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:

[He] had never met anyone like Rice. She could talk baseball, football, and foreign policy all at the same time, but she did not sound like an intellectual and she never made him feel inadequate or ignorant. On the contrary, Rice made Bush feel sharper, particularly when she complimented him on his questions. Bush did not know many black people well, and it made him feel good about himself that he got along so easily with Rice. It was hard not to see that she was also attractive, athletic, and competitive, and, like him, underestimated for much of her adult life.

That Rice might ever have felt underestimated seems preposterous. As a child growing up in the Ku Klux Klan culture of Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s, she had been taught that to succeed in the white world she would have to be “twice as good” as the kids in the all-white schools, and almost everything in her life leading to that visit to Kennebunkport should have persuaded her that she was.

The Kennebunkport visit may help explain Rice’s inept performance at the time of September 11 and the approach to the Iraq war. She had come to the job as, in some sense, a pal who understood the young new president, and while president’s pal ought to be an important job in every White House, confusing it with national security adviser is a certain route to trouble. One job calls for improving the president’s day; the other calls for spoiling it by confronting him with news he would rather not hear, exposing him to ideas he would rather not think about, and presenting him with decisions he would rather not make.

At its very best, this might mean articulating a coherent philosophy about foreign affairs with which the president is instinctually comfortable. In no case is it work for someone who feels obliged to make the president feel good about himself. Rice’s failure to force Bush to focus attention on the now famous warnings of an imminent al-Qaeda attack illustrates the problem.

When the intelligence people are as insistent as they had become about an al-Qaeda threat in the summer of 2001, the national security adviser is supposed to do something about it, upsetting though it might be to a president in vacation mode. Rice didn’t. Nor, when Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the neocons were flooding the White House with specious justifications for attacking Iraq, did she give a White House airing to different opinions from the State Department and CIA. Instead, performing as presidential pal, she did what a pal would do: she became Bush’s enabler, encouraging him to follow his impulses.

War came in “a series of incremental steps, each one making the next more inevitable,” Bumiller writes.

Many of the major developments, from the battle plan to the demand that Saddam disarm to the decision to begin a massive troop buildup in Iraq, were laid out by Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush. Yet in each case Rice facilitated them as a logical consequence of what had already been decided. In not challenging the moves toward war, she saw herself as carrying out Bush’s wishes…. Inside the White House she did not so much prod the process as get drawn along in its wake.

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s views, whatever they might have been, were treated as irrelevant. In the summer of 2002, with Washington full of war talk, Richard Haass, State Department director of policy planning, found it hard to believe what he was hearing and in one of their regularly scheduled meetings raised concerns about a war. “Rice immediately cut him off,” Bumiller writes.

“Save your breath,” she told him, in Haass’s recollection. “The president has made up his mind.” Haass, taken aback, asked Rice if she was sure and if she had thought about the consequences, but Rice made clear that she wanted no more talk on the subject. “The tone of it was, this is not a productive use of our time,” Haass recalled.

Perhaps the most important dissent that summer came from Rice’s old mentor, Brent Scowcroft, the man who had “launched” her career among the national security elite. In an Op-Ed article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Attack Saddam,” he warned that invading Iraq would lead to a long, bloody, costly occupation and divert the United States from the war on terrorism, then concentrated in Afghanistan.

Because Scowcroft had been national security adviser to the President’s father, Rice knew that all of Washington would read the article as advice from father to son. (Which it probably was; Scowcroft had sent an advance copy to the elder Bush and heard no objections back.) Rice and the President were both “furious.” She phoned Scowcroft. There were sharp words. “Her loyalty,” Bumiller writes, “was to her current boss, not her old one, no matter how much the old one had done for her.”

Rice’s failure in this period is so blatant that we tend to ignore the President’s enthusiasm for war. This was so embedded in a remarkably stubborn mind that it is doubtful whether anyone urging caution could have influenced him. Colin Powell certainly couldn’t. We now know that the President had been thinking warlike thoughts about Saddam Hussein long before the al-Qaeda attacks. Eighteen months before September 11, interviewed by Jim Lehrer of PBS during the 2000 presidential campaign, he spoke about Saddam in a threatening vein. In Dead Certain, his valuable portrait of Bush as campaigner and president, Robert Draper quotes from that interview:

“I’m just as frustrated as many Americans are that Saddam Hussein still lives,” he told Lehrer. “I will tell you this: If we catch him developing weapons of mass destruction in any way, shape, or form, I’ll deal with him in a way that he won’t like.”

By bombing? asked Lehrer.

“Well, it could be one option. He just needs to know that he’ll be dealt with in a firm way,” Bush replied.

Draper believes Bush was motivated by a “familial hatred” of Saddam. In 1991 his father had put together an international coalition and driven Saddam’s invading army out of Kuwait. Two years later when Bush Senior, then retired from the presidency, paid a visit to Kuwait, sixteen people were arrested on charges of planning to assassinate him. The weapon was to be a car bomb said to have been assembled by Saddam’s intelligence agents.

This history made for a bizarre relationship between Iraq and the Bush family, which may help explain the younger Bush’s zeal for war, especially since everybody assured him it would be an easy triumph. His father’s decision to withdraw his armies from Iraq after driving Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991 was also a factor. Many thought he should have marched to Baghdad and ended the Saddam dictatorship.

Young Bush, speaking to a friend in 1998, said, “Dad made a mistake not going into Iraq when he had an approval rating in the nineties,” Draper recalls. “If I’m ever in that situation, I’ll use it—I’ll spend my political capital.”

The fact seems to be that Bush already had Saddam’s removal on his mind when he came to the White House and that it would have taken a far more inspired adviser than Condoleezza Rice to change the course of history after al-Qaeda struck on September 11. Iraq had no demonstrable relations with al-Qaeda except mutual hostility, but by providing good reason for Bush to put American troops in the Middle East, al-Qaeda had put Iraq in American gun sights.

Draper likens Washington’s desire for war to a contagious fever that had been long breeding in certain host bodies until it was finally released by September 11, whereupon it “swept through the Beltway and insinuated itself into the minds of many,” including both Rice and Bush. The “communicable agent,” he writes, was a conviction that Saddam posed an imminent threat which had to be forcibly removed. Draper’s list of the contagion’s “host bodies” includes Cheney; his chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz; and Douglas J. Feith, a Pentagon undersecretary for policy, all of whom had been carrying the “virus” well before September 11.

Bush was clearly ready to act on such evidence of malign Iraqi intent as the Cheney-Rumsfeld-neocon operation could supply from the special intelligence agency they had installed at the Pentagon, and Rice seems to have been just as ready to cheer him on. Thus we had the stories of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false, but not before they had served their purpose of getting the Iraq war underway. It did not matter that the UN chief inspector told the Security Council that verifying Iraq’s disarmament would “not take years, nor weeks, but months.” Rice’s contribution was to argue that too much time wasted by investigating might be catastrophic. Or, as she put it in the memorable and chilling line devised by White House speechwriters, and also used by the President, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”

Failure often seemed to be the high road to success in the Bush administration, but no one has failed so gloriously upward as Condoleezza Rice, whose prize was the State Department. Bush made her secretary of state at the start of his second term, and though it is much too soon to judge whether she can end her Washington career with a success, the outlook cannot be encouraging.

Glenn Kessler’s up-close reporting of her incomplete career at State finds no important change from the woman who declined to try to take a vigorous intellectual lead in Bush’s first term. His book title, The Confidante, contains his judgment. It is not so different from “pal.”

“As President Bush’s confidante for more than seven years, Rice has failed to provide him with a coherent foreign policy vision,” he writes. It seems that the President is now the one who generates ideas. A great deal of the diplomatic activity in the second term has been aimed at undoing the disasters of the first term. In the favorite old Washington metaphor, Rice is trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

The recovery work includes trying to restore civility with traditional allies like France and Germany, which Rumsfeld contemptuously dismissed as “old Europe,” and trying to restore the Israeli-Palestinian problem to the merely intractable status that existed before the first Bush term made it simply impossible. This has been high on the Rice-Bush agenda, since anything resembling movement toward improvement seems so unlikely that, should it occur, it might help rescue their “legacy” from Iraq. There is a lot of talk about “legacy” among administration people just now. It is a sure sign that all hands realize they have made a thorough mess of things and hope a miracle might come along.

Condoleezza, who prefers being called Condi, was the only child of two remarkable people and a number of remarkable families. John Rice, her father, was a Presbyterian minister, a schoolteacher, and a football coach. Her mother was also a teacher. She taught music and science, played piano, and was trained in classical music. Both parents had attended college, no small thing in their time, especially for black people in Alabama, and there had been college-trained forbears in earlier generations too.

There was an Italian ancestor named Alto in the family of Condi’s mother, and the family honored that in the naming of their children. Some of the males were named Alto, Condi’s mother was Angelena, and she had an aunt named Genoa. Angelena created Condi’s name from the Italian musical notation con dolcezza, meaning “with sweetness.” (“My God, why are you going to name her Condoleezza?” Aunt Genoa asked. “She’ll never learn how to spell it!”)

The Rices lived in an upscale black section of Birmingham where parents tried hard to shelter the children from contact with the ugly realities of segregation. It was a conservative, proud culture in which parents sought to protect the young from growing up thinking of themselves as second-class citizens. When they went out they avoided places where blacks had to go in through the back door. When children wanted a drink of water or to use a toilet, they were taught to wait until they got home. It was that kind of world in Birmingham in the 1960s, when so many black homes were being dynamited on behalf of white supremacy that the city was known as “Bombingham.”

A child can be sheltered only so long from reality, and the Rices, who doted on Condi, and must have spoiled her, moved to Colorado. The spoiling did not extend to leaving her idle. Her parents drove her to excel in class and work tirelessly at the piano. Angelena pressed school principals to let Condi skip a grade here and there. She was good and her parents taught her to succeed, and she did. She was a natural overachiever.

With eighteen months remaining to Rice as secretary of state, Bumiller writes:

It was obvious from Rice’s many metamorphoses that her real ideology was not idealism or realism or defending the citadels of freedom, although she displayed elements of all of them. Her real ideology was succeeding.

This judgment is reinforced by Rice’s story of the piano career that never was. After devoting years of her childhood to studying and practicing piano because her parents thought she might some day master the concert stage, she suddenly abandoned it at the age of seventeen after attending a summer music camp for child prodigies from across the country. There she heard much younger children play, realized that they already played better than she ever would, and knew that she would never become a great pianist.

Choosing not to settle for a life giving piano lessons, as she put it to Bumiller, she stunned her parents by announcing that her music career was over. Before graduating from high school she was studying political science, and two years later was studying international affairs, with special attention to Soviet history, at the University of Denver. She had been attracted to the field by a professor named Josef Korbel, who, like other important men to come, was much impressed by her.

Korbel was a Czech refugee destined to cast a long shadow in State Department history, and in the annals of feminism. Mentor of Condoleezza Rice, the first black woman to be secretary of state, he was also the father of Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold the office. Albright was appointed in 1996 by President Clinton. Neither woman knew of the other before Korbel’s death in 1977.

By 1987, when both women moved in the foreign-policy world, Madeleine asked Condi to work in a Democratic presidential campaign. “Madeleine, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m a Republican,” Rice replied.

“Albright was astonished,” Bumiller writes. “‘Condi, how could that be?’ she asked. ‘We had the same father.'”

Since then their differences on policy matters have been deep. Albright told Bumiller that she was “very unhappy about what has happened to the term ‘democracy’ under this administration, where it has now been militarized.” Her father, she said, would have been upset about the Iraq war because it had “ruined America’s reputation in the world” and there was no “forward thinking” in its planning.

In response, Rice told Bumiller, “Let’s not try to put thoughts and words into dead people’s mouths.”

This Issue

April 3, 2008