WASHINGTON - Whether the issue is missile defense or Macedonia, President Bush gets a daily reality check from a piano-playing, sports-loving black woman who holds her own with the old boys' network - Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Don Rumsfeld.
“I know everybody looks for us to be clawing at each other. Believe me, we're not,'' says Condoleezza Rice with a laugh. “We like each other.''
When Mr. Bush goes on vacation, “Condi'' Rice calls him to report on trouble spots around the world. When an American plane was forced to land in China and its crew detained, hourly updates to the Oval Office came from Ms. Rice. When the White House has to explain its standing against the global warming treaty, Ms. Rice was called on to craft the rationale. When the President and his wife Laura decide to go out for dinner on the spur of the moment, often in the dinner group will be Ms. Rice.
When Mr. Bush looked into Russian leader Vladimir Putin's eyes and said he saw his soul and found him to be trustworthy, a good man who loves his family, Ms. Rice was one of those responsible for the remarkable turnaround in rhetoric from the slightly hostile tone of the early Bush days.
A top aide on the National Security Council that served former President Bush, Ms. Rice has been in “a lot'' of meetings with Russian leaders. And the Bush-Putin encounter, she insists, was “extraordinary.'' The candor was real, the discussion was serious, and the old wariness was gone, she said.
Despite intensifying criticism that Mr. Bush's desire to speed toward a missile defense system is an unrealistic grasp for technology that doesn't yet exist, Ms. Rice is passionate that the timing is right and that it's worth getting rid of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty because the Cold War is over.
When Mr. Bush named Ms. Rice his national security adviser at the age of 46, the first woman in U.S. history to hold the post, he called her brilliant, experienced, and wise.
Ms. Rice, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, grew up in segregated Birmingham, Ala. One of her kindergarten playmates was killed in the infamous church bombing. She later lived in Denver, entered the University of Denver at age 15, studied to be a classical pianist but pursued advanced degrees in international studies. Before returning to government, she was provost at Stanford University.
A fitness buff, she got her love of sports from her father, a part-time football coach. Her dream job, she says, is to be commissioner of the National Football League.
Because she is a conservative Republican, she is afraid of being pigeon-holed as an old-fashioned thinker, rejecting “old paradigms'' and carefully mustering arguments that the Bush administration is driven in “new directions.'' Peace is not the absence of war and stability is not the absence of terrorism, she likes to say.
What exactly that means is open to interpretation. Ms. Rice basically is charged with juggling a lot of expectations and trying to tamp down wildfires before they spread. She says that the Bush White House is “moving away from years of mixed signals and ambivalent body language coming from Washington.''
But she has moved from somewhat tense language toward Russia to a more conciliatory relationship after the Bush-Putin meeting despite new outbreaks of violence against citizens in Chechnya. She has moved from a tense standoff with China after the plane incident to a warmer relationship despite American scholars being held prisoner in China.
She argued against a new round of meetings with North Korea but is now pushing them. She at first was wary of getting the Bush administration more directly involved in the Middle East but lately the CIA director and the secretary of state have gone to the region to try to broker peace. A self-described former “high priestess of arms control,'' she now wants to abrogate the ABM treaty.
The nature of diplomacy in the fast-changing world is changing, too. Ms. Rice says she doesn't like the “unipolar'' word that Mr. Putin angrily uses to describe the U.S. role in the world. But it's a reality right now, and the Bush administration is struggling mightily to figure out how to handle it and keep the peace process going in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, keep a lid on Macedonia, work with China and North Korea, deal with increasing pressure to moderate sanctions on Iraq, and convince Europe that missile defense is a good thing.
Ms. Rice is not worried. “We're off to a good start,'' she insists, smiling confidently - the ideal team player.
Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's Washington Bureau. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.