If it were to be viewed as a battle, or a sporting event, or a contest -- and of course that would be wrong -- then Condoleezza Rice won it. Indeed, the national security adviser did so well and seemed so firmly in command of the situation yesterday, when she testified under oath before the 9/11 commission, that one had to wonder why the White House spent so much time and energy trying to keep her from having to appear.
Anderson Cooper, CNN's most telegenic anchor, said on his "360" program the night before that Rice's was "the most anticipated testimony of the year."
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice stayed calm despite some hostile questions from the 9/11 commission.
(Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
Rice began her testimony -- aired live on all the major networks -- with 20 minutes of prepared remarks, among them a history of terrorism against the United States that went all the way back to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. In more modern times, "radical, freedom-hating terrorists" staged many attacks, Rice said: "The terrorists were at war with us, but we were not yet at war with them."
Although she did plenty of public relations work for the Bush administration in her comments before the panel -- officially, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States -- Rice said that the response of "several" administrations of both parties was "insufficient" as the terrorist threat grew.
As usual, Rice was a model of dignity and composure, even when some commissioners got testy. Rice is the subtly snippy sort. She can, and did, issue such retorts as "May I address the question, sir?" and "I would like to answer" and "If you just give me a moment" without sounding surly or raising her voice. She probably could have done the whole thing with a teacup and saucer balanced on her head. She's that cool.
Smarty-pants Tony Snow, conservative commentator on the Fox News Channel, called the Rice appearance merely "a distraction" a few minutes before it began and predicted "a very prim and tame hearing for the most part." Wrong! Rice clashed with Democrats Richard Ben-Veniste and Bob Kerrey. It's a tossup who was more hostile. "Please don't filibuster me," Kerrey admonished Rice as she rattled on. "It's not fair. I have been polite, I've been courteous."
Rice defused Kerrey at one point by praising "a brilliant speech" he had made in response to the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000. The thrust of the speech, Rice said, was that the U.S. should "go after Saddam Hussein," which is of course what the Bush administration did in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities.
Kerrey didn't help his own cause by repeatedly addressing Rice as "Dr. Clarke," confusing her with counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke, who in TV appearances and a best-selling book has charged the Bush administration with failing to heed warning signs leading up to the 9/11 attacks. In response, the Bush camp has been trying to squash Clarke like a bug.
It wouldn't be unthinkable to call the Bush administration the most vindictive since that of Richard M. Nixon. Rice, however, puts the nicest possible face on that vindictiveness and is easily one of the administration's most effective communicators. She's also among the least likely to come off as fanatical, cranky, intemperate, or possessed by the delusion that she and God are on a first-name basis.
Polls, if taken, are likely to reflect that Rice did the administration considerable good, at least temporarily, in her appearance yesterday. While noting there were "from time to time contentious disagreements," anchor Dan Rather of CBS News said at the end of the session, "Dr. Rice's performance was steady and composed."
Television, it has been said, is not a content medium, another way of saying that in TV, the style is the content (both of which may be paraphrases of Marshall McLuhan's famous observation that "the medium is the message"). Whatever, there really wasn't a lot new in Rice's testimony, not a great deal of substance and little surprise. There did seem to be one act of declassification performed right there on live TV, however. Americans were permitted to hear the title of an Aug. 6, 2001, "PDB" (President's Daily Briefing), which came up often in testimony yesterday. The title was, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside U.S." Whether the whole memo will ever be declassified is problematic. The White House wanted even the title kept secret because it implicitly supports the contention that it should have known something akin to the 9/11 attacks was coming and done more to prevent it. But Rice said, convincingly, "There was no silver bullet that could have stopped the 9/11 attack" and that "no one could have imagined" a plot so monstrous as crashing civilian passenger jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
In her prepared statement, Rice observed, "The world has changed so much that it is hard to remember what our lives were like before that date." Sept. 11, 2001, has indeed become more of a dividing line than the turn of the century or the arrival of the new millennium, both of which, hugely noted before they arrived, have now faded into utter insignificance, at least by comparison.
As for the silver bullet, it was but one of a battery of metaphors filling the air of the commission's hearing room yesterday. At one point Rice quoted Bush as saying, in Bob Woodward's book "Bush at War," that on the matter of terrorism, "my blood was not nearly as boiling" before 9/11 as it was after. That's clumsy phraseology even for Bush.
Rice made so many references to Bush being averse to "swatting flies" in response to terrorist acts that Kerrey finally exploded: "What fly had he swatted?" She said it was only a figure of speech. "Well, I think it's an unfortunate figure of speech," Kerrey snapped.