STANFORD, Calif.–George W. Bush would be the first to admit he is lucky to have a gifted black woman giving him a crash course in how the world turns.
She is Professor Condoleezza Rice, his top foreign policy advisor, whom Bush respectfully calls his “guru.”
If he wins, this guru is likely to become national security adviser, secretary of defense, or secretary of state, if Colin Powell doesn’t take one those jobs. White House observers say this could make her as famous as a rock star because she is glamorous, single, warm and witty–and she has a better resume and more brains than most men in Washington.
“I’ve seen rock stars. I don’t think I qualify,” said Rice, 45. “I’m more into Brahms.”
She’s also a sports nut who has nicknamed Bush’s foreign policy team “the Vulcans” after a statue of the Roman god of iron and fire in Birmingham, Ala., where she grew up during the civil rights movement. Rice is the quarterback and there are seven men on her team.
When asked if Bush is the football, Rice laughs. “No he is the coach, the owner, the everything. He tells us what to do.”
Rice is a loyal admirer of the Texas governor. They meet about once a week and they talk about foreign policy on the phone almost every day and for an hour every Sunday night. Bush has called her someone “who can explain foreign policy to me in a way I can understand.”
But she gets steamed at the notion that Bush is a foreign affairs dimwit.
“He’s a really smart man. But he doesn’t get puffed up and spout ‘paradigms’ and ‘caveats’ in the way that the elite talk about foreign policy,” Rice says.
But the guru does not always agree with the governor. He is anti-abortion. She is pro-choice.
“I believe abortion should be legal and Roe v. Wade should not be overturned,” Rice said during an interview at her office in the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where she is on leave from her job as a professor of political science. She also served as the university’s provost, the youngest person and the first non-white to hold the job.
Rice says Bush “is aware that America is not ready for a change in this law (overturning Roe), but he would like to persuade Americans that the pro-life position is the right one. I’m comfortable with that and I haven’t tried to persuade him not to be, because he feels it very deeply.”
Rice first stood out in the sea of Washington’s old, white men in 1987 when she became an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on strategic nuclear policy. Fluent in Russian, she also served as Soviet affairs adviser to Bush’s father and was credited with helping to steer the Cold War to a peaceful end.
Not only that, she’s a fitness fiend who works out with the Stanford football coach, lifts weights and plays tennis. She’s even good at figure skating.
Though self-described as an “all-over-the map Republican,” conservative on foreign policy but “almost libertarian” on some issues, Rice admits there are some things about the latest Republican platform she does not like.
She thinks corporate and union campaign contributions should be outlawed “because they don’t represent individuals,” and although she opposes gun control, she is not as passionate about it as many in her party.
“I don’t believe you’re ever going to find a candidate with whom you agree about everything,” Rice said. “But on balance I’ve found the Republican Party hospitable to the values I hold, and I believe in working in the party to change some of the tone and some of the elements that have been out of whack over the last several years.”
A devout Presbyterian, Rice is Republican like her parents who were both schoolteachers. She speaks movingly of growing up in the segregated South and the bombing that ignited the civil rights movement. She was nine, sitting in church, when a bomb exploded a few miles away at a Baptist church. One of Rice’s schoolmates was among the four girls who were killed.
By age five she was banging out Beethoven and hoping to be a concert pianist. (She still practices three to four hours a week.) A gifted student who skipped two grades, Rice says she first fell in love with Russian politics and culture when she studied at the University of Denver with Joseph Korbel, the father of Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
Now, in addition to having a world-class resume, Rice has written two books and she serves on numerous corporate boards. Chevron honored her by naming an oil tanker “Condoleezza Rice.” Her mother got the name from the Italian musical instruction to performers: “con dolcezza,” meaning “with sweetness.”
But Rice does not speak “con dolcezza” and she bridles when asked about criticism that the Republicans used her as a token in her address to the convention in Philadelphia.
“Pathetic,” she said. “The thought that somebody as experienced as I am or as accomplished as Colin Powell is just going to allow themselves to be paraded is pathetic. What are the Democrats going to do?” she asked. “Who are they going to parade on stage? If you only see the colors of the speakers, then you’re the racist, not the other way around.”
Rice told the convention that she became a Republican because her father John Rice is a Republican.
“My father joined our party because the Democrats in Jim Crow Alabama of 1952 would not register him to vote. The Republicans did. I want you to know that my father has never forgotten that day, and neither have I.”
Rice also told the convention that the United States should not be “the world’s 911,” meaning that she opposes mobilizing the U.S. military for far-flung humanitarian interventions.
“Calling them ‘humanitarian’ sometimes masks what is actually going on,” she says. “Famines are rarely due to the absence of food. Famines are caused because one political group is withholding food from another political group. So you have to ask, do we want to get involved in a civil war? That’s a lot different than saying I want to do something humanitarian.”
Citing Somalia as an example, Rice says U.S. troops “went in to stop a famine” but “ended up on CNN with American soldiers’ bodies being dragged through the streets–and then we had no stomach to stay, so we didn’t really achieve the goal there.”
She was referring to U.S. efforts that diverged from the original U.N. humanitarian mandate and became focused on capturing obstructive warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. In the process, nationalistic Somalis became outraged and U.S. troops were attacked in their bungled attempt to seize Aidid.
If Bush becomes President, Rice says, his priority will be to have an American military strong enough to keep the world at peace, focusing on allies before he focuses on adversaries.
“It’s like having a good friend. If you only call your friend when you need something, they’re not going to be your friend much longer.”
She recalled giving Bush a chuckle by calling him before the announcement of Dick Cheney as his running mate. “I said I just wanted him to know I wasn’t waiting for the call to make me Vice President. I just wanted him to relax about that. He said, ‘I’m glad.'”
“Vice President Rice?” The Vulcan quarterback just laughs. But her fans know she has what it takes to score a lot more touchdowns.
Jeannine Yeomans is a free-lance news and television correspondent and producer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.