Anne Penketh: The irresistible rise of Condoleezza Rice

Can we take Ms Rice's denials of any ambition to run for public office at face value?
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The Independent Online

I had lunch with Condoleezza Rice the other day. There were just three other people at the table. To my great surprise, she abandoned the table next to us, where she had been placed with the Foreign Secretary and other dignitaries at the end of her whistle-stop tour of Blackburn and Liverpool. "I can see Jack any time," she said disarmingly.

What was she like, close up and personal? As you might expect from a woman in her position, she was articulate, poised and personable. Did she mind if I took her photograph? She smiled graciously. Would she mind if I took her picture with a journalist colleague? She posed again. Would she mind if I took her picture with another journalist colleague? She did so with equal grace.

She was actually able to muster yet another charming smile when I asked to take her picture again in the company of another journalist. This time the camera wouldn't work (honest, it wasn't me). Would she mind trying again? She didn't.

So I have seen the softer side of Condi. It has been on display a great deal in the past few weeks. This is the former Soviet scholar who, as George Bush's national security adviser, was a fierce advocate of the war on Iraq who repeatedly warned of the danger of a "mushroom cloud" from Saddam's purported nuclear weapons.

But now, we have learnt how the US Secretary of State gets up at 4.30am to work out. We have been shown the video. In Blackburn and Liverpool, we saw how she turned potentially disastrous anti-war demonstrations to her advantage by saying that they are part and parcel of democratic life, and that it would be unfortunate if she only visited places where everybody agreed with her. She seized the opportunity to argue the neo-con line that she wished everybody in the world had the same "God-given right".

We have learnt about Condi the sports buff, who gamely accepted a Blackburn Rovers No 10 shirt before being given a platform by the BBC to debate the benefits of liberal democracy. We saw how Condi the magnificent slept on the floor after giving up her cabin bed to Mr Straw who hitched a lift on her plane to Baghdad.

In the latest deliberately placed story, this time in The New York Times, we are told that Ms Rice, an accomplished pianist, is giving up valuable time to play with members of an amateur string quartet. And then there was our lunch, of course.

There is a narrative to Ms Rice's life which is now unfolding in the public domain. It starts with her formative years in the segregated Deep South, where she spent the first 13 years of her life without a white classmate, and where three of her schoolmates were killed in a terrorist bomb.

Jack Straw has told readers of his local Blackburn paper of an unforgettable moment at a Foreign Office press conference, when Ms Rice, speaking about building democracy, said: "When the Founding Fathers of the US said in the Declaration of Independence, 'we, the people', they didn't mean me".

"Blimey," Mr Straw went on. "They didn't mean her, Colin Powell, or anyone else who was black, because their predecessors were all slaves who had no rights at all."

So what are the chances that Ms Rice's narrative carries her all the way to the White House? The recent leaks that have shown her kinder, gentler side, seem to be pointing in that direction.

She, of course, denies that she is running for anything, as the background noise about her suitability to become the first black woman president of the US reaches a crescendo. We hear that she's not hungry enough for political office. She even let slip the other day that she fully expected to be back at Stanford University supervising dissertations on the "thousands" of tactical mistakes the Americans have made in Iraq.

Her mentor and friend Colin Powell fell at the first hurdle. Although the opinion polls had him riding high as a prospective Republican candidate while President Clinton was still in office, he withdrew after his wife, Alma - who hails from the same area of Birmingham, Alabama as Ms Rice - voiced concern about his safety.

But Ms Rice, who is personally closer to President Bush than General Powell ever was, has handled herself with more professional consistency than her predecessor as Secretary of State. It remains to be seen whether she is prepared to have her personal life placed under the journalistic microscope.

Can we take Ms Rice's denials at face value? Senator Hillary Clinton herself used to deny that she was interested in the top job. More to the point: could a black woman from a southern state have a serious chance of becoming President with the blessing of the Republican Party in 2008? Why not make it a contest against a woman hailing from Chicago, who is every bit as divisive a character as Ms Rice, running for the Democratic nomination?

Both are strong-willed women who can speak their own mind, even though they have had to tone down their stridency. Ms Clinton has been moving to the right to make herself more palatable to the mainstream, while Ms Rice has been out to demonstrate that there is more to her than the Cold War warrior and crusading neo-con than we might suspect.

What a contest that would be. Run, Condi, Run!