No mistakes and no apology from Bush's 'Warrior Princess'

The stakes, they said beforehand, could not be higher: the credibility of a president was on the line, not to mention the prospects of further career advancement for arguably George Bush's closest aide.

In the end neither was seriously compromised by Condoleezza Rice in some of the most keenly anticipated public testimony by a senior White House figure since the days of Watergate and Iran-Contra, in the golden age of theatre on Capitol Hill. Dressed in a sharply cut grey-green suit, adorned by the obligatory US flag pin on the lapel, the lady they call the "Warrior Princess" gave at least as good as she got during more than two hours of testimony that rarely troubled Mr Bush's oh-so-crisp and competent National Security Adviser.

Washington has few lonelier spots than the witness table in a packed committee room in the Senate's Hart Building. Ms Rice had no friendly lawyer to help her out if the going got tricky. At her back were relatives of the victims of 11 September, listening for the slightest slip.

In front of her, a dozen inquisitors peered down from a slightly raised platform. Behind them stood a row of TV cameras, relaying the spectacle live not just on the cable news channels but on every major network as well.

Those expecting the scheduled mid-morning fare such as The Price is Right, Divorce Court, or Hollywood Squares were rudely deprived. Instead they received a textbook lesson in those vital political skills of staying on message and protecting the boss.

Unlike Watergate, there was no "smoking gun". Unlike her arch-rival, her former counter-terrorism deputy, Richard Clarke, Ms Rice offered no direct apology to the victims. This White House does not do mistakes - what one frustrated Democrat calls the "M-word".

"As an officer of government on duty that day, I will never forget the sorrow and the anger I felt," was the closest she came. Then she moved into Bush-speak, batting off every complaint about her master. Not for the first time, a top administration official sounded like a North Korean aide, extolling the virtues of the Great Leader.

About the only hint of self-doubt was her acknowledgement that she had spoken rashly when she once asserted that no one had ever imagined terrorists crashing planes into buildings. In fact, aides quickly told her that there had been reports or memos about that possibility. But she never saw them. For there were other major issues - like North Korea, the Balkans and the Middle East. But make no mistake, President Bush "understood the terrorist threat".