Condoleezza Rice was the first woman to occupy the key post of US national security adviser. The most academic member of the Bush foreign affairs team, she stood out from the rest because of her gender, background and youth. Well-liked and trusted, she proved to be a useful ally for a president with little experience of foreign affairs.
Rice led the tricky negotiations with Russia (her academic specialisation) over missile defence, and is thought to have spearheaded the unilateralist tone of the first months of the Bush presidency.
Her uncompromising positions on missile defence, Russia and the environment won respect but helped build the European caricature of the new president as toxic troglodyte. She has since admitted that the Kyoto decision could have been handled better.
However, Rice thought of US foreign policy largely in terms of US national and strategic interest, and was no fan of the US acting as a paternalistic nation-builder.
Against the odds
Born on November 14, 1954, Rice’s childhood was spent in the segregated Deep South where the racial lines were stark and patrolled by the threat of violence. It was something her family knew all about. Rice’s father, John Wesley Rice, was a minister but that did not stop him from arming himself with a shotgun, along with other black men in the neighbourhood, when racist whites threatened to attack in the early 1960s (Rice cites the moment as being behind a firm belief in gun rights).
In the troubled times of the 1950s and 1960s, few places were worse than Birmingham as America’s blacks struggled their way through the civil rights movement. In 1963, a horrific church bombing in the city shocked the nation as it killed four young black girls, including 11-year-old Denise McNair, one of Rice’s childhood friends.
“I know a little bit of what it’s like to have somebody try to terrorise a community. These little girls weren’t going to hurt anybody. They didn’t have any political power,” she once told an interviewer.
Yet Rice’s childhood was not one defined by trauma. Far from it. Her family, including her high-school teacher mother, Angelena, was a close-knit unit; she was an only child and the focus of her parents’ love and ambitions. The Rices also belonged to the small segment of black southern society in Birmingham that formed a solid middle class. Rice’s prodigious childhood talents were nurtured. She was a talented pianist (and still plays almost to a professional level). Her unusual name comes from the Italian musical term “con dolcezza”, meaning “with sweetness”.
She learnt foreign languages from a young age, did ballet and figure-skating. In 1967, the family moved to Denver and Rice won a place at the University of Denver in 1971 to study political science.
For many Democrats, that story would tick various liberal boxes, just as Barack Obama’s biography as a mixed-race child raised by a single white mother from Kansas does. But Rice, as the talented child of a southern preacher who saw first hand the violence of racism, instead eventually drew conservative lessons from life.
Her family taught a solid, middle-class work ethic of buckling down, working the system to the best of your ability and trusting America to get it right in the end. Which, in Rice’s case at least, it did.
Rice worked at her studies, got a masters from Notre Dame, worked briefly in the State Department of President Jimmy Carter and then got a PhD from the University of Denver. She specialised in the Soviet Union, developing hardline conservative foreign policy views, and was eventually hired at Stanford. It was there she first came to the attention of the political clan that would become her second family: the Bushes.
Introduced by Bush family adviser Brent Scowcroft, Rice became a family confidante. She served President George H.W. Bush and then his son, working as George W. Bush’s foreign policy adviser during the 2000 campaign. After he won, he named her national security adviser and then, in his second term, she became secretary of state. The two were very close, bound by a love of football, prayer and each comfortable with their end of the president-adviser relationship. (She even once mistakenly referred to Bush as “my husband”.)
Of course, it helped that Rice keeps her personal life private. She was briefly engaged to a football player in the late 1970s. She explains her solitary ways by simply being so immersed in work.
But what one thinks of Rice depends on what one thinks of the Bush years. For many Democrats, and even more people abroad, that means a close association with a failure to spot 9/11 coming, the dreadful horrors of the invasion of Iraq and the neocon ascendancy of the 2000s. So, while Republicans feted and praised Rice after her speech in Tampa, not everyone was pleased to see her. A day before she took to the podium, a group of leftwing protesters tried to enter a Tampa arts centre where Rice was appearing with the intention of “arresting” her for war crimes.
At present, Rice is the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution; and a professor of Political Science at Stanford University. She is also a founding partner of RiceHadleyGates, LLC.
She also serves on the board of Dropbox, an online-storage technology company, C3, an energy software company, and Makena Capital, a private endowment firm. In addition, she is a member of the boards of the George W. Bush Institute, the Commonwealth Club, the Aspen Institute, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
Compiled from BBC and The Guardian.
This column aims to profile personalities who made the news once but have now faded from the spotlight.
What she said:
I didn’t run for student council president. I don’t see myself in any way in elected office. I love policy. I’m not particularly fond of politics.
We’re in a world in which the possibility of terrorism, married up with technology, could make us very, very sorry that we didn’t act.
What you know today can affect what you do tomorrow. But what you know today cannot affect what you did yesterday.