The voice in Bush's ear

Conduit: National security chief Condoleezza Rice has emerged as one of the president's most trusted advisers, distilling for him the complexities of foreign relations

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

October 01, 2001|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Nearly all of the key players in President Bush's war council -- Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld -- have drawn on previous experience plotting wars or conflicts as they assert their strategies for confronting terrorism.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, a former Soviet specialist in the first Bush White House, has no such battle scars or the hero status of some of her administration counterparts.

But she has something else that has kept her from being diminished in the midst of more seasoned political soldiers and that has made her one of the most important figures to emerge in the weeks since the terrorist attacks: She has the president's ear and confidence.

Even before terrorists turned the nation upside down, Rice, 46, had become one of the few advisers outside the president's Texas orbit to join his most trusted inner circle. She is one of the Bushes' most frequent guests and has spent weeks at a time at the family's Crawford, Texas, ranch. Since the attacks Sept. 11, she has rarely been out of touch with or far from the side of the president.

She was the one on the phone to Bush, who was in Florida at the time, after the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center. She traveled with him to the Pentagon the next day when the smell of smoke still hung in the air.

She helped craft his address to Congress -- specifically focusing on wording an ultimatum to the Taliban. She has spent every weekend since the attacks at Camp David, meeting with the president after other members of the war Cabinet have gone, to synthesize the competing ideas he has heard.

"After a meeting is over -- be it around a table or at Camp David -- she always gets the last word," says Michael A. McFaul, a former colleague at Stanford University. "She's always the person still talking to the president."

Boiling things down

Colleagues say Rice, a professor at Stanford for 12 years before becoming the university's chief financial and academic officer, is able to simplify issues and put them in practical terms for the president, distilling complex issues into one-page memos.

"She has a gift for boiling things down to their essence and then describing the key issues in a clear, common-sensical way," says Philip D. Zelikow, a former National Security Council colleague who co-authored a book with Rice on German reunification.

Rice has been talking to the president since his days as Texas' governor, eventually stepping down as Stanford's provost to become his foreign relations tutor when he was the GOP candidate for president.

When Bush appointed Rice as the first female and second African-American to serve as national security adviser, neither could have imagined that their frequent conversations -- her office is just down the corridor from the Oval Office -- would take such a drastic, crisis-driven turn.

Soon after the attacks, Rice said that, upon hearing the news, "you're sorting lots of information, and you're trying to deal with the consequences, but you recognize that something's changed forever in the way that the United States thinks about its security."

A protege of Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser in the elder Bush's administration, Rice has defined her job much as her mentor did, say those who have worked with her, at times muting her policy preferences to represent all perspectives fairly.

The National Security Council is made up of the government's top military, diplomatic and intelligence officials, along with a staff of experts, with the national security adviser functioning as the president's chief conduit for all such foreign policy matters.

"It's a tricky relationship," says Samuel Berger, national security adviser in the Clinton administration and among those with whom Rice has consulted since the terrorist attacks. "At the same time you're offering your own judgments, your colleagues have to believe you'll represent their points of view fairly when they're not around. If you ever lose their faith in you, you've lost the ability to function as an honest broker."

The national security job, which dates to 1947, when the country reorganized its foreign policy and military establishments after World War II, has grown into one of the most powerful posts in Washington, often rivaling or surpassing the secretary of state. In the Nixon administration, Henry A. Kissinger used the perch to open U.S. relations with China and set policy about the Vietnam War. During the Clinton administration, Berger was often regarded as the president's point person on foreign policy.

In the early days of the Bush White House, however, many in Washington assumed Rice, a relative newcomer to power, would be overshadowed and dominated by such formidable foreign policy players as Powell and Rumsfeld. But Rice, like Bush during the campaign, may have been underestimated.

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