Rice, the (Un)Candidate

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 17, 2006

She jets constantly around the world, from crisis to catastrophe, and when she's soaring 42,000 feet above some ocean she can't hear all the noise back home. That's probably just as well. "Run, Condi, run" wouldn't offend her ears, but I doubt she'd appreciate Spike Lee's advice: "Condi, stop smoking that crack!"

I wouldn't bet the mortgage that Condoleezza Rice will run for president this time. She says she doesn't want to, and although she leaves the door slightly ajar -- she doesn't say she absolutely, positively won't be a candidate -- that's probably just a prudent way of keeping her options open.

Even if she secretly does want to run, I think she'd have to be smoking something to believe all those Republicans who've been telling pollsters how peachy it would be to have a black woman at the head of their presidential ticket. This is the party, after all, that built its solid South through coded appeals to whites who felt threatened by the nameless, dark Other.

Then again, you should have seen the rock-star reception she got from an overwhelmingly white crowd last fall when she flipped the coin at a University of Alabama football game. It was as if Bear Bryant himself had come back to Tuscaloosa.

You could certainly make a case that Rice is doing more than just making herself available in case the party finds itself facing a sure Democratic victory and turns to her in a desperate Hail Mary. When she invited a television crew to roll videotape as she performed her daily workout routine, the message wasn't exactly "secretary of state." What's the difference between showing the world how you do your stomach crunches and donning a funny-looking hat at the state fair?

Her back-to-Birmingham trip last year was chock-full of campaign iconography -- hordes of smiling children, acres of patriotic bunting -- and even on foreign trips she rarely fails to remind audiences of her personal history. Yesterday, in Australia, she began a town hall meeting with university students by reminiscing about her youthful promise as a musician. A student's question about Iraq led to a disquisition on her early years in the segregated South.

Meanwhile, Rice has subtly tried to distance herself and the State Department from the worst excesses of the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis -- even though, as national security adviser, she was an active participant in all the major decisions about Iraq, domestic spying and the administration's ambitious, unilateral expansion of executive power. "Abu Ghraib was a disgrace," she told the Australian students. "What happened there made me sick to my stomach."

Lightning would have to strike for Rice to enter the presidential race this time -- something like the fantasy scenario in which Dick "Bull's-Eye" Cheney gets fed up and resigns after the midterm election. President Bush could then appoint Rice as his new vice president, which would instantly put her in play for 2008. Stranger things have happened, but not many.

Still, I think it's inevitable that Rice will eventually enter politics. The question for the Democratic Party will be how black voters react.

Black conservative Shelby Steele recently speculated with an interviewer from the American Enterprise, a conservative journal, about how a race between Hillary Clinton and Rice might turn out. "If Hillary runs against a man, my guess is there's a certain women's vote out there that will go for her, even many Republicans," he said. "But if she's running against Condoleezza Rice, that would disappear. A large bit of the black vote that Democrats are so desperately dependent upon would also disappear. If Condoleezza Rice ran, she could win by simply taking an extra 15 percent of the black vote."

But from my own anecdotal observation, Spike Lee speaks for a lot of African Americans who have strong negative feelings about Rice. If she runs, he told the New York Observer, "African Americans will have to really, really, really, really, really , REALLY analyze the secretary of state's record, and get past the pigmentation of her skin. . . . I'm not going to vote for that woman. No. Way. "

Steele acknowledges that he might be wrong, that Rice might turn out to be a lousy politician. Lee acknowledges that "I'm not the spokesperson for 45 million African Americans." The truth is that nobody knows how voters would respond to a black woman who loyally serves an administration so reviled in the black community.

And would those cheering, white 'Bama football fans check her name when they're in the privacy of the voting booth?

Nobody knows. But I'll bet that someday -- maybe not soon, but someday -- we'll find out.


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