Condoleezza Rice Tells Her Story

BY Gwen Ifill  November 4, 2011 at 2:11 PM EST


When former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice walked into our interview at her publisher’s office in New York this week, she was as composed as ever — happy to be out of Washington and now free to tell her side of a tumultuous story.

I’d just spent the past several days living inside her head as I read the memoir of her time in Washington, “No Higher Honor.” Rice, the reserved, piano-playing minister’s daughter and Russia expert, occupied center stage during eight critical years in the nation’s history.

As George W. Bush’s national security adviser, secretary of State and personal and policy confidante, Rice has always given off “Mona Lisa” vibes. You knew she knew things; but you also knew she would certainly never tell you.

This was her turn. In the years since President Bush left office, the autobiographies and re-tellings of those who served most closely with him have hit the bookshelves in a steady stream. Almost all of them have included more than their share of savage score settling.

Paul “Jerry” Bremer, who ran the provisional authority in Iraq after the invasion, had nothing generous to say about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And neither Rumsfeld nor former Vice President Dick Cheney had much good to say about Rice.

Rice fires back too — directly in the book, more mildly in person. In our interview, she dismissed Rumsfeld as merely “grumpy,” but in the book she calls him “high-handed” and dismissive. “A relationship between equals was much harder for him,” she writes.

And while she told me Cheney’s criticism of her was nothing personal, (“I have a lot of respect for Vice President Cheney,” she said simply. “We didn’t agree a lot of the time.”), her book repeatedly makes the case that she was treated poorly — especially during her years as national security adviser.

It’s likely that her criticism of Rumsfeld and Cheney is less pointed than theirs of her because that is her nature. A child of the South and a creature of academia, Rice makes clear in her understated way that she won her share of fights because she had the ear of the only boss who mattered: the president.

In some instances, this is slightly startling. The president, it appears, turned to Rice repeatedly to hash out the details he did not want to be bothered with — from calling a world leader with bad news to working out the language in a United Nations resolution.

She does not, however, give ammunition to Mr. Bush’s critics. She chronicles the missteps, noting in one famous instance that she “visibly stiffened” when the president declared during his first meeting with Vladimir Putin that he looked him in the eye and “was able to get a sense of his soul.”

But she also offers numerous examples of President Bush acting in his self-described role as “the decider,” as when — on his instructions — she was the lone member of the U.N. Security Council to abstain on a 2008 resolution calling on Israel to end a retaliatory attack against Hamas in Gaza.

“I told the president I would never trust Olmert again,” she writes, after the Israeli Prime Minister dismissed her in remarks afterward to the press. “It doesn’t matter, I told myself. We’re done.”

You don’t have to be a foreign policy wonk to enjoy some of Rice’s uncharacteristically candid assessments of the world leaders she encountered.

Putin, she recounts, told a joke about his wife’s girth during a caviar and champagne dinner with the president. She thought Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir was on drugs during their meeting. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani shoveled his food into his mouth with both hands. Moammar Gadhafi had a song composed for her titled “Black Flower in the White House.”

More than anything else, books like this tell us about an administration’s priorities, and the Bush White House was forever shaped by the events that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Years later, each of the president’s deputies is still defending the war in Iraq, the treatment of detainees and the extended period of U.S. occupation.

“Early in his administration, President Barack Obama would say that in the days after the attacks in new York and Washington, the Bush administration ‘made decisions based on fear,’” Rice writes. “Well. Yes we did, but not from irrational fear or paranoia.”

Instead, she said, much was dictated by fear of the unknown.

It is only in retrospect – seen at least initially through the stories written by those who were inside the room – that we know exactly how much we had to fear then, and how little we know about what to fear next.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.