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Transformed By Her Bond With Bush
Rice's Loyalty Brings Power and Pitfalls

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007

It was just two days after President Bush's reelection in 2004, and Condoleezza Rice was planning her move back home to California and to the tranquility of life at Stanford University.

But Bush had other plans. In a private meeting at Camp David on the morning of Friday, Nov. 6, the president made his pitch: Colin Powell was out as secretary of state -- though Bush hadn't told him yet -- and the president wanted Rice to take the job.

Rice hesitated. Four years as Bush's national security adviser -- through Sept. 11 and two wars -- had taken a toll. "I think you may need a new national security team," she said.

"I do the hiring here," the president countered.

As Rice considered the offer, one question loomed large: Would she and Bush retain their unique closeness if they no longer worked daily together in the White House?

"We've been very close, down the hall," Rice reminded Bush. "I see you eight times a day, and I don't want to lose that connection."

Rice and Bush discussed the job for two hours over the next three days, and by Monday she agreed to become the nation's top diplomat.

During Bush's second term, Rice has struggled to guide U.S. foreign policy in a time of turmoil and war. As national security adviser, Rice was directly involved in the invasion of Iraq, missed opportunities with Iran and North Korea's nuclear breakout. Now she must loosen the Gordian knots she helped tie.

In this effort, Rice's bond with Bush has emerged as her key asset -- but possibly also her critical weakness. It has made her the president's top foreign policy confidante and helped her cultivate a public image imbued with power and influence. But at the same time, friends and former colleagues marvel at how Rice has been transformed by the president she so devotedly serves -- from a hardheaded foreign policy "realist" to a wholehearted supporter of Bush's belief in the power of freedom and democracy.

This picture of Rice emerges from scores of interviews with dozens of administration officials, including Rice, and foreign diplomats, most conducted on the condition of anonymity so people could speak more freely.

Rice tutored Bush on world affairs during the 2000 campaign, seeking to make sure the foreign policy novice didn't stumble. Now, aides say, it is Bush who prods Rice to be bolder and to take chances on his ambitious worldview.

"I realize that I have a close personal relationship with the president," Rice said in a magazine interview last year. ". . . At a point in time down the road, I think the decisions that the president is taking will be viewed as having been right . . . and as having left the world much more secure."

'She Is Speaking for Me'

When Rice was national security adviser, she and Bush developed a near-vaudeville routine for the White House staff as they planned meetings with foreign leaders. The president would petulantly ask why the meeting was needed. Rice would patiently explain its importance. Then Bush would propose saying something undiplomatic, and Rice would say it could pose a problem. Ultimately, Bush, half in jest, would say, "Miss Rice won't let me do that."

In his first term, Bush enhanced Rice's global clout by stressing their closeness. "Miss Rice is like my sister," he told foreign politicians. And in late 2006, the president told a private gathering of U.S. diplomats at the United Nations that the president and the secretary of state must always be on the same page. "We are completely in sync," Bush declared, with Rice standing at his side, according to an official present. "When she speaks, you know that she is speaking for me."

During Rice's years in the White House, in fact, it was not always clear who spoke for whom. People who worked for Rice often describe her relationship with the president as the "Rice-Bush black box." She would go behind closed doors with Bush, standing by his desk while he sat, and then emerge with the president's decision. It was impossible to tell whether the idea had come from Bush or from Rice.

As secretary of state, Rice strives to keep up that connection. If a meeting is not planned that day, she calls Bush in the morning. She usually phones him on Saturday or Sunday to discuss the past week, and every night she sends him a private note, describing the diplomatic issues she faced that day -- in effect, a foreign policy version of Bush's daily intelligence briefings.

Despite such public and private closeness with Bush, however, Rice has remained relatively immune from the public disapproval over the war in Iraq. As national security adviser, Rice was at the center of the decision-making and was a key voice in selling the invasion. But when she moved to the State Department, the blame for the unfolding disaster didn't seem to follow her.

A Washington Post poll in summer 2006 asked Americans how much responsibility Rice bore for the way the war in Iraq had gone. Only 10 percent answered that she had "a lot" of responsibility, and 32 percent said "some." But 26 percent said "only a little," and 17 percent said "none at all." As national security adviser, Rice was responsible for the administration's failure to properly plan the occupation, and as secretary she has defended the administration's war policies, yet close to half of Americans gave her a pass on Iraq.

Rice's ability to insulate herself from the president's plummeting approval ratings was not accidental -- it followed a careful effort to reshape her image, launched early in her tenure as secretary of state.

'No Wasted Motion!'

During the transition to Bush's second term, Rice invited her closest advisers to her apartment in the Watergate building, where they munched on cheese -- Rice's favorite finger food -- and pondered how she could make an immediate splash in her new role. With the U.S. image in the world battered by Iraq, Rice believed it would be difficult to score achievements in the second term if they didn't move quickly and show that the secretary of state was working hard.

Rice assigned a key role to Jim Wilkinson, a hyperactive, media-savvy young aide. He put together a color-coded calendar for her first 100 days, noting when she would travel and with whom she would meet. No detail was too small for Wilkinson, whose slogan was "No wasted motion!" He asked the State Department historian for studies on what made secretaries of state successful. (Proximity to the president, the historian responded.)

Wilkinson wrote a list of negative questions about Rice and sought ways to counter them. Hadn't she been a bad national security adviser? Didn't she have disdain for the Foreign Service? Isn't she part of the neoconservative cabal that dismisses diplomacy? Isn't she cold and unfriendly?

To offset the notion that Rice was cold, Wilkinson decreed that almost no pictures should be allowed of Rice alone. On Rice's first day on the job, for example, he arranged for a crowd to stand around her when she addressed State Department workers. And to show that Rice cared about diplomacy, Wilkinson made sure Americans saw her traveling. He arranged cultural expeditions -- such as a visit to a Paris conservatory during Rice's first overseas trip, where she could highlight her musical training -- each chosen to showcase Rice's appreciation for local cultures.

Wilkinson moved Rice's news conferences with foreign leaders to the ornate rooms of the top floors of the State Department. She would be photographed sitting in front of a fireplace or taking a long, almost presidential walk toward a microphone. Powell had escorted visitors to the front door of the State Department and spoken to reporters in front of the glass doors as others mingled about. It seemed undignified, Wilkinson recalled.

During a trip to Europe early in her tenure as secretary, Rice sported a dramatic outfit at a U.S. military base in Germany: a black skirt that hit just above the knee, along with a black coat with seven gold buttons that fell to mid-calf -- and hung open to reveal sexy, knee-high boots.

The trip was notable for the administration's move to support European efforts against Iran's nuclear program, but the photographs of Rice dominated the news. Talking with Wilkinson, Rice professed puzzlement about the fuss over her boots. Wilkinson said he didn't feel comfortable explaining the reason.

"Oh, Jim, you're like my little brother," Rice teased. "Tell me."

Wilkinson finally answered. "Men like these," he admitted.

Rice leaned over and whispered: "We know that."

In March 2005, before Rice sat for an interview with the Washington Times, Wilkinson slipped a note to the editorial page editor, Tony Blankley, suggesting that she be asked whether she would consider running for president. It was an audacious proposal -- she had been secretary for only six weeks -- but such speculation would bolster Rice's image as a leader. (Wilkinson and Blankley said they do not recall the incident, but others present said they saw Wilkinson's note.)

"I never wanted to run for anything," Rice said in the interview, giving a classic non-answer. "I don't think I even ran for class anything in school."

Her remarks generated headlines and talk about a "Condi versus Hillary" race in 2008.

'A Great Country'

Rice had a long history as a foreign policy "realist" -- believing that a balance of power among leading states would help ensure stability. As a young academic, she had even disapproved of President Ronald Reagan's moralistic approach to the Soviet Union. In the administration of Bush's father, when Rice was a midlevel staffer for national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, working on German reunification issues, she consistently appeared pragmatic and non-ideological.

A traditional realist would not seek to bring democracy to autocratic allies, instead dealing with regimes as they are. But in the current administration, few officials have appeared to be more fervent believers in the president's message of spreading democracy in the Middle East than Rice, who echoes that message in public and in private.

In May 2005, as Rice departed Baghdad after her first trip to Iraq as secretary, she reflected on all she had seen in Iraq: great rivers, fertile fields, monuments with their sense of history. The nation had oil, water, an educated public. On an impulse, she called Bush.

"Mr. President, this is going to be a great country," she told him.

Longtime Middle East experts in the State Department thought that blind faith in the power of democracy and elections was foolish, and that the only winners would be Islamic extremists. Rice's "realist" comrades from the days of Bush's father, such as Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick, wondered whether something within Rice had been drawn out by the current president -- perhaps something based on her Christian faith or her experience with racism as a girl in the Deep South, something she might have repressed while proving herself as a young Cold War scholar. Now, her authority unquestioned, she could truly express herself. Scowcroft said he was stunned by Rice's new "evangelical tone."

Critics say she shifted with the political winds. "Dr. Rice made a decision," Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell's chief of staff in Bush's first term, said in a 2005 speech. "She made a decision that she would side with the president to build her intimacy with the president."

However, longtime friends point to a deep moralizing streak that has propelled Rice to embrace Bush's vision. "Condi always has the capacity to see the world she wants to see -- as opposed to the world that actually exists," said Coit D. Blacker, a Stanford professor and Rice's closest male friend.

When Rice met with Saudi journalists in 2005, after delivering a speech in Cairo promoting Middle East democracy, she expressed hope that extremist parties wouldn't do well because voters would care less about jihad than about the practical aspects of governing. "I think there's at least a very, very good chance that the extremists would not do very well," she said.

Her prediction proved wrong. In the two most liberal societies in the Middle East -- the Palestinian territories and Lebanon -- militia groups were voted into power: Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Rice had shrugged off Israeli warnings about letting Hamas compete in elections without giving up its arms, and she had struggled to contain last summer's devastating war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah. These results, diplomats said, would shape the perception of the United States in the region during Rice's tenure: on the defensive, its influence waning.

'Nothing's Working'

In early 2007, as the Iraq war ground on with few prospects for breakthroughs or success, Rice huddled with top aides and looked for other spots where she could deliver diplomatic results in their final two years. She decided to focus on ensuring a nuclear deal with North Korea, resolving the conflict over Iran's nuclear program and making progress toward a Palestinian state. Rice even spent the 2006 Christmas holiday reading stacks of reports from the office of the State Department historian, trying to glean lessons from President Bill Clinton's intensive Middle East diplomacy in his waning days in office.

"These are scary times we live in," a senior Rice aide said last year. "Nothing's working. We can blame Iran, we can blame North Korea, and we can blame Hezbollah. You can blame them all because they are all terrible people. But at some point you have to ask yourself, are you going about this right?"

During a trip to the Middle East this year, Rice expounded on her views of history and diplomacy with the traveling reporters, often returning to the examples she knew best -- the Soviet Union and Germany -- and arguing that diplomacy is about more than cutting deals.

"You aren't going to be successful as a diplomat if you don't understand the strategic context in which you are actually negotiating," she said. "It is not deal-making." Instead, she said, diplomacy is a matter of waiting until the underlying conditions are favorable and then acting.

Rice's ambitious speeches and image-making early in her tenure as secretary obscured the fact that her approach has been largely tactical -- ad hoc efforts designed to deal with crises that stemmed from decisions made in the first term. Her closeness to the president gave her tremendous clout within the administration, but it appears she did not use it to force a rethinking of the administration's approach to the world.

After seven years of an intense partnership, the president turns out to have been the idea generator after all, shifting Rice from her realist roots and infusing her with the idealistic desire to spread democracy throughout the Middle East. Now, in words that echo the president's, she awaits history's verdict.

"I'm enough of an historian to know that my reputation will be what my reputation is," Rice told reporters earlier this year. "It might be different in five months from five years to 50 years, and so I'm simply not going to worry about that."

This article is adapted from Glenn Kessler's "The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy," to be released tomorrow by St. Martin's Press.

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