Condoleezza Rice: Naked Ambition, By Marcus Mabry

Why did a brilliant, left-leaning Democrat fall for the ultimate bad boy, George W Bush?
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In 1964, when Condoleezza Rice was 10, the American author Vance Packard published a memorable book, The Naked Society. It described, among other things, the screening to which job applicants in the United States were subjected, including a lengthy personality test demanding answers to questions such as: "What do you think of your father and mother?", "How often are you bothered by either constipation or loose bowel movements?", "Do you consider yourself ugly?" and "How much are you troubled by itching?".

The book exposed a system in which ordinary Americans were stacked according to ability, colour and "attitude". The implication was that, should you wish to get on in life, you'd better (a) talk out of the side of your mouth; (b) keep your nose clean; (c) worship the political leadership; (d) exude patriotic fervour, and (e) lie about those bowel movements.

Mr Mabry avoids unseemly prying, other than to mention that the black child who is George W Bush's secretary of state "never had to go to the bathroom like children do", while emphasising Condi's positive regard for her strict, but loving, parents. The latter were especially careful in the grooming department. In racist Alabama where their only child was born, they eschewed political protest, abhorred the idea of black "victimhood" and toiled single-mindedly upwards and outwards until they passed from the middle class into the "aristocracy" (as they came to regard themselves).

Their daughter followed suit, riding life's currents "like a shark". Her childhood was bereft of bicycles, skipping-ropes, ball games, sleepovers and trick-or-treats. Instead, there were lessons in violin, glockenspiel, flute, French and Spanish, ballet, book clubs, elocution, manners, dress and decorum. Cajoled by her Presbyterian father, Rev John Rice, to join the Republicans because they "look out for each other and take care of each other", Condoleezza Rice became a nicely rounded – and "autocratic" – neocon who, according to Mabry's researches, would tell an emotional black colleague to "don't act niggerish!".

Her careers in political science, university administration, international relations (with emphasis on Sovietology), and the National Security Council were resounding successes – until, that is, their fateful confluence with that of George W Bush. Why did Dr Rice, a former Democrat of fairly liberal – some say Marxist – bent, ally her remarkable intelligence to miserable hurdy-gurdy neocons grinding their discord through the nation and beyond it; to a political conservatism whose record is as much an illustration of stultified censure and retorted contempt as was Packard's The Naked Society? Why did this brilliant woman fall for a president whose work and worth are darkly painted on a crimson sky – the scion of a rich family who used to drink himself silly, and having stopped drinking stayed silly; who as president, knowing little about "abroad", has endangered Americans and put the rest of us on tenterhooks?

Part of the answers may lie in a remark, quoted by Mabry. "You know what?" Rice is alleged to have said. "The fun guys are all bad boys." The author adds: "There was no denying Bush was a bad boy."

Yet that explanation is hardly good enough in someone trained and exhorted at home to be "twice as good" (this book's US title). Nor is it enough to say that Rice was taken with the idea of teaching a US president the who-what-where-why of the world, or that "politically she liked his 'compassionate conservatism'". Rather it seems reasonable to accept, as Mabry seems to do, that Rice was emotionally incapable of much other than achieving success, in whatever forum she frequented.

Her distinguished piano teacher at Denver University told her she was "too detached emotionally" to be a great pianist, which is why she abandoned music as a career. One of her friends observed later that Rice "couldn't empathise with those less fortunate than she". Her stepmother, Clara Rice, declines to criticise the secretary of state, but allows: "I think they put her on such a high pedestal that she couldn't see down far enough." A Rice employee's view is less charitable: "I observed a cold-hearted, merciless way of dealing with people... so little compassion, so little humanity." Other assessments from those who have been close to her include: "heartless and mechanical", unable to admit to error, "evasive", "lied through her teeth", "disloyalty to the truth".

On the evidence of this book – scrupulously fair, often admiring – it is alarming that Condoleezza Rice could be considered as a future occupant of the White House. Bush, in adoration mode, would call her "the most powerful woman in the history of the world", but this was more a comment on his own mastery of hyperbole than of Dr Rice's mastery of diplomacy.

The catastrophe in Iraq and its immeasurable repercussions have worried Rice less than what she has conceded privately to be a "dysfunctional US government". Publicly, she has acted as "the administration's defender-in-chief", displayed "her phenomenal skill at spinning" and featured as a heroine of infantile journalism. (The magazine Esquire found Rice was men's choice to take as a date to a dinner party.)

For the most part this book is engrossing, relying greatly on interviews with Rice's family, friends, colleagues and other "Condinistas" as well as on several hours with the subject herself. The second half drags somewhat, reading too much like a newspaper cuttings job. Yet this doesn't detract from Condoleezza Rice as an extraordinary African-American woman who has an oil tanker named after her and might well be vice-president of the United States someday.