LUXEMBOURG CITY, Luxembourg, Feb. 9 -- In her early years at the National Security Council, Condoleezza Rice often appeared nervous, even stressed, at her rare press briefings. She relied heavily on a text for her opening remarks and would usually be identified only as that ever-mysterious "senior administration official."
When Rice stepped out on the world stage this week as America's new secretary of state, though, she seemed like a different woman -- engaging, self-confident, even commanding in daily on-the-record interviews.
Rice even showed moments of openness and humor. Shortly after takeoff on Air Force Two from Washington to London last Thursday, she ventured from her spacious cabin-office to the back of the plane where the press sits -- in the only cramped economy seats on the modified Boeing 757. (Eight staffers had been displaced from the plane to make room for what was billed as the largest press corps ever taken on a State Department trip -- 19 American and foreign journalists.)
"We're going to travel a lot and I wouldn't want anyone to feel lost," she said with a grin. "Therefore I have for each of you the pocket world atlas as a little memento of our first trip together." Each copy was inscribed inside with her signature and the date.
It was the beginning of a charm offensive orchestrated by a team imported from the White House, including James Wilkinson, the administration's fast-talking equivalent of a whirling dervish who once studied to be a mortician and last year was featured in People magazine.
The past week is among the biggest challenges in Rice's career. She had to persuade Europe -- mainly France and Germany -- to end one of the rockiest periods between the United States and Europe since World War II, because of differences over invading Iraq. She also had to nudge Israel and the Palestinians to ensure they agreed to a cease-fire at their summit this week, the first step in imparting new momentum to the perennially stalled peace process.
But most of all, Rice had to sell herself as the world's most powerful diplomat.
Occasionally the old nerves still showed -- as when she delivered a speech Tuesday in Paris about U.S. rapprochement with Europe.
The address was billed as the centerpiece of her week-long trip. But after going through a couple of drafts at home and three reworkings on the plane, she still didn't think it was quite right, aides recounted. So she gave up watching a tape of her beloved Super Bowl (which she missed watching live because it began at 1:30 a.m. during her stop in Jerusalem), only occasionally sneaking a peek and reflecting with aides for a moment on great wide receivers in the National Football League.
In the end, the speech was profound, but her delivery lacked oomph and she clung to the text. A former provost at Stanford University, Rice recovered during the question period, a format in which she exhibited more command throughout the trip.
The speech played well in Paris, the center of opposition to U.S. foreign policy. Le Figaro gushed in a front-page piece Wednesday that "Rice, wearing black, a pearl necklace and an impeccable silhouette, put the 'la' back in the new American diplomacy" or, in French, la diplomatie. "She turned the page on our differences, chiefly Iraq, and our work together," the paper opined.
To show the human side of a normally reserved woman, her staff arranged for Rice to drop in on the Hector Berlioz Conservatory in Paris on Wednesday to attend a children's music class and then watch three young adult groups perform.
"I learned to read music when I was 3 years old, before I learned to read," she told a group of 16 students ages 7 to 9. An accomplished pianist who still tries to play with a chamber ensemble weekly in Washington, Rice sang a basic music comprehension refrain in French with the kids. "Fa-do-sol-si-re-la-sol," Rice sang softly. "I remember this," she said, through an interpreter.
"It takes a lot of work to learn to read music," she told the kids. "You have to practice and practice and practice."