washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Eugene Robinson

A Race to Dream About

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page A23

So did she jump or was she pushed? Back from the brink, I mean.

Last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sounded as if she were already coordinating her outfits for the presidential campaign trail. For rallies, would it be more of the Matrix-dominatrix look she paraded before the troops in Germany, an image already enshrined in the annals of clotheshorse diplomacy? For evenings, something softer but still commanding, like the alpha-female scarlet gown she wore to the insiders-only Gridiron Club dinner? This lifelong woman of substance has obviously decided that a little style can go a long way.

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Fully aware of all the buzz about a possible Rice candidacy in 2008, she was refusing to rule it out. She offered non-denial denials -- "It's really hard for me to imagine," or "I'm not trying to be elected," the things politicians say when what they mean is, "I think about it day and night."

Meanwhile, she was trying on political positions like a rack of half-priced Oscar de la Rentas. She called herself "kind of libertarian . . . mildly pro-choice" on abortion. She spoke of her own deep religious belief but told the editorial board of the Washington Times that this doesn't mean "that I think that God will tell me what to do on, you know, the Iran nuclear problem."

Maybe when she saw her words in print she realized that in today's Republican Party, being pro-choice on abortion and failing to find the solution to nuclear proliferation in Leviticus mark her as some kind of far-left radical. Maybe she remembered that she's never actually run for anything. Maybe someone in the White House reminded her of these facts.

Whatever happened, by the time Rice reached the Sunday morning talk shows she was issuing Shermanesque statements to anyone who would listen. "I won't do it," she told George Stephanopolous. "I will not run for president of the United States," she told Tim Russert.

A minute later, though, she was back to leaving herself wiggle room -- "I don't want to" and "I don't intend to" -- until the dogged Russert finally gave up. That leaves three possibilities: She is a modern-day Cincinnatus who, after bending the known world to her iron will, intends to retire to the gardens of academe; she meant "not in 2008" and plans to run for the Senate from California first; or she decided that all this speculation wasn't doing her any good and ended it for the moment, knowing that no political promise is less binding than a pledge not to run.

In any event, I doubt anything will dampen the ardor of her besotted public. Click your way through www.rice2008.com or www.americansforrice.com and you'll get a sense of why there's so much serious presidential talk about a woman who's never been elected county commissioner. They are fan-club sites, like the ones teenage girls set up for their favorites on "American Idol." The tone is something like: Ooooooooh, she's so cool! At the convention in New York she looked right at me, I swear! She's the coolest person in the whole wide world, and if she shakes my hand I'll never wash it again, not ever!

Political rock stars are rare. Barack Obama is one, but he has to toil in the Senate awhile as an opening act before graduating to headliner. Condi Rice, raised on classical music, suddenly has broken out of her backup-singer role with the potential to become the kind of act that fills stadiums.

The citizen in me is deeply ambivalent about this, but the journalist says bring it on. Imagine -- it won't happen, but just imagine: a presidential race between Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Not just two women, but two mega-stars -- two women who are both loved and loathed with electric passion. Republicans love Rice because her very existence confirms their view of America as a perfectly meritocratic land of opportunity (and also, judging from the Web sites, because some think she's, ahem, hot). Democrats loathe her for misleading us into war and being President Bush's football-watching buddy. They love Clinton for being their kind of superwoman -- loyal but independent wife, loving mother, faithfully liberal senator -- and promising the Clinton Restoration. Republicans loathe her because she would bring her husband back to the White House, even if his new duties were confined to curtains and china patterns.

Like I said, it looks like a Rice-Clinton race won't happen. But in today's America, star quality equals power, and who out there has more of it? Rice said no, but did anybody notice whether she had her fingers crossed?

The writer will be available to answer questions today at 2 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

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