Reviewed by John Brown
Elisabeth Bumiller, Condoleezza Rice: An American Life: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2007. 400 pages, $27.95.
Marcus Mabry, Twice As Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power. New York: Modern Times/Rodale, 2007. 362 pages. $27.50
Few persons have been more associated with the George W. Bush administration than Condoleezza Rice. She has been among the longest-lasting members of the President’s team, serving for nearly eight years — as National Security Advisor during Bush’s first term, and as Secretary of the State during his second. Long a focus of media attention, she is now the subject of two biographies — Elisabeth Bumiller’s Condoleezza Rice: An American Life: A Biography and Marcus Mabry’s Condoleezza Rice and her Path to Power.
Despite their considerable research (Mabry and Bumiller, journalists with extensive experience, were granted in-depth interviews by the Secretary), the authors make no major revelations about Rice to those familiar with her life and career. It is well known that she grew up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, the only daughter of doting middle-class parents; figure-skated and played classical piano in her teen years; attended the University of Denver, where she received her Ph.D. in Soviet-area studies; went on to Stanford University, where she became provost, an influential position she obtained despite her youth; served in the Bush I administration as the Soviet and East European Affairs Director in the National Security Council under Brent Scowcroft; and was George W. Bush’s foreign-affairs adviser during his first presidential campaign. After Bush’s election, she reached the apex of power in Washington, relatively unscathed by Congressional questions about her role in 9/11 and emerging quietly victorious in her turf-wars with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. That her life has been a success — she’s “made it” in the USA as a black woman — has become the conventional wisdom Bumiller and Mabry confirm.
Their volumes underscore, however, that Rice’s personal advancement (both authors see it as an example of the all-American process of reinvention) was not matched by her achievements in foreign policy — as the United States and international media are increasingly pointing out. “From a realist perspective,” Mabry writes, “while Rice has succeeded in increasing her own personal power, she has failed to enhance America’s internationally,” with Iraq her most notable failure. Unless Rice succeeds in reaching a deal in the Middle East and in having North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons, Bumiller notes, she will “be seen as an interesting but minor secretary of state who did too little too late.” Bumiller underscores, in a telling nugget, Rice’s foreign-policy limitations (if not naiveté) by recounting her reaction to the January 2006 Palestinian elections, while she was exercising at home:[S]he got off the elliptical trainer and called the State Department. “I said ‘What happened in the Palestinian elections?’ And they said, Oh, Hamas won.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, Hamas won?’”
The books suggest several reasons why Rice has failed in her official duties. Among them is that, despite her formal academic credentials, her grasp of the outside world and complex international issues is limited, in part due to her inability to extend her horizons beyond her provincial upbringing and narrowly-defined intellectual interests. (Bumiller and Mabry, however, do not analyze her academic works in depth, although they point out that they were criticized by specialists.) Second, her confidante relationship with George W. Bush, though crucial for her inside-the-beltway climb up the professional ladder, has not, according to Bumiller, served “the best interests of the nation.” “White House advisers,” Bumiller points out, “came to see that Bush, because of his affection for Rice, did not make more demands on her and push her to do the job he needed.” Bush and Rice developed, Mabry writes, “a Herculean ability to see the word as they wanted to see it — or as they needed to see it — regardless of the circumstances outside.” “[T]hat closeness may have been a tragic flaw that contributed to many of the administration’s foreign policy blunders.” Bumiller suggests a final reason for Rice’s foreign-policy failures:
It was obvious from Rice’s many metamorphoses that her real ideology was not idealism or realism or defending the citadels of freedom, although she displayed elements of all of them. Her real ideology was succeeding.
Both books speculate on what Rice will do after the end of the Bush administration. Mabry, an African-American who studied at Stanford when Rice was there in the late 80s, writes that “she will follow the path the Lord has already set for her, though she can’t know where that path will lead.” (Neither author examines Rice’s putative religiosity in depth — despite her declaration in Today’s Christian some years ago that “[m]y faith in God is the most important thing” in her life.) Bumiller — who, on the whole, appears to have found her subject rather underwhelming (as the bland subtitle of her biography, “An American Life,” suggests) — is more down-to-earth: “If Rice did go back to Stanford, few of her friends expected her to stay here for long. She was too ambitious for that.”
John Brown, a Foreign Service officer for over 20 years, currently is Adjunct Professor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown University, where he teaches about public diplomacy. His latest article, which elaborates on some of the themes in this review, is: “’10 Percent Intellectual’: The Mind of Condoleezza Rice,” posted by PR Watch.Org) at: http://www.prwatch.org/node/7327 .