California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer pursued a curious line of attack during Condoleezza Rice's confirmation hearing this week. Rice, one of the principal architects of the administration's Iraq policy, was clearly vulnerable to charges of helping produce a misguided, if not misleading, rationale for the Iraqi invasion, as well as poor postwar planning. Saddam Hussein clearly was not the threat Rice had proclaimed. Her paper trail of misstatements virtually invited a congressional attack on her record. But Boxer, rather than sticking to Rice's performance as national security adviser and her qualifications to direct U.S. foreign policy, chose instead to gratuitously characterize her as a Bush loyalist who was blindly parroting pro-Iraqi war lines without regard for whether they were true.
Boxer said to Rice: "I personally believe -- this is my personal view -- that your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell the war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth." Loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell the war. Ponder the weight of that statement. It comes close, at least in spirit, to the picture of Rice sketched by political cartoonist Pat Oliphant a few weeks ago. In case you missed it, Oliphant drew a big-lipped, bucktooth Rice perched like a parrot on President Bush's arm. Bush was speaking to Rice in baby talk, with Rice replying: "Awwrk!! OK Chief. Anything you say, Chief. You Bet, Chief. You're my HERO, Chief."
It's hard to imagine a more demeaning and offensive caricature of a prospective secretary of state, let alone the most senior official on the national security staff. It's equally difficult to understand what prompted Boxer to imply that Rice is little more than a diligent echo of Bush's thoughts. There's nothing in Rice's background or in her performance to suggest that she is a mindless follower of presidential orders. In fact, Rice comes across as just the opposite.
As I was leaving a Post dining room after participating in my first off-the-record session with Rice and other Post editors and reporters a couple of years ago, it struck me that Rice could be where Bush gets it from. Subsequent meetings only have reinforced that supposition. Rice's notions of preemption, unilateralism and America's responsibilities as the dominant power in the world are not hand-me-downs from Bush. They strike me as very much her own.
Wonder why Rice stayed close to Bush's policies in her hearings? Consider the possibility that the administration's policies happen to be hers too. Consider too the likelihood that years of study and work in foreign affairs, both as an academic and as a senior foreign policy wonk, are what inform her views -- not George W. Bush.
My disagreement with the Bush administration on Iraq has been spelled out in past columns. I'm also a member of an editorial board that has been critical of administration policies -- and by extension, Rice -- on several foreign policy fronts. For example, when it comes to opposing oppressive regimes, this administration, despite its soaring rhetoric, has come up way short. But characterize Condoleezza Rica as a presidential stooge? Count me out.
As Sen. Dianne Feinstein said when she formally introduced her fellow Californian at the hearing, Rice has "the deep personal trust and confidence of the president. . . . She's been by his side for every crucial national security decision in the last four years." Bush, Feinstein noted, considers Rice to be brilliant. That may cause Boxer et al. to choke, but tough noogies. Bush listens to Condoleezza Rice because he believes that she knows what she is talking about. Which makes the attacks on Rice even more curious. What prompts Rice's critics to portray her -- a former Stanford University provost who managed a $1.5 billion budget, 1,400 faculty members and 14,000 students -- as a flunky who, when ordered, simply salutes and runs out to play huckster?
What's the motive behind this kind of assault? Is it a desire to demean or put her down? Is it a wish to marginalize Rice in the public eye, to suggest that by reason of her intelligence, ability or integrity, she is unqualified to hold her present post or to become secretary of state?
A senator who believes the Bush administration lied about the war, made a mess of postwar reconstruction and ruined relations with long-standing allies would be justified in holding Rice accountable, and in my view, in voting against her confirmation. Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Boxer and John Kerry did as much.
But slurring her as a hollow-headed marionette controlled by Bush? What's that all about? It calls to mind John Sylvester, a white radio talk show host in Madison, Wis., who recently went Boxer and Oliphant one better -- or worse. "Sly," as he calls himself, went on the air and caricatured Rice as a servile black, laboring slavishly for the Bush White House. He called her, of all things, an "Aunt Jemima."
The Boxer-Oliphant-Sylvester take on Condoleezza Rice stands in sharp contrast to the assessment offered by Dorothy Height, chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women, who wrote in a letter to The Post this week: "Despite the challenges she will face, Ms. Rice's appointment is a time for women of color to smile."
Of course, Height's grouping didn't include folks such as the senator, the cartoonist and "Sly."