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The following is an excerpt from the book Twice as Good 
by Marcus Mabry
Published by Modern Times; May 2007;$27.50US/$34.50CAN; 978-1-59486-362-2
Copyright © 2007 Marcus Mabry

Introduction: Essence

Ironically, it may have started in 1968, a year that was a crack in time. That was the year Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot. But the event that really struck me was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I can still feel the strong sense I had of remorse and regret that a brave people had been subdued.

Condoleezza Rice
Campus Report
December 7, 1983

A virtual civil war had broken out at Essence. For the first time anyone could remember, the selection of a cover subject had led to threats of resignation. The source of the angst? Dr. Condoleezza Rice. The most powerful black woman in 230 years of American government. Arguably the most powerful African American woman in the world. The only black woman ever to have been secretary of state -- or national security adviser to the president of the United States, or provost of Stanford University. An unprecedented woman.

Such turmoil is not the usual fare of Essence. It's the magazine of the African American woman and typically dwells on more mundane matters, like the lives and loves of black celebrities. But the monthly also explores -- and for this it is cherished by millions of readers -- the trials and tribulations of black women, that population who, as nineteenth-century educator Anna Julia Cooper observed, is the only group in America who can claim that "when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood . . . [an entire] race enters with me." Essence finds its voice and its vision in that fact: that as the black woman attains her full personhood in American society, her progeny, the entire black race, will gain it with her.

When the suggestion had been made in a meeting of senior editors, there had been no disagreement. The question at hand was who should grace the cover of Essence's annual "power issue." Of course there was Oprah. But Winfrey had already been on the cover of a previous power issue, and, according to Essence editors, she had made it clear that she wouldn't be able to appear on another because of obligations to her own magazine.

And other than Winfrey, no other black woman could touch Condi Rice when it came to power. Rice had helped George W. Bush reach the White House -- twice. She was the face of the United States to the entire world. And in that early summer of 2005, her public standing at home and abroad was growing by the day. She was the only member of the administration with a positive approval rating. She had been the first person to inform the president that a plane had hit the World Trade Center on September 11. "We're talking about a black woman who [as secretary of state] was two bullets away from the presidency," said Michaela Angela Davis, one of the highest-ranking editors at the magazine, misstating the line of presidential succession but only by one.

Davis -- named for the African American activist Angela Davis, who had grown up just a few miles north of Rice and had written of the terrors of living in "Bombingham," Alabama -- wanted to see Rice on the cover. But "half the staff wasn't having it." The divide was not generational: Akiba Solomon, the young and politically conscious health editor, and Janice Bryant, a senior copy editor old enough to be her mother, both thought Rice shouldn't appear on the cover. Some of the dissidents said Rice was a murderer because she was "sending African Americans to die" in Iraq and, they argued, was directly responsible for the deaths of Iraqi civilians, "other people of color." And fresh in the minds of many of the journalists was the magazine's recent eleven-hundred-word tribute to six African American servicewomen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, "They Never Made It Home." "How would the mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, and cousins, Essence's target audience, feel when they read what would inevitably be a fluff piece on Rice in their magazine?" asked Solomon.

Almost as soon as the "center of the book" meeting ended, the uproar began. The women of Essence clustered in hallways and cubicles. "Did you hear? They want to make her the cover!" When executive editor Linda Villarosa came to work the following Monday, the women -- smart, beautiful, educated, black women -- like Condoleezza Rice -- crowded into her office to voice their displeasure. Villarosa remembered someone using the word sit in.

Villarosa didn't want Rice on the cover, either, but for different reasons. She thought Rice wouldn't appeal to the Essence newsstand buyer, a young woman more interested in Beyoncé than Condi. Besides, Villarosa thought, Rice wasn't making any particular news at the moment: She had been secretary of state for months; she wasn't about to announce for the presidency. Villarosa told the staffers that if they felt this strongly, they should plead their case to editorial director Susan Taylor.

Taylor invited the petitioners in, along with those who supported a Rice cover. About twenty-two staffers gathered, and the arguments instantly became heated. Women who had never uttered a word at an editorial meeting found their voices. One of the magazine's few white staffers said Rice wasn't worthy of the cover. An African copy editor said she was hurt and confounded by both the lack of solidarity and the naïveté of her colleagues, who clearly didn't understand how lucky they were to live in a country where an African American woman could rise to such heights; where she came from, women were abused and humiliated.

The other side argued that for millions of black women, the cover of Essence signified the highest praise. "Being on the cover would have been her entrée into the hearts of black women," said Solomon. "And she doesn't belong there. Just because you're born black and female doesn't mean we should love you."

It was the Condi conundrum. Later in 2005, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson framed the question at the heart of the Essence debate more whimsically: "Like a lot of African Americans, I've long wondered what the deal was with Condoleezza Rice."

It was fitting that Condoleezza had chosen as her vocation the study of the Soviet Union, a nation Winston Churchill called "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." For most Americans, Rice could be described the same way.

As a public figure, she is one of a kind: influential, attractive, intelligent, charming, and tough. Forbes dubbed her the most powerful woman in the world twice (far ahead of Oprah). A black woman in a white man's world, she gives no hint of feeling out of place or ever in doubt. Even before George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, she was his most articulate promoter -- his "secret weapon," said the press. And as criticism mounted at the end of Bush's first term and intensified during his second -- over issues from Iraq to Katrina to domestic spying -- Rice became the president's most ardent defender and simultaneously rose to become the most popular member of the cabinet, the steely yet stylish avatar of American power. She made Vanity Fair's "Best-Dressed List 2006." Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer Robin Givhan of the Washington Post even called her "sexy."

But despite her high profile, few can say they know Condoleezza Rice. For most of her public life, she has jealously guarded her privacy. She claims a small circle of very close friends. She refuses to discuss her romantic life. A suspected grind, she typically rises shortly after 4:30 each morning to work out and is in her State Department office before 7. She mostly avoids the Washington party circuit and is in bed most nights by 10. While she does not shy away from the details of her biography -- her childhood in the segregated South, her strong religious faith, her historic rise -- she does not relish talking about herself, which in Washington may be the most exceptional thing about her.

During her tenure as head of the National Security Council, she seemed to delight in official Washington's confusion over the question, "What does Condi think?" While other administration officials fed the media and the rumor mill with their agendas, Rice mostly kept her own counsel and kept her counsel to the president to herself. As one former administration official who has known Rice for almost twenty years put it, "To write her biography is such a challenge because her American story is so powerful, and she has such enormous discipline so that getting underneath it -- wowie zowie!"

And yet her personal history provides both a lens through which to view the most important developments of our times and an opportunity to plumb their impact. Few American lives have so touched the great events of the last half century, both in the United States and on the global stage, and been so touched by them as has the life of Condoleezza Rice. Born in 1954, she was personally affected by segregation, then by integration, by affirmative action, and also by the women's movement. She has played key roles in the reunification of Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union, the response to September 11, the rise of American hegemony and the advent of George W. Bush's "transformational" foreign policy, and the war in Iraq. The challenge of writing about Rice is compounded by her contradictions. To her detractors, she is obtuse, obstinate, and remote. To her supporters, she is clear-minded and determined. And to some of them, their choice to be the first woman and the first African American president of the United States. She is a survivor of segregation who became one of the most recognizable members of a party that rose to national dominance in part through a "Southern strategy" that exploited white resentment over black civil rights gains. She is a beneficiary of both the civil rights movement and affirmative action who changed her party registration from Democrat to Republican in 1982. She has never gone in for identity politics; she is an evangelical for the power of individual will. Is her story, then, the culmination of the civil rights movement, or did her success unfold parallel to it, even in spite of it? Is she an example to millions of minorities and women (as well as white men), or is her path so unique that it doesn't provide a road map for anyone else's?

As I discovered in years of interviews with the people who know her best, there is much more to Condi Rice than the political brawler who stares down Senate committees. Her friends and family paint a portrait of a woman the public has never known: a relaxed and funny woman who puts her family before even the president she serves. Who waited outside an NFL locker room in Cincinnati with her girlfriend when she was a young college professor to glimpse her heroes. Who prefers to date "bad boys" and athletes. Who called a hospital in Alabama from the Middle East to make sure the staff knew she was looking out for her twenty-eight-year-old cousin who was in their care, dying of a terminal illness. Who never wanted to be secretary of state.

I was surprised to learn that many of Rice's loved ones disapproved of and, in some cases, even disdained President Bush and his policies, policies that they feared have unfairly tainted Rice. They worry about her legacy. Her best friend is gay. Her best girlfriend is "left of Lenin" and describes herself as "an emotional mess."

And yet, Rice's public life is about nothing if not self-contained discipline and the will to power.

That's what her six years in Washington have shown. From the very beginning, she played a far larger role in George Bush's presidential career than her foreign policy portfolio suggested. First, she was the then Texas governor's schoolmaster in international relations. By all accounts, the candidate needed it; he had rarely left North America. He had little knowledge of the world, with the exception of Mexico. But according to what Rice told friends and family, he was a quick study. Under her guidance, Bush was able to present himself credibly as the potential leader of the free world.

But in the process, Rice became much more than George W.'s tutor. She and Bush developed a personal affinity; "attached at the frontal lobe," as one of her closest friends put it. Bush came to trust her, and she believed in his vision and his values. He brought parts of Rice to the fore that had always been there but had seldom been dominant. Once Bush won, Rice was well placed to become the fulcrum on which the new president depended to balance his quarrelsome national security team. She was a veteran of Bush's father's National Security Council, famous for its moderation and its discipline.

Only Rice never saw her role as a referee between hawks and moderates; she believed her primary duty was to advise the president. Just as after 9/11, she came to believe that in order for America to be truly safe, the Middle East had to be transformed. As long as the aspirations of everyday Muslims, "the Arab street," could not be channeled into democratic institutions like elections, they would fester and turn to rage, a rage that would fuel a jihad against the West.

It was the pursuit of that transformation that motivated Rice's actions in the run-up to the war in Iraq. In the months before the 2003 invasion, she became the administration's strongest witness for "regime change." More articulate than her boss, more likeable than the vice president, more committed to the goal than the secretary of state, and less abrasive than the secretary of defense, Rice was for many the impassioned voice of reason -- though, in hindsight, she may have also been a master of hyperbole.

On television and in editorial pages, she detailed Saddam Hussein's crimes against humanity, his links to al-Qaeda, and his nuclear ambitions. When critics protested that the administration lacked solid evidence that Hussein possessed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, it was Rice who shot back, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." And when the war turned ugly and critics began to call for a timetable for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq, Rice compared them to Northerners who wanted to end the Civil War before the slaves were free.

Despite her steely presence in public, many observers judge her tenure as national security adviser to have been a failure in at least one crucial aspect: She did not ensure that the president received and acted on the best objective intelligence before deciding to take the country to a costly "preemptive war" in Iraq. She did not ensure that the American project in Iraq was subjected to critical skepticism. Many critics also argue that as national security adviser, Rice failed to prioritize the terrorist threat before September 11. The 9/11 commission cited the lack of information-sharing between the CIA and the FBI as a structural flaw of the intelligence system, not the fault of Condi Rice. But, as I learned, even many of Rice's supporters -- those inside and outside Washington who believe she did all she could have been expected to do before 9/11 and during the run-up to war in Iraq -- often wonder how such an intelligent and capable woman could have allowed so much of American foreign policy years to go so terribly wrong.

And yet, while the administration faces its toughest domestic criticism and a Democratic Congress, Rice has grown more powerful than ever. By the end of the first Bush term, after being "rolled" by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, according to even her supporters inside the administration, she learned to outmaneuver him. In the second term, from her perch at the State Department, she convinced Bush to pursue a more realist foreign policy -- offering to talk to Iran for the first time in more than twenty years. Then, in February 2007, she convinced Bush to cut a deal with North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program but, so far at least, keep the arms it already has. The neoconservatives charged Rice had persuaded Bush to reward North Korea's "bad behavior." But Washington insiders were just impressed that she had seemingly outfoxed Vice President Dick Cheney, who with Rumsfeld had scuttled previous attempts to cut similar deals.

For those who know her, Rice's increasing power comes as no surprise. "She would have no problem taking down Don Rumsfeld," her best friend scoffed more than a year before Rumsfeld was forced to resign. And now, it seemed, she could take on even Dick Cheney. Since Rice first discovered the world of international relations as a nineteen-year-old former piano major searching for a new discipline, she has been fascinated by power. Over her years in Bush's White House, she has learned to use it.

So does Rice have a political future? As the Bush presidency limps toward its final year, under the constraints of a divided government and overwhelming public disapproval of the war in Iraq {Bush's approval rating sank to the lowest of any president in a generation in January 2007), Rice's political prospects appear dim. But given her will, her relative youth, and the passage of time, they may not always seem so. She has never believed in limits. Even as a nine-year-old, according to her father, Condoleezza stood in front of the White House -- at a time when blacks in Birmingham couldn't eat a hamburger at a lunch counter -- and vowed, "One day I'll be in that house."

Because Rice's domestic politics are largely unknown, conservative Republicans have taken her hawkish foreign policy views and loyalty to the president to mean she agrees with his social agenda. Yet some moderate Democrats and Independents have suggested, perhaps in an act of political transference, that she must be a social moderate, a Trojan horse waiting to expose her true colors once she has "real power."

Rice's die-hard political boosters have dubbed themselves "Condinistas," committed to getting her to run for office: whether vice president, senator, or governor. They have dismissed her repeated denials of plans to ever seek her party's nomination, pointing out that she has always left the door cracked to being "drafted." For a while, the press enthusiastically participated. Less than two months after being confirmed as secretary of state, Rice met with the editors of the Washington Times. In an interview centered on foreign policy, she refused to take the journalists' invitation to reprise the General William T. Sherman pledge that "If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve," igniting what was the most titillating weekend of political speculation since the 2004 elections.

By Sunday morning, she jousted with NBC's Tim Russert, over and over, about what constituted a denial. In feigned exasperation, Rice finally chuckled, "I don't want to run for president of the United States. I have no intention of doing so. I don't think I'll be president of the United States ever. Is that good enough?"

But it wasn't. Russert followed up, "And you'll never run?"

"I don't intend to run."

"But it's different . . ." Russert insisted, boyishly apologetic.

"I won't run."

"Oh, we got it," Russert smiled.

"All right, there you go," Rice smiled back.

"Thanks very much."

But as often happens in politics, trumpeting her unwillingness to run became proof of exactly the opposite: As Time magazine wrote of potential 2008 presidential candidates in August 2005, "At this early stage, part of the trick to leading the pack is insisting that you aren't part of it."

Since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the congressional midterms in 2006, Rice has defended an embattled administration. And yet, her association with President Bush and his policies has not eliminated the possibility that she could appear on a Republican ticket in 2008. By December 2006, while Rice no longer enjoyed high approval ratings among Democrats and Independents, she still boasted a fifty-seven percent approval rating overall (compared with Bush's thirty-six percent). In a Gallup Poll that month, Republicans ranked her as the woman they most admired, ahead of Laura Bush. Independents and Democrats ranked her third, behind only Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, and men overall ranked her second, just one point behind Clinton. Rice's greatest asset as secretary of state has been her relationship with the president. Their connection goes beyond mere politics; Bush and Rice are virtual soul mates. Once Rice reportedly started at a Washington dinner party, "As I was telling my husb--" before she quickly corrected herself: "As I was telling President Bush." Rice told me she doesn't believe she ever made the slip. But she's so close to President Bush that he tells other world leaders that she's like his "sister." But like many of Rice's attributes, that closeness may also have been a tragic flaw that contributed to many of the administration's foreign policy blunders.

While Rice began as Bush's tutor, she became his pupil. They fed off each other: two people from opposite worlds, he the scion who rebelled against his father's politics of moderation, and she the daughter of black strivers whose dictates she followed with surpassing discipline. But in crucial ways, they are more similar than different, both accustomed to a world where even as they enjoyed privilege, they saw themselves as outsiders going against the grain. For very different reasons, each developed a herculean ability to see the world as they wanted to see it -- or as they needed to see it -- regardless of the circumstances outside.

If the North Korea deal holds -- a big if -- it will be a considerable legacy, but what history will ultimately judge her on will be Iraq. Will Rice be looked upon as an architect of international freedom and a new Middle East or the draftswoman of a foreign policy that began America's decline on the world stage? What has she done, and what can she still do as secretary of state to tip the ledger one way or the other? Over the next eighteen months, Rice will work to make sure Bush's vision of a transformed Middle East does not end with his presidency. She will attempt to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state and peace with Israel. She will try to bring a diplomatic end to Iran's nuclear ambitions. But as a Rice colleague and friend told me, the "correlation of forces" is against her.

In the face of long odds, Rice will rely on the determination and confidence that have become her trademarks -- the legacies of her deceased parents, Angelena and John. For generations, the Rices and the Rays believed that while segregation kept blacks from doing, it should not keep them from dreaming. When the civil rights protests exploded onto the streets of their hometown (and, thereby, into the national consciousness), with children marching against dogs and fire hoses, Rev. John Rice wanted no part of it. He believed in education, not protest. While his friend, civil rights activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King were catapulting Birmingham to the forefront of the greatest social revolution since the Civil War, Rev. Rice was fighting for Negroes to overcome the way his family always had -- through hard work and a stubborn refusal to be denied.

Condoleezza Rice learned those lessons well. As a result, she has accomplished great historic firsts. But in interviews, her friends and family presented ample evidence that her success -- and her family's philosophy of individual empowerment -- has also come at a price. In the coming pages, we will explore those costs, for Condoleezza Rice and for the world.

Copyright © 2007 Marcus Mabry