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Condi and the Boys

American foreign policy had still not recovered from its victory over communism when George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice took over at the White House in 2001. The incomparable American war machine, deprived of the enemy it had been designed to fight, was a colossus without a mission, and the foreign policy it served had become a profusion of high moral impulses in search of an idea. The new president did not have one, nor did Rice.

Bush’s interest in foreign affairs was slight; Rice’s, though considerable, centered on Russia and the cold war, now ten years in the past, the last generation’s thing. They were not a team prepared to cope with the shock of the new, which had already begun to explode out of Asia in waves of murderous religious fury.

If there was a lack of intellectual energy at the White House, however, there was a plentiful supply elsewhere in the Bush government, most notably among its neoconservatives, who were itching to give Iraq a taste of American power, and in what might be called the Cheney-Rumsfeld faction, built around two masterful old Washington manipulators.

It would be wrong to think of Bush and Rice as Hansel and Gretel lost in the forest, for neither was a complete stranger to political guile. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons, however, were all blooded veterans of the Washington wars. In 1976, as chief of staff to President Ford, Rumsfeld had engineered the removal of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller as Ford’s running mate; Cheney, assigned in 2000 to select a good vice-presidential candidate for the Bush ticket, ended by becoming Bush’s choice. These were people who had long fumed about the White House tendency since the Reagan years to use American power discreetly. What they wanted was a new, aggressively muscular approach to the world.

As the only superpower left, the United States was entitled to act like it: so went their theory. Old cautions about “the limits of power,” which dated back to the Vietnam era, went on the intellectual trash heap, and arrogance once again became power’s prerogative. With a president who had no broad vision of international affairs but personal grievances of his own against Iraq, their moment was ripe and they were quick to prevail.

As the President’s in-house adviser on national security, Condoleezza Rice apparently neglected to point out that startling changes in foreign policy always have large, lasting, and sometimes unhappy consequences. In any event, she went along placidly and apparently agreeably as policy underwent radical change. As the months passed, American diplomacy became increasingly interventionist and morally fervent, first with the announcement of a bellicose new policy of “preemption” asserting an American right to attack nations that were “evil.” Four years and two wars later, in a speech that might have startled even Woodrow Wilson, Bush declared an “ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

For her passivity as national security adviser, Rice has been widely and justly criticized. Her failure to act vigorously on intelligence warnings that preceded September 11 was even stronger evidence that she was not ready for the high position in which Bush had placed her. Elisabeth Bumiller’s fine, evenhanded biography is never cruel, but her book makes it clear that Rice was elevated to a job far beyond her competence through an extraordinary succession of powerful men who were invariably impressed by her poise, intelligence, discipline, and charm.

Among them were Gerhard Casper, the president of Stanford University, who made her the youngest provost in the school’s history; George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s former secretary of state, who introduced her to leaders of the corporate world, including the chairman of Chevron Oil, which made her a board member; Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush; the elder Bush himself; and finally his son. By the time the younger Bush brought her into the White House she was close to being part of the family. Bumiller describes her sharing quiet family evenings with George and Laura Bush vacationing in Wyoming.

Rice’s introduction into the elite world of national security diplomacy was managed by Scowcroft. He had been national security adviser to Gerald Ford before returning for a second tour under the elder George Bush. The job requires coordinating foreign and defense policy and the often conflicting views of the Pentagon, State Department, and Treasury, among others. Scowcroft was attending a gathering of arms control experts in 1985 at Stanford when he first saw Rice.

She was only thirty and looked like an undergraduate, he recalled for Bumiller, but he liked the way she spoke up. “She was respectful but assertive and stood her ground. And it really impressed me. I thought, I ought to introduce her into the national security community and get her more widely known…. I sort of launched her.”

In 1989, returning to the White House with Bush Senior, Scowcroft made her his Soviet expert on the National Security Council staff. Inevitably, this brought her into contact with the President. Another staff member, R. Nicholas Burns, described to Bumiller how such things work:

Brent would say, “Well, Mr. President, today we’re going to talk about the Gorbachev-Yeltsin problem, you know, how do we handle both of them?” …And he would turn to Condi, and Condi would brief.

In this way, says Bumiller, Rice

forged a personal bond with George H.W. Bush that went beyond the usual relationship of a president to a staff member, and that would later help pave her way into the administration of the son. The senior Bush, Burns said, “was captivated by her.”

He would later introduce her to Mikhail Gorbachev as the person “who tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union.”

After two years with Scowcroft, she had to return to Stanford or risk losing tenure, and there she was taken up by George Shultz, the Republican elder statesman who had settled at the Hoover Institution. “I was impressed with her,” Shultz told Bumiller. He included her in a “luncheon club” of Palo Alto intellectuals who met for conversation every few weeks. Then, Shultz said,

She came in to see me one day, and she said, “I feel as if I ought to learn more about management and how it operates, because that’s such a big part of how the United States operates….”

So I said to Condi, “How about a big, bad oil company?” …And she said, “Well, I think oil companies are very interesting companies because they have a global viewpoint.”

Shultz, who was on the board of Chevron, introduced her to Chevron’s chairman and CEO, who took her to lunch and, Shultz said, “inside of fifteen minutes concluded that she would make a terrific board member.” She was a good choice. Chevron was engaged in a $10 billion oil-field development project with Kazakhstan, and Rice, who happened to know its president, traveled to Kazakhstan for Chevron in 1992. She turned thirty-eight years old that year. In the following year Chevron named a 129,000-ton supertanker the SS Condoleezza Rice.

Bumiller notes that in the spring of 2001 the company “quietly renamed the tanker” the Altair Voyager “in the face of criticism” of Bush family ties to the oil industry and charges against Chevron of human rights abuses in Nigeria. Rice resigned from the board six days before becoming national security adviser.

Bumiller suggests that Rice profited quite well from her study of management and how it operates. In addition to Chevron, she also joined the boards of the San Francisco insurance giant Transamerica in 1991 and the Hewlett- Packard Corporation in 1992. In 1994 she joined J.P. Morgan’s International Council in a paid advisory position and became a board member of the Charles Schwab Corporation in 1999. When Rice became national security adviser she had annual Chevron board fees of $60,000 and over $250,000 in stock, in addition to a Stanford faculty salary of about $125,000.

Bumiller thinks that Rice’s most important move during the Stanford years was joining the search committee for a new university president. There were about ten people in the search group, but “in keeping with what had now become a pattern,” she writes, Rice was the one who made the biggest impression on Gerhard Casper, their ultimate choice.

One of his first duties was to select a provost, his top aide. He chose Rice. It was a shock to the campus. “At thirty-eight, Rice was not only the first black, the first woman, and the youngest person to be named Stanford provost,” Bumiller notes, “she also had never been a dean or a department head, the normal route for advancement, and was still only an associate professor.” After the appointment the university quickly made her a full professor, “a move that drew criticism from other women faculty members who said that Rice had not published enough for such a promotion.”

Her first big assignment was to cut $25 million from the university’s annual $1.2 billion budget, and in doing the job Rice was so effective that she left a trail of hostility that would probably make her unwelcome at Stanford to the present day. “Stories circulated on campus about how Rice would lose her temper and publicly berate faculty members who opposed her,” Bumiller writes. Budget battles became fights about curriculum and confrontations with women, blacks, and Chicanos about affirmative action.

The end result was bewilderment on a campus that thought of itself as a community, and not, as Rice saw it, a corporation that needed shaping up.” She cut the $25 million, though, and became “the darling of the board of trustees.” Casper found her “extremely loyal” to him, as she would later be to George W. Bush.

She will never stab anybody in the back, including her enemies,” he told Bumiller. “She will diminish her enemies, cut them down, do whatever. But she will not stab them in the back.”

Her relationship with the younger Bush began in April 1998 when, as governor of Texas, he visited San Francisco for a fund-raiser and Shultz invited him down to Stanford to meet with some of the Hoover scholars. Bush was then thinking of running for president and probably looking for potential advisers from academia. Rice was the only woman and only black in Shultz’s sitting room that day, and he remembered that she and Bush “connected.”

Particularly when foreign policy things came up, Condi had a lot to say,” Shultz recalled. “And you can tell when people click. And he was interesting, I thought, because he pitched into the discussion. He seemed to like the give-and-take.”

Three months later she was in a small group he invited to Austin in order to announce that he was thinking of running for president and wanted their help. The following month she was invited to the Bush summer home at Kennebunkport for a meeting that the father seemed to have arranged for the son. They spent two days talking about foreign affairs and sweating side by side on a variety of exercise machines. Bumiller has a plausible explanation of why he liked her:

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