Rice Takes the Right Tone in HearingsClarence Page
April 11, 2004
WASHINGTON -- It was during her musings on the sources of terrorism before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that Condoleezza Rice had her high-drama, "You go, girlfriend!" moment.
A "You go!" moment is the hip-hop generation's version of a big applause line, a red-hot zinger that causes black audiences to bob their heads up and down and erupt with some verbal punctuation like, "That's right! That's right ...!"
National Security Adviser Rice's moment came when former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) asked her how America might best deal with the deeply seated discontent and dislocation that generates terrorist movements in the Islamic world.
Such major transformations take time, she explained, noting that building a multiethnic democracy was a tough slog in our own country. After all, she said, "When our founding fathers said, `We the people,' they didn't mean me."
You go, girlfriend. She has used the line before, but never before such a huge audience or to such great effect. Even in these politically polarized times, it instantly reminds us of two points on which all people of good will should be able to agree: (1) Yes, our democratic republic was founded in an atmosphere of white male supremacy, but (2) the founding fathers provided in this nation's founding documents the machinery for its own self-improvement.
As theatrical politics go, Rice's line struck just the right tone, a tone that was no less important than U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accusing his critics of subjecting him to a "high-tech lynching" during his confirmation hearings. With that line, delivered during TV's evening prime time, Thomas shoved aside the prominence of his chief accuser, Anita Hill, who testified earlier that day to a much smaller home audience. Thomas eventually was confirmed by one hard-earned vote.
Memories of the Thomas-Hill hearings, the last time a black woman took hostile questions before a major televised government hearing, were painful to just about every race, gender and political persuasion. I was relieved that Rice's testimony did not trigger much in the way of post-traumatic flashbacks in my mind.
With that in mind, I was relieved to find that Rice's tone was less inflammatory than Thomas'. She was sent to the hearing to put fires out, not to set more. She did not have to completely refute the charges that have been raised by Richard Clarke, her former counterterrorism czar, and others. She only had to control the damage such charges had inflicted on the Bush administration's credibility.
She appears to have done that. An overnight CNN poll released on the day after her testimony found that 43 percent of Americans polled believed Rice, 36 percent believed Clarke and 21 percent were undecided. The fact that Rice is black and a woman didn't hurt, particularly among Democrats, said CNN's senior political analyst Bill Schneider, adding that "a lot of Democrats say they are willing to believe her because [they] sympathize and identify with her."
I agree, judging by the street talk, radio and Internet chatter that I have heard in recent days. Black Americans, who vote solidly Democratic, tend to have mixed emotions about Rice. She defies so many of the comfortable stereotypes among African-Americans on what some call "black authenticity."
Rice is, after all, a Republican, which most blacks and most women these days are not. She is exceptionally smart, but lacks the engaging, personable charm of, say, Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose warmth tends to generate almost immediate trust.
Rice has a rich racial biography, having been a child in Birmingham, Ala., during its violent "Bombingham" era of civil rights struggles. But, within Birmingham's segregated black community, Rice had a privileged, well-educated upbringing with parents who tolerated no "victim talk." Racism is the racist's problem, her parents insisted, not yours.
Her worst moment undoubtedly came when former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste bore down on the Bush administration's seemingly passive reaction to an Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing memo with the startling headline "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States." Rice successfully diminished the importance of that headline by calling the memo's information old, "historic," and too vague and general to move President Bush to take specific action.
The truth of that remark will be debated in coming days. For now, Rice appears to have controlled the damage. There was no way that she was going to change the minds of those who want to see Team Bush go back to Texas. American politics are too polarized for that these days. But she could stop the hemorrhaging and spin Clarke's lemon into lemonade. In that sense, her mission appears to be accomplished.
Will Rice sway many black votes over to the Bush team? Probably not. Such transformations take time and a lot more outreach efforts than Republicans have shown in recent years. But Rice has shown the world that there is more than one way to be a strong black woman in politics. That takes admirable courage. You go, girlfriend.
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