washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tina Brown

Hungry Media Fill Up on Rice

By Tina Brown
Thursday, March 17, 2005; Page C01

All the hype about Condi Rice's new rock-star persona is just because politics has lost its fizz. White House correspondents are bored. The newly self-infatuated bloggers are bored. There is no juice in the Social Security debate. Hence the sudden daft flurry of stories about a possible Hillary/Condi matchup in '08. In this Eros-deprived administration, it gives the Sunday morning news guys something to fantasize about: two girls going at it.

For sure, it's great to see how Condi has changed now that she's out from under. Like Hillary Clinton's confidence when she escaped from the suffocation of being first lady, Condi's has begun to unfurl like a flag. The corrugated frown has vanished, apparently without the aid of Botox. The modish, martial jackets in born-again white and SoHo black are crack-the-whip cool.

Her move to the Cabinet has made Condoleezza Rice the new center of the media's universe. (Kamal Kishore -- Reuters)

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Power remains the great aphrodisiac. British cabinet ministers who had no impure thoughts about Mrs. Thatcher when she was a schoolmarmy minister for education suddenly mused about the "whiff of her Chanel" as she swept into cabinet meetings as PM. I guess that's why it all got so arch last Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" and ABC's "This Week" when Tim and George endlessly parsed their "Are-you-running-in-'08?" questions. I hope we see the same frisky transformation in new U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, whose ornery Wyatt Earp mustache and professorial specs could use a "Queer Eye" makeover.

The Condi Style boomlet, however, will probably be short-lived. Madeleine Albright got a similar honeymoon when fashion writers burbled about those lapel pins of hers that were the size of small countries. To hold the public's attention for the long haul you have to display the hint of a character flaw that suggests a bubbling subtext or a possible fall from grace.

That's why Hillary stays interesting. It's not because she says anything memorable -- like Condi, she is always relentlessly on message. But with Hillary there is always the memory of the back story: the marital journey, the furies of ambition, the demons of competition and payback that drive her on. (Plus there's the compelling fascination of Bill's prospective role reversal as a White House househusband.)

Condi seems to have shed gender, shed race, shed the need for any visible emotional life. Her hobbies -- ice skating, chamber music -- are intellectually pristine and demurely glamorous. As national security adviser in the Church Lady White House, she was the Policy Nun. As secretary of state and queen of Foggy Bottom, she shows signs of becoming the Bushies' Emma Peel.

All of which works well and even passes for excitement in the cleaned-up, idiosyncrasy-free, risk-averse atmosphere we are living in now. Nobody in politics, still less in business life, can afford an out-there personality. Between the new corporate governance terrors and the hazards of seeing a career-wrecking quote taken out of context, who wants to risk hiring a person with a dangerous new idea? Every word out of a public figure's mouth is a hostage to fortune. Every private e-mail is a bomb that could blow up your life.

No corporation wants a lip flap like that of Harvard President Larry Summers, whose faculty dealt him another blow Tuesday with a vote of no confidence, or ex-CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan's reckless ruminations at Davos about the military targeting journalists. Sex at the office used to be one of the things that made going to work worthwhile, but not anymore since a Boeing e-mail snoop caused the board to can the highly successful, 68-year-old CEO Harry Stonecipher for his lapse with a company executive who wasn't even in the same town.

We are in the Eggshell Era, in which everyone has to tiptoe around because there's a world of busybodies out there who are being paid to catch you out -- and a public that is slowly being trained to accept a culture of finks. We're always under surveillance; cameras watch us wherever we go; paparazzi make small fortunes snapping glamour goddesses picking their noses; everything is on tape, with transcripts available. No matter who you are, someone is ready and willing to rat you out. Even the rats themselves have to look over their shoulders, because some smaller rat is always waiting in the wings. Bloggers are the new Stasi. All the timidity this engenders, all this watching your mouth has started to feel positively un-American.

That's why Condi is such a perfect star for the Eggshell Era. The world can't take its eyes off her walking the tightrope across Niagara Falls with a pile of books on her head. She can show a glimpse of slip but never slip.

© 2005, Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company