Condoleezza Rice: Now that's a performer

By Michael Phillips
Tribune theater critic

April 11, 2004

Smile and the world smiles with you. Smile while maintaining a seriously furrowed brow, or while fixing a bionic gaze on anyone who questions your boss' commitment to quashing "freedom-hating terrorists," and you're President Bush's national security adviser.

That's Condoleezza Rice: loyal, eloquent, fervent service with a smile.

During her Thursday appearance before the 9/11 panel, known in full as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Rice brought to mind a 1939 mystery novel featuring the irresistibly named character Nigel Strangeways. The book's title: "The Smiler With the Knife."

The knife, in Rice's case, was strictly metaphoric. Yet even while being grilled by the panel's pesky Democrats regarding what Bush knew about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and what "historical" information may have been swatted away, like a fly, in the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing, Rice deployed a bright, blinding Cheshire cat grin framed, hairwise, by the Mother of All Flips.

Rice's visage emitted the message: Everything's fine. I know my stuff. We are in control. No mistakes were made, even though the various intelligence-gathering communities are a collective wreck.

With those cool, clear eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth perched just so above her U.S. flag lapel pin -- a pin rarely blocked from the camera's gaze, as if by contractual stipulation, by either her microphone or CNN's headline crawl -- Rice finessed and Cheshire-catted her way through some tough questions. The tough ones came from the Democrats. The softballs came from her fellow Republicans. The grandstanding posing as questioning came from both sides.

The penetrating Rice smile beamed early and often, even as those steely peepers bored little holes of righteous wrath through the likes of commission panel member Bob Kerrey, who took part of his allotted 10 minutes to brand the current, bloody Iraq instability as "dangerously off-track."

In her prepared 20-minute monologue preceding the testimony, Rice hailed President Bush's decision to wage "a broad war" versus "a narrow war."

"Because we acted in Iraq," Rice argued, Saddam Hussein is gone and the world is a freer place. She offered her sharply articulated, we-did-all-we-could argument on behalf of Bush, and in rebuke to last month's 9/11 commission star witness: Richard Clarke, Rice's ex-employee, the one who dared make the White House staff look like Iraq-mad warmongers.

What Rice needed to accomplish Thursday was simple. She needed to characterize the administration's pre-9/11 intelligence failures as institutional, rather than personal.She did so, more or less successfully. The CIA didn't share intelligence with the FBI, and the other way around. She branded the chronic multi-agency muddle "a structural problem."

At one point Rice, beaming and scowling simultaneously, chided those who would "question the Patriot Act." Thanks to this erosion of civil rights and other measures, she said, America's persistent "allergy" to domestic surveillance will finally receive the under-the-counter medication it needs.

Rice's ringing catchphrase, quoted worldwide almost immediately after her first utterance of it, came in three little words. "No silver bullet," she said, existed prior to Sept. 11, 2001, that might have prevented Sept. 11, 2001, from becoming Sept. 11, 2001.

By Friday morning, another catchphrase emerged from the Rice appearance, a nine-word one. The moment Rice was called upon to state the title of the Aug. 6 CIA briefing was not her most poised. It's hard to say the words "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" and make them sound like dismissable exposition.

In the spotlight's white glare, Rice had another mission to accomplish Thursday. She needed to take her questioners' minds off the devolving mess in Iraq. She did her best, again more or less effectively. Snapping back at Bob Kerrey's theatrically impatient hammering on the Iraq invasion, Rice mentioned an old Kerrey speech in which Kerrey said, in effect, let's get Hussein. Rice said she was "blown away" by the "asymmetric approach" put forth in Kerrey's speech. Attacking Iraq in the wake of the non-Iraq-related events of 9/11: Asymmetric certainly is one phrase for it.

In America, Rice said, "It's taken us a while to get to a multiethnic democracy that works." In Iraq, she added in a neat descriptive transference, "a multiethnic democracy that works" will likewise take a while. Transforming the Middle East, she said, represents a "challenge" that is "generational."

In an aside she said also that "we're not going to see success on our watch."

It was a remarkable and unheralded moment, delivered hastily, almost under Rice's breath. In that aside Rice acknowledged not simply a long, hard slog ahead, but very probably years of the opposite of success: failure.

Yet Rice, the most powerful woman on Earth, whom Bush has described as "fabulous" and her Thursday defense of the White House-on-the-spot as "terrific," acknowledged years of imminent foreign policy failure with a deft touch. Bush had good reason to praise her. Now that's a performer.

When Tim Russert interviewed Bush two months ago on "Meet the Press," in what must have seemed like a very long hour to Bush, the president's smirky distress marked the most painfully humanizing moment of his presidency. Who wasn't dying a thousand deaths right with him? With Bush, the nervous, reflexive smiles and speed-blinking indicate one of two things: Either he has reached the far end of his knowledge limit on a given subject, or he is too busy "seeming" on top of it without quite "being" on top of it.

There's a great line in Alan Bennett's "The Madness of George III" (no relation to anyone from Crawford) when the dotty king comes out of his fog and regains his royal stature.

"I have remembered how to seem myself," he says. The link between effective statesmanship and effective theatrical characterization has never been more aptly phrased. In his carefully chosen, the briefer-the-better public milieus, Bush is a master at seeming. This is why he's so deceptively effective in the short-form debate format, and why some Democrats tremble at the inevitable Bush/John Kerry matchups to come.

Late last month Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist accused counterterrorism whiz Richard Clarke of making "a theatrical apology" in his 9/11 commission appearance. This week Clarke's superior proved that some theatrical apologies are subtler and more indirect than others. Rice's apology was so subtle, it didn't technically admit any Bush White House error of any kind, pointing instead to larger bureaucratic constrictions and communication lapses.

The old axiom holds fast. "Flesh beats scenery," Broadway wag Wilson Mizner once quipped. With the Iraq scenery in flames, Rice in the flesh and under oath beat the scenery, if only for a few hours.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune