Defining Her Own Sphere of Influence

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the administration was willing to join negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, she did not go to the drab State Department briefing room. Instead, in full view of the television cameras, she strolled about 50 feet to the microphones set up in the middle of the vast and ornate Benjamin Franklin Room, evoking a visual of the president walking through the White House to the East Room for a prime-time news conference.

The setting of the Iran announcement at the end of May was no accident, but intended to demonstrate the seriousness of the administration's policy shift. Careful attention to stage-managed images has helped define Rice's tenure at the State Department, including the way she meets foreign guests in front of the cameras and how her staff has arranged for celebrities from other countries to meet her at airports overseas.

This picture of the hard-working secretary of state on the move appears to be integral to her growing clout and her status as the most popular Cabinet member in a beleaguered administration.

Rice's job-approval rating in a Harris survey last month was 20 percentage points higher than that of President Bush. A Washington Post poll of 1,000 adults conducted last month suggests that public appeal is based on both a reputation for professionalism and an ability to avoid being identified with the administration's most unpopular decisions. Although she was Bush's national security adviser during the Iraq invasion, a large percentage of those surveyed -- including opponents of the war -- say she had little or nothing to do with the problems in Iraq.

"She is able to use external leverage created by her public popularity to win internal struggles" such as the change in posture toward Iran, said Derek Chollet, who helped former secretaries James A. Baker III and Warren Christopher write their memoirs. "I would definitely rank her as one of the most effective secretaries in increasing the public image of her office, which enhances the State Department and improves the image of the secretary of state around the world."

Rice's celebrity overseas may be even more pronounced than in the United States, making her a truly global figure. In Kiev last December, for instance, university students sat rapt as Rice answered questions about her "recipe for success" and what it meant to be the "most influential woman" working for Bush. On a trip to Baghdad in April, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest Shiite political party, pulled Rice aside to ask if she would write a note to his granddaughter.

Esquire magazine, for its July issue, asked more than 1,000 men to choose among 14 notable women who they would most want to attend a dinner party. Rice placed first, ahead of Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston. Rice told the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record that she was stunned at the result. "I'm not sure I would choose me," she said.

In the Post survey, twice as many people had a favorable opinion about Rice as viewed her unfavorably, while other recent surveys have found that majorities of Americans have negative impressions of Bush and Vice President Cheney. Of those who have a favorable view of Rice, a majority said it was mostly because of her professional abilities, rather than the policies she supported.

This impression extended to Democrats and independents interviewed; more than seven of 10 cited either Rice's professional abilities or her personal qualities as the reason for their favorable impression.

These positive impressions have made Rice a viable contender in the 2008 presidential race, though she routinely tries to play down speculation that she would consider running. In the Post survey, 54 percent said they would either definitely vote for her or consider voting for her.

Without encouragement from Rice, grass-roots campaigns have sprung up to encourage her to run, though she insists she wants to return to California and teaching.

Mark McKinnon, who was Bush's media adviser in 2000 and 2004, said Rice has almost unlimited political potential, should she decide to change roles.

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