at the age of three and studied Spanish and French at elementary school.

When Rice was eight, Birmingham was torn apart by Civil Rights agitation and a bomb exploded in the local Baptist school, killing four black schoolgirls, one of them a friend of hers. Her father joined other vigilantes patrolling the streets with a shotgun to keep white racists at bay. The family moved to Colorado when Condi was a young teenager and she enrolled in an integrated private Catholic school - where a misguided career counsellor told her she was not college material. She graduated to the University of Denver as a music major but decided she did not want to end up teaching 13-year-olds "to murder Beethoven" and instead took up international relations.

She became a Soviet scholar, learned Russian and wrote her Masters dissertation on the Czechoslovak army. Her mentor was Professor Josef Korbel, a Czech emigré and father of the future Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

It wasn't long before Condi Rice went to Washington. She won a scholarship to work at the Pentagon for the chairman of the joint chiefs, Colin Powell. When George H.W. Bush became president in 1988, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft hired her as an adviser on the Soviet Union. Scowcroft had been an admirer of Rice since this "little slip of a girl" had challenged some of his foreign policy ideas at a dinner in Stanford. Five years later she returned to Stanford as provost, a post she got with the backing of another powerful mentor, former secretary of state George Schultz. At 38 she became by far the youngest Stanford provost and the first woman and first black American to hold the post.

She was, however, no champion of affirmative action. A former associate professor, Linda Mabry, told Newsweek in a 2002 profile that she "set a tone of open season on minorities and women". Rice cut the budget by $17 million in her first year, and withstood a hunger strike by Mexican-American students protesting at the lay-off of a Chicano assistant. Meanwhile Schultz, a director of Chevron, nominated Rice to the board of the oil company which later named one of its million-barrel tankers the Condoleezza Rice. In April 1998 he persuaded her to attend a foreign policy seminar for Governor George W. Bush in Texas.

She and Bush hit it off immediately. They shared a zeal for fitness and sport and they both had strong religious convictions. Bush asked her to join his presidential campaign as someone who could explain foreign policy "in a way that I can understand" and "to tell me where Kosovo is" (and not to call the inhabitants "Kosovians" as he once did).

When Bush took over the White House in January 2001 and named her national security adviser she successfully saw off a power grab by Dick Cheney who wanted to run the Principals' (i.e. Cabinet members') Committee, an influential role which was part of her job. As a loyal consigliere to the president, Condi Rice translated his impulses into coherent foreign policy. When the moderate, Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the State Department, drafted an overview of the US's national security strategy in mid-2001 for the administration, she ordered the document to be completely rewritten to reflect her boss's neo-conservatism.

Like other members of the administration, Rice got tangled in the web of contradictory statements and hyped up pre-war claims over Iraq, warning once of a "mushroom cloud" if Saddam Hussein was not overthrown. After the row with Europe, she commented that US policy would be to forgive Russia, isolate Germany and punish France.

Condoleezza Rice, who has never married, lives in the Watergate Centre in Washington. She works out with weights every day at 5.00 a.m., is an expert ice skater, and has what a friend describes as a "thunderous" tennis serve. She relaxes by watching American football or playing her Steinway grand piano.

She is an accomplished pianist. Two years ago, wearing a stunning off-the-shoulder black dress, she accompanied cellist Yo-Yo Ma before 2,000 people at a concert in Washington's Constitution Hall. Always immaculately turned out, Rice keeps two mirrors in her office to check the back of her hair.

Her weakness, like that of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, is for shoes - she once splashed out on eight pairs of Ferragamos in one shopping spree. She has a personal shopper but has been known to visit Saks Fifth Avenue after hours.

The best way to define Condi Rice may be to contrast her with the most prominent of her predecessors, Henry Kissinger, who was also an academic but was a conspiratorial, self-promoting adviser who aspired to be a global strategist in the Nixon White House. She is the "anti-Kissinger", her aides say, though they have another, "affectionate" name for the female Vulcan. They also call her the "Warrior Princess."