Associated Press
Condoleezza Rice is the president's gatekeeper on counterterrorism.
April 4, 2004

Bush's Credibility Now Rests on Her Shoulders


WASHINGTON — It has become a political cliché of Washington to say that Condoleezza Rice's upbringing at the hands of ambitious parents who pushed her to excel - as a concert pianist, a competitive ice skater and a young girl tutored in Spanish and French - created a woman who has lived on stage for most of her life.

It is not a cliché to say that on Thursday, when Ms. Rice publicly testifies to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, she will have to turn in a show-stopping performance as the woman on whose shoulders the credibility of the Bush administration now rests.

Ms. Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, was last week's media-figure-on-the-hot-seat, her scowling face glaring out from the front pages of newspapers and the cover of Time. Her celebrity came not just from her boss's initial refusal to allow her to testify, but from the reality that emerged from the statements to the commission of other senior Bush officials: Ms. Rice is the gatekeeper between the president and the entire counterterrorism policy of his administration.

Ms. Rice, who arrived at the White House as a Russia specialist, will make the case that she was on top of the terrorist threat, and that she did not ignore dire warnings before Sept. 11, as Richard A. Clarke, the administration's former counterterrorism chief, charges. But Ms. Rice is not expected to offer any revelations to the commission that she has not already made in a flurry of media interviews, and she is unlikely to change significantly the public's perception that Bush administration officials (and Clinton officials before them) were not as seized with the challenge of combating Al Qaeda as they should have been.

Ms. Rice is still the administration's great hope, the crisp, hyper-prepared former provost of Stanford University who talks in perfectly formed paragraphs without revealing a scintilla of doubt. Mr. Bush was adamant that Ms. Rice not publicly testify. He cited executive privilege - the doctrine that holds that White House aides should not have to disclose private conversations with presidents - but his campaign advisers were convinced that she was the one who could best put the charges behind them.

"I understand the president trying to uphold the separation of powers privilege," said Charles Black, an adviser to Mr. Bush's reelection campaign. "But at the same time, everybody on the political side wanted her to testify."

In the end, the campaign's chief strategist - that is, the president - bowed to the inevitable. Ms. Rice is now expected to spend two and a half hours before the commission. "Her testimony is going to help the American people know exactly how this administration changed its policies to address the terrorism problem, even before 9/11," asserted Terry Holt, the Bush campaign's spokesman. "They're going to know that in the space of a few months we went from a policy of swatting flies to putting Al Qaeda at the top of the list."

But the commission is hardly going to let Ms. Rice take her turn on stage unchallenged, and viewers should expect aggressive questioning. Some commission members who were enraged when Ms. Rice talked to every television and cable network but not to them, are considering confronting her with segments of her many interviews asserting that the White House was acting forcefully against Al Qaeda - and then asking her to explain how when much of the documentation shows otherwise.

The commission will also ask Ms. Rice about contradictions between her public statements and those of other administration officials. On March 22, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney told the conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh that Mr. Clarke "wasn't in the loop." Two days later, when Ms. Rice was asked if she considered it a problem that her counter-terrorism chief was not deeply involved in counterterrorism policy, she contradicted the vice president. "I would not use the word 'out of the loop,' " she said.

Ms. Rice will offer viewers of the hearings their closest look at the mindset of the president, who will testify to the commission in private with Mr. Cheney. In effect, Ms. Rice's views are the president's views, because the two have a closer relationship than almost any other president and his national security adviser.

Ms. Rice, who spends most weekends with the president and first lady at Camp David, as well as long periods of time at the Bush ranch in Texas, first got to know then-Governor Bush as his foreign policy tutor during the 2000 campaign. In contrast to her public demeanor of the past week, Ms. Rice is irreverent in private, and Mr. Bush warmed to her as a woman who could explain the world to him in cogent bites.

Since then, Ms. Rice has said that the president's views - what she calls his idealism - have heavily influenced her academic realism, and that he influences her as much as she influences him. Either way, Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush were in lockstep on the war to drive Saddam Hussein from Iraq.

Ms. Rice's critics say she has spent so much time being the president's friend and adviser that she lost sight of a critical element of her job: to manage the administration's foreign policy. Commission members are certain to question her about her management style, and how attentive she really was to Mr. Clarke's pre-9/11 warnings about the possibility of a catastrophic terrorist attack.

Ms. Rice has long said that she plans to leave her job at the end of the year and return to a more normal life in California, and that one term on center stage at the White House is enough. "That's still her stance," said Ms. Rice's friend Coit Blacker, the director of the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University and a former Russia specialist on the Clinton administration's National Security Council.

The high-wire act of Thursday's testimony aside, it is also possible that Mr. Bush, if he is re-elected, will ask Ms. Rice to stay, either in her current job or in another. Friends say that Ms. Rice is unlikely to turn the president down, and that she will take her place on stage, as her parents trained her to do, for another four years.

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