Condi Rice Can't Lose

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The seas were angry, and European communism was in the throes of collapse. It was December 1989, and George Bush had arrived for a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev on the stormy waters off Malta in the Mediterranean. He introduced the Soviet President to his advisers, stopping near a reed-thin, 35-year-old African-American woman. "This is Condoleezza Rice," Bush told Gorbachev. "She tells me everything I know about the Soviet Union." Gorbachev looked her over--startled, in that setting, by the adviser's race, gender and youth. "I hope you know a lot," he said.

She did. As a staff member of the National Security Council and then as special assistant to the President, Rice helped craft the strategy that brought the cold war to its peaceful end. Now supporters of George W. Bush are repeating Gorbachev's hope. Since bumbling through an embarrassing round of malapropisms and misstatements that raised questions about his ability to lead the world, Bush has turned to a coterie of foreign policy wonks to help mold his views on international affairs (and teach him the difference between Slovakia and Slovenia). This week Bush will get his first chance to show off what he has learned, when he delivers a speech outlining his plan to revitalize the U.S. military. But he is still dependent on his team of advisers. Foremost among them, as both confidant and spokesperson, is the 44-year-old Condi Rice.

Rice, formerly provost of Stanford University, is in line to become, if Bush wins, either National Security Adviser, Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. She would be destined to be--not only because of her race and gender but also because of her wit and spark--a politico-celebrity superstar. "She doesn't seem to try to push herself forward in any particular way," says former Secretary of State George Shultz, who is also advising Bush. "But she has such a level of capability...that she winds up getting asked to do all sorts of things."

For now, her task is to shape the Bush position on Russia--an area where the campaign hopes to score points against Al Gore. In an interview with TIME last week, Rice chided the Clinton Administration for continuing to support economic assistance to the Russian government despite widespread evidence of graft. "The last thing you wanted to do was accept the rhetoric of reform...when there's no evidence that the Russians were undertaking any of the difficult steps," she said. And Rice seared the Administration for its coziness with Boris Yeltsin and for allowing its agenda to become "synonymous with the agenda of the President of Russia."

Her approach to Russia reflects the pragmatic realism of the Bush team's world view. In interviews, Rice has gently criticized Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for her triumphalism--"Carrying power quietly is sometimes a good thing," Rice says--and expressed disquiet at seeing the U.S. military mobilized for far-flung humanitarian interventions. Her discomfort with the moralistic rationales for sending troops into Kosovo was reflected in Governor Bush's waffly initial statements. Once the decision to intervene was made, she and Bush supported it but felt it should have been carried out more forcefully. On the use of force, she says Bush will differ from the current Administration "not just on when to use it, but how."

And yet Rice's differences with the Democrats are not rooted in a great ideological clash. The members of the Bush foreign policy brain trust--all of whom worked in the Reagan or Bush White House--belong to a generation that came of age in the twilight of communism. Rice has been a fixture at confabs of the foreign policy establishment, such as the Aspen Institute, where last month she and her Bush Administration mentor Brent Scowcroft engaged in typically elevated and polite debate with Democratic stalwarts such as Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Rice believes U.S.-Russia relations should be reoriented to focus on security issues like nuclear disarmament rather than political and economic reform; the Administration is already moving in that direction. Although she would halt talk of Russia as a strategic partner, she doesn't seek confrontation. "Sometimes Russia's interests will conflict with ours, and sometimes they will coincide," she says. Nor does she engage in who-lost-Russia attacks. "Russia hasn't been lost."

Indeed, her bipartisan tone leads one former Bush official to note that Rice could have ended up working for a Democratic administration. But Rice would rather see her beloved Stanford football team lose than work for a Democrat. By both upbringing and philosophy, she is a committed Republican realist in the tradition of Kissinger, Scowcroft and Colin Powell. Rice's father, a university administrator, joined the G.O.P. in 1952, at a time when Dixiecrats still ruled the South. In 1960 the six-year-old Rice went into a voting booth and instructed her mother to "pull the elephant." Her mother listened.

Growing up in segregated Birmingham, she recalls hardly knowing that white people existed. Then, in 1963, her friend Denise McNair was killed in the church bombing that helped ignite the civil rights movement. The family moved out of Alabama, eventually relocating to Denver. But living under Jim Crow instilled in Rice an astonishing resilience. "I came out of that not bitter but with a sense of entitlement," she says, "to do whatever I wanted to do, to be whoever I wanted to be."

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