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In Race for White House, the 'Cult of Condi' Plays Growing Role

Advisors: As George W. Bush's foreign policy smarts increase, Condoleezza Rice deserves much of the credit.

May 28, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She works out regularly with the chief strength and conditioning coach for Stanford University's sports teams. Chevron Corp. named an oil tanker after her. She once was charged with ensuring the safety of a flock of stone ducks shipped by First Lady Barbara Bush to Soviet First Lady Raisa Gorbachev. (They landed just fine.)

And today she is one of the reasons for Texas Gov. George W. Bush's increasing knowledge about international affairs--although she takes no credit for such an accomplishment. Her name is Condoleezza Rice, and if you're paying any attention at all to Campaign 2000, you've seen quite a bit of her lately.

There she was on Tuesday morning, onstage at the National Press Club in Washington, surrounded by some of the biggest names in American foreign policy at a Bush news conference on arms control.

Once the detailed speech had ended, the candidate left the podium, along with the bright lights of four Republican administrations, many of them Rice's friends and mentors: Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, Brent Scowcroft and Donald H. Rumsfeld, Gen. Colin L. Powell.

And who was left behind to explain the difficult details to the press? The slender woman with the 100-watt smile, the deep sense of loyalty and the world-class resume. Condoleezza Rice, the candidate's chief foreign policy advisor, fellow sports nut, good friend and admirer.

Bush's Staunch Ally

She answered arcane queries about "boost-phase" intercept defense systems and multiple warheads. She waxed authoritative on the minutiae of arms control pacts. Then she staunchly defended the man she sincerely hopes will be our next president.

Testy question: Does Bush have more events planned to prove he isn't a foreign affairs lightweight?

Testy answer: "I won't accept the premise, which is not surprising," Rice said. "Time and time again he's spoken out on foreign policy. I think Americans are seeing that leadership."

A sort of cult of Condi--as she is known to her many friends--has grown through the years in foreign policy circles. Grizzled reporters gush about her expansive knowledge and lack of airs. Profiles describe her as sleek and sexy, soon to be "bigger than a rock star." (A Sovietologist? Go figure.)

Shultz, the formidable former secretary of state, turns into a softy when he speaks of her multifold talents, her deep capacity for friendship, her tenacious love of her ailing father. "She's just a big winner," he says.

While describing her "key role" in forming his campaign's foreign policy, Bush can't seem to shake the word "elegant" as he characterizes the 45-year-old policy wonk, concert pianist, former Stanford provost and athlete. His president father--whom she advised as Germany was reunifying and the Soviet Union was falling apart--introduced them way before George W. decided to run for the Oval Office.

"My first impression of Condi is she is an elegant person," Bush said this week. "Then when she talked, I realized she was an intelligent, elegant person. And I've seen her in action. She's not only elegant and intelligent, but she is a very capable person."

Condoleezza Rice--so named by her music-teacher mother after the term "to play with sweetness"--has been witness to more than just Soviet and European history. Born in 1954 in Birmingham, Ala., Rice speaks movingly of life in the segregated South and the infamous bombing that ignited the civil rights movement.

She was 9, the sheltered daughter of a middle-class black family, sitting in Westminster Presbyterian Church, when a bomb exploded at a Baptist church a few miles away. Four black girls were killed, one of them a schoolmate, Denise McNair, 11.

"I remember a sensation of something shaking, but just very slight," she says in an interview at her Hoover Institution office on the Stanford campus. "And later people learned who had been killed in the church. I remember more than anything the coffins." A pause. "The small coffins. And the sense that Birmingham wasn't a very safe place."

Growing up before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, race, Rice often says, was everywhere and nowhere. It shaped every part of every life, for blacks could not go into white hotels and restaurants. Race was nowhere, she says, because blacks opened their own hotels and restaurants and lived basically separate lives.

Rice's father became a Republican in 1952 because the Democratic Party refused to let him register. "People forget that the Democratic Party hasn't always had the best heritage in the South," notes Rice the daughter, who is a Republican to this day because she's a small-government kind of woman, a fiscal conservative who strongly supports the right to bear arms and believes in her party's inclusiveness.

She used to say she belonged to the Grand Old Party "because I would rather be ignored than patronized. Obviously I'd like also not to be ignored. So I think we've got a chance now that I can finally square the circle, so I don't have to be either."

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