27 March 2008

Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice’s intelligence hits you like a science-fiction force field as soon as you come near her. You can feel how smart she is. Her brains radiate heat energy. That’s something I’ve experienced with very few other people, though I’ve known several who are at least as smart as she, and in her case I wonder if it’s not a kind of defense mechanism: you know without being told to maintain a respectful distance. A woman of her singular beauty (newspaper photographs don’t do her justice) might need to develop such a defense.

And the force field works: when I met her, at a Time Magazine event to discuss the 100 most important people of the last century, I was thoroughly intimidated by her. And so, I think, was my boss.

A recent article by Russell Baker in The New York Review of Books brings this to mind. In examining several biographies of Rice, Baker cites numerous instances of powerful men (notably including the former Secretary of State, George P. Schultz; the former President, George H.W. Bush; and the father of Madeleine Albright, a distinguished professor and foreign-policy expert) who were immediately impressed with her. These instant connections subsequently led to exceptional opportunities that propelled her quickly up the ranks, whether in government or in university administration. Even today, she may rightly be considered a Wunderkind.

What’s harder to understand, then, is why she’s been such a disappointment — though Baker tries hard to explain it. The fact that he’s writing about her this way at all is indicative of just how badly she’s failed: you know you’re in trouble when Baker, one of the most genial writers ever to grace the Op-Ed pages of any major American newspaper, feels he has to take you on.

Identifying the disappointment is easy. A woman of Rice’s intelligence ought to have been able to stand up to George Bush (and/or Dick Cheney and/or Don Rumsfeld), instead of presiding over some of the worst catastrophes of the past seven years. She should have taken more seriously the warnings of an impending attack by Al-Qaeda, instead of maintaining the posture, so brilliantly satirized by The Onion, that “Preventing 9/11 Would Have Meant Accruing a Lot of Overtime.” It’s easy to find fault in hindsight, and yet, again and again, Rice has been proven so very wrong by circumstance, so incompetent and so gullible, that it’s hard to believe she’s as intelligent as she is.

Guided by her biographers, Baker concludes that Rice has been in over her head pretty much since the collapse of the Soviet Union. She has continued to land good jobs, he suggests, more from her ability to charm powerful men than from any evidence that she’ll succeed once they hire her. He analyzes her relationship with the current President — who scored over his opponents in 2000 and 2004 precisely because he wasn’t an intellectual — as a curious mixture of condescension and adoration.

One minute, she’s the teacher, he the student; the next, she’s the fawning courtier, he the king. It’s been remarked that Rice makes Bush feel clever by telling him what good questions he asks during briefings; thus he may never have heard that many intelligence analysts believed bin Laden was about to attack the U.S., or that Saddam’s claims to weapons of mass destruction were bluffs, or that the Iraqis would not, in fact, greet American troops as liberators. Mind you, it was her job as National Security Adviser to make him consider these possibilities, even if she didn’t agree with them. Though it’s entirely possible that Cheney and Rumsfeld would have muscled her out of Washington if she’d spoken up, there’s no evidence to suggest it even occurred to her to do so.

Her apparent confidence in Bush leads her to believe he’ll make the right choices even if he isn’t offered a variety of viewpoints, and even if material has to be presented to him in clear-cut, condensed statements because neither his short attention span nor his simplistic worldview permits lengthy discussion and analysis. Their personal relationship is close, which may well blind her to his limitations, and prevent her from compensating for them, instead of excusing them.

She is, as I say, still quite young, and though her failures in the current administration make it improbable that she’ll be selected as John McCain’s running mate (for example), after leaving Washington she’s certain to find a berth in any number of think tanks, universities, and corporate boards. They’ll be falling over themselves to sign her up. And in a few more years, other government service may beckon. She may yet make an outstanding United States Senator; the increased authority of the office of Vice President (or even President) might suit her better than the comparatively subservient posts she’s held thus far. We haven’t seen the last of her — and she may yet live up to her potential.