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Perspective

Suitable for Command

Judging by appearances, Cabinet leaders face crisis with cool control.

November 02, 2001|ROBIN GIVHAN | WASHINGTON POST

The messenger is just as important as the message, perhaps more so.

Human nature dictates that we evaluate information in the context of its delivery. Listeners scan the speaker's eyes and body language in search of assurance, control. Certainly, appearances can be deceptive, perceptions can be skewed. A desperate desire to believe, no matter how ludicrous, can cloud judgment.

Still, who doesn't want bad news delivered with a calm face and a body erect with courage? When officials field questions about anthrax or discuss the latest military maneuvers in Afghanistan, people listen not only to what is said but also to how it is said. Is there a catch in the throat? A sudden darting of the eyes? A subtle slouch? How worried are these people, really?

Give the public this much: Admit what you don't know with humility. Tell what you do know with confidence.

A casual observer recently suggested that President Bush was quickly going gray, an outward sign of stress. Perhaps that observation was born of anxiety, as Bush's hair has not turned significantly grayer. But it does look as though he's missed a few barber appointments. Frankly, though, that's a laudable lapse. He's a long way from growing the kind of unruly mop that could diminish the sense of authority so desperately needed now.

It's good to see Secretary of State Colin Powell standing so ramrod-straight and sure, explaining diplomatic strategy with the poker-faced elan of a Wall Streeter. It's vaguely reassuring to see Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld looking like a nerdy, know-it-all grandpa. And National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice answers tough questions with her no-nonsense manner and her Sunday school teacher attire.

Everything about her says control.

Rice was quoted on the subject of dress in the Sept. 9 issue of the Washington Post Magazine. She was gazing at a photo of a well-dressed Jewish couple standing in the squalor of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. "Your outward image is critical to reminding people that you still have control," Rice said.

In October's Vogue magazine, Rice is the latest member of the Bush White House to get the full glamour makeover.

Photographer Annie Leibovitz captured her wearing a strapless black evening gown, sitting at a grand piano--an allusion to Rice's training in classical music. All the bold strokes of Vogue are there: the elegant clothes, the perfect makeup, the unreality of looking like oneself yet better, glossier, more chic.

But even Vogue couldn't stamp out the primness, the tightness that defines Rice's camera-ready demeanor.

Dressed in a Cinderella evening gown, Rice still can best be described by characteristics that are grounded in personal and public control: poise, restraint and sang-froid.

How desperately one wishes that the stylists could have tousled her hair a little to suggest she'd just come in from a brisk fall walk. Or even coaxed her into a new haircut that was more relaxed, more inviting. But her measured, emotionless style would not be moved.

She's almost always in a regulation Washington ensemble: modest-length skirt, conservative jacket, sensible shoes. It's freeze-dried career dressing: Add water, ambition and smarts, then stir.

Once one might have quietly complained that Rice was missing an opportunity to prove that intelligent and powerful women can also show personality and creativity in their wardrobe, but such faultfinding now seems misguided--a frivolously lightweight topic from another time.

Still, as people are being told not to panic, they're looking to Rice, and others, for good reasons why they shouldn't. Rice's body language and her presence are even more highly scrutinized. A more up-to-date slim suit by Jil Sander, Calvin Klein or even Banana Republic might be more sophisticated and easier on the eyes. A fresh new hairstyle--one that looks cut rather than carved--might project a livelier personality.

But considering the circumstances, prim and emotionless may be just the sort of soothing delivery that Rice's grim messages require.

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