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February 9, 2005

Sugar and Spice and Everything Rice

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In spite of her reputation as George Bush’s closest advisor and confidant, Condi Rice seemed a minor player in W’s first term.  To the extent she distinguished herself at all, it was in helping over-dramatize the threat of Iraq’s WMD, and failing to heed the advice of her staff, particularly Richard Clark, about the potential for a domestic terror attack.  More recently, she seemed to have left no footprint when the responsibility for post-war Iraq planning was (at least nominally) pulled away from Rumsfeld and assigned to her.

It was against this background that Condi Rice set out, this week, on her first trip abroad as Secretary of State. 

Because Rice was not only introducing herself to the world, but also reintroducing herself to the United States in her new role, I was interested in what kind of picture she painted to the press.  As I’ve mentioned before, words form pictures as much as photographs do.  As a result, I decided to take a closer look at a feature article in Monday’s New York Times (“Secretary Rice, The New Globetrotter”) profiling the first few days of Ms. Rice’s journey. 

Maybe it’s a little unfair to start off with a paragraph from the end of the piece, but I think it puts things in context.

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In Rice’s interviews and profiles, one of the first things that comes up is the piano.  What the paragraph exemplifies is the fact that Rice is always “giving a performance.”  Central, as well, are her efforts to entertain and to charm.  (Although, often the charm is directed at smoothing over the fact she doesn’t have it together to pull off the performance.)

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If this paragraph shows Rice as obsessive, it’s not the worst quality to have in a Secretary of State.  What is curious, though, is the overly rigid attempt to control and prearrange things.  Like Bush, it seems like Rice feels that, if she can just script things tightly enough, the world will go along.

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There is a lot here to wonder about.  To make sure she’s heard?  What does that mean?  Did Colin Powell worry about being heard?  (And, if so, would it surface in the papers?)  Does this suggest a “stature gap?”    On the other hand, maybe it’s just a flimsy rationalization for how many interviews she gives. 

I believe the most dangerous characteristic of the Bush Administration is administration is its arrogance.  Because Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld don’t crave attention and adulation, however, it tends to mask how narcissistic they are.  Condi, on the other hand, doesn’t match that profile.  In fact, if there’s a theme that consistently runs through the data, it involves her need for the spotlight.  And, to feel important. 

As if she didn’t learn from the Clark episode.  But, here she goes again, pushing the staff members aside.  In this instance, it’s to make more room for the press. (Meaning, more attention?) 

By the way, what would induce her not only to produce a memento advertising the big plans she has, but to autograph it as well!

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It’s interesting the the “C” word pops up here.  If you study Rice’s trip, it actually looks less like a diplomatic mission than a celebrity tour.  All those exploding flashes and camera clicks.  Where’s Marilyn! 

(By the way, Condi couldn’t help commenting on it, could she.)

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When the subject is the Bush administration, and you hear the phrase “departure from custom,” could you think of a bigger red flag? 

Here’s Condi, fresh on the job, and she’s waving off the aides?  I mentioned the “Richard Clark lesson.”  Is this the legacy of her association with Bush?  That you know better, and you don’t need any advice?  By the way, it seems we have another flimsy justification here.  Are the aides being relegated to buses to “keep convoys small and less disruptive?”  Or, are we implementing an exaggerated hierarchy where the underlings are put in their place (at safe distance from the limelight)? 

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It’s interesting how often Rice’s trip has been referred to in terms of a campaign.  As a clone of Bush, however, it just shows that, with this Administration, there is no difference between a diplomatic mission, a political campaign, and a charm offensive. 

The last half of this paragraph is also classic.  Effectively, it says that Condi is always on message — except when she isn’t.  It’s reminiscent of her bizarre testimony to the 9/11 commission.  Her explanation why she never anticipated terrorists using planes as bombs was because it “was never briefed to us.”  With all that meticulous planning, who would even consider things might not conform to plan?

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This is where things get really “out there.”  What’s this about her “calling?”  I know, when Bush uses the term, he means it literally.  You expect Christian fundamentalists to be messianic.  In Condi’s case, however, I’ve got to think the basis is just her own grandiosity. 

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What is so interesting about this paragraph is how boring it is.  What would cause Ms. Rice, or her staff — or the reporter, for that matter — to think anyone would care about whether, when or how (for goodness sakes) Condi would watch the Superbowl!  Of course, if you’re a celebrity (as opposed to a boring old politician), then these things matter.  What you picked off Abu Mazen’s tie at lunch becomes the most interesting thing.  What little trinkets you exchanged with Italian Foreign Minister Fini (after Prime Minister Berlusconi blew you off) is the most interesting thing.  Even what you had for breakfast suddenly becomes the most interesting thing.

By the way, the fact Rice accurately predicted the Superbowl outcome, including the point spread, isn’t going to help any of us the next time there’s a big decision to make, and she’s convinced she knows everything she needs to know.

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What you’ve really gotta love, however, is all the salivation by Rice’s aides over the French speech.  “The hottest ticket in Europe?”  “Confronting the lion in it’s den?” 

Well, in comparison to Bush, it’s nice to think that, at least Rice could actually sit down with a bunch of intellectuals, and speak their language.

(image: AP Photo/Fritz Reiss in YahooNews)

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