Condoleeza Rice: The player

In the October edition of American Vogue there was a series of photographs of President Bush's National Security Adviser striking a pose that few people would have recognised.
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The Independent Online

In the October edition of American Vogue there was a series of photographs of President Bush's National Security Adviser striking a pose that few people would have recognised.

We had seen Condoleezza Rice in a smart trouser suit dispensing wisdom from the podium of the White House press briefing room, poised and elegant, articulate and bright. We had seen Rice with various foreign ministers and leaders, leaning towards them to better catch their comments, her hair smart and neat, her image complemented by minimal jewellery. And since the attacks of 11 September we had also seen the casually dressed Rice, the sleeves of her sweater rolled-up in a workman-like fashion, as she gave weekend briefings to Bush at the Camp David presidential retreat.

What we had not seen, however, was Rice, as she was captured by the photographer Annie Leibovitz, in a strapless, black ballgown, sitting at a grand piano. The photographs – taken a week before 11 September – were a timely and pleasant reminder that as the almost entirely male armed forces of America take on the entirely male forces of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, the person who is perhaps more essential than any other to the President as he wages this war is a woman.

Rice, 47, is the first woman to have held the position of National Security Adviser and to some people in male-dominated Washington it is still something of a surprise. "I've seen it happen time and time again," said Michael McFaul, a Democrat who worked as an adviser on Al Gore's ill-fated presidential campaign but is close to Rice. "Foreign policy is dominated by bald, greying white men, and they're not used to someone like Condi Rice."

But Rice has been surprising people for decades. She was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, a city split and ravaged by racial tension and enforced segregation. She was nine when her friend Denise McNair and three other girls were killed by a bomb that destroyed the 16th Street Baptist Church. Rice was at Sunday school just a few streets away.

"The men in the community, my father among them, would go to the head of the cul-de-sac at night and sit there armed to keep night riders from coming through," Rice recalled in Time magazine. But compared to many, Rice had it reasonably easy. Her parents – the Rev John Rice and his wife, Angela – were middle-class educationalists who lived in the ascendant suburb of Titusville, and they pushed their daughter to achieve. She began her beloved piano lessons at three, and at four she precociously accompanied the choir at the church where her father was the pastor.

"I was going to be so well prepared," Rice told the Washington Post. "And I was going to do all of these things that were revered in white society so well, that I would be armoured somehow from racism. I would be able to confront white society on its own terms. My family is third-generation college-educated. I should've gotten to where I am."

Rice completed high school very early, having skipped two grades. By then the family had moved to Colorado, and Rice enrolled at the University of Denver aged just 15. She planned to study music.

She soon concluded, however, that she had neither the single-minded focus nor the natural talent to become a top pianist and began to search for a new subject in which to major. At this point she met Professor Joseph Korbel, who taught international studies. Almost overnight she realised she had found her vocation. "It was like love at first sight," she said. (Korbel died before he saw Rice elevated to such dizzy heights, and, indeed, before his daughter, Madeleine Albright, became America's first woman Secretary of State.)

Rice's particular interest has always been the former Soviet Union. By the age of 25 she was teaching the subject at Stanford University, where she quickly rose through the ranks of the political science faculty to become provost, a position which involved responsibility for balancing the university's $1bn budget.

Her entry to Washington came in 1986 when she caught the attention of Brent Scowcroft, National Security Adviser to her current boss's father. Soon she became a central player in Bush Snr's dealings with the Soviet Union as the communist empire started to unravel. She first met Bush Jr in 1995 when she was in Texas visiting his father. They talked mostly about their shared passion – sport.

She and Bush Jr hit it off. But three years later, when they met again at the Bush family house in Kennebunkport, Maine, the topic of conversation had changed. "In between tennis games and going out on the boat we would have conversations about what foreign policy challenges would face the next president," she said.

Rice was very visible during Bush's campaign – no doubt the managers realised that a smart, attractive, black woman could only benefit the image of the Republican Party. Those who deal with Rice are unsurprised at Bush's faith in her. "She is very sparky, bright and quick," said one foreign official who meets Rice regularly. "She is cool under pressure. Her real talent is taking a lot of difficult information and presenting it to Bush in a way he can handle. He trusts her totally."

Some people believe that, because we do not see so much of Rice on television or giving briefings, she is out of favour. Not so. Politically to the right of Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and to the left of Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, she has deftly placed herself at the centre of the administration.

Summing up her views of American policy overseas, she wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine: "American foreign policy in a Republican administration should refocus the US on the national interest. There is nothing wrong with doing something that benefits all humanity, but that is a second-order effect."

She also believes she should keep to the traditional role of National Security Adviser, rather than trying to compete with Powell. Privately she has criticised the high-profile approach of President Clinton's NSA, Sandy Berger.

That doesn't mean she forfeits influence. It was, after all, largely because of her efforts that Bush and the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, agreed to discuss cuts in their nuclear stockpiles at the G8 summit in Genoa. Later, when it was decided that America needed to argue for its anti-terror campaign more effectively in the Muslim world, it was Rice who was chosen to give a 16-minute interview to the Al-Jazeera television channel.

A very private person, she has never married and claims she never dates. In gossipy Washington this sets tongues wagging, but others believe Rice is simply married to her job. A devout Presbyterian, she devotes the little free time she has to watching movies, sport and practising the piano – though not always in that dress.

How much higher can Rice go? There have been whispers that she might stand for elective office – as a Republican governor of her adopted California. Others say that, should Powell decide that one term in office is enough, his ideal replacement is already at hand.