Elisabeth Bumiller, former White House correspondence for the New York Times and former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar, author; commentators Walter Isaacson, President and CEO, The Aspen Institute; David Rothkopf, Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Elisabeth Bumiller wrote Condoleezza Rice: An American Life to demystify Secretary of State Rice, feeling that it is impossible to understand American foreign policy during the George W. Bush administration without an understanding of Rice. As Bumiller told an audience at a book launch organized by the Division of United States Studies, she considers Rice to have been a weak National Security Advisor (2001-2005) but a far more successful Secretary of State (2005-present).

Bumiller considers Rice's story to be "one of continued reinvention." The talented little girl from a middle-class Birmingham, Alabama family was present at the funeral of one of her friends, killed in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and that is a part of her history that still has importance for her. Rice studied political science at the University of Denver, in part under Josef Korbel, father of future Secretary of State Madeline Albright. She eventually received her Ph.D. from that university (1981) and accepted a teaching position at Stanford University. There she proved to be a popular professor and a somewhat less popular Provost.

Rice was named National Security Advisor on January 21, 2001, the day after President George W. Bush was sworn into office. Bumiller detailed Rice's conflicts with Vice President Dick Cheney. Rice asked President Bush to intervene when Cheney attempted to take the chair at sessions of the National Security Council in the president's absence – traditionally a prerogative of the National Security Advisor. Rice was successful in that battle, although she was less so in a consistently tense relationship with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, who viewed Rice as "a glorified graduate student," gave her so little information about Pentagon policies that Bumiller described Rice as having to send "spies" to the Pentagon to find out what was happening there. When Rumsfeld resigned in November 2006, it was Rice who urged the president to name Robert M. Gates as his replacement.

Rice was a weak National Security Advisor, Bumiller said, in part because she saw her responsibility as serving as no more than a "super staffer" to and "enabler" of the president, rather than one of articulating possible policies or questioning those he suggested. Her "familial" relationship with the president and Mrs. Bush made her unwilling to push when she had policy disagreements with him. Bumiller described Rice as managing her job as Secretary far more successfully, influencing the president during the last two years on policy toward North Korea and Iran, and acting as the moving force behind the recent meeting in Annapolis on the Middle East.

David Rothkopf reminded the audience of what a "compelling personal story" Rice's life has been, and how unthinkable it would have been for an African-American woman not many years ago. He described her as a Republican who believes passionately in the American political system. Agreeing with Bumiller's assessment, Rothkopf said that Rice's failure as National Security Advisor lay in her "staffing" the president instead of "managing the process." Ironically, she was part of an administration whose foreign policy was led by hard-nosed, experienced realists, but which turned out to have been starry-eyed in its assumptions about much of the world. The administration assumed, for example, that Americans would go into Iraq, fight a fast and successful war, and be viewed by the Iraqis as liberators. The "cocktail" of people who surround the president is of key importance, Rothkopf said, and it is disturbing that the failed "cocktail" was made up of people who performed so well in earlier positions.

Walter Isaacson identified the two strands of American foreign policy as idealism and realism, and said that there has been a conflict within Rice's soul between the two. The Bush administration, including Rice, came into office with "realist" ideas about foreign policy. That was changed by 9/11, which turned Bush into an idealist. Rice, Isaacson averred, believes that there is no conflict between realism and idealism, because democracy and freedom inevitably will work together. He viewed Rice as now attempting to achieve a positive legacy for the Bush administration, beginning a process in Annapolis that Isaacson asserted will work. To Rice, who saw her job as National Security Advisor in part as one of reining in then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and his involvement in the Middle East peace process, her job has now become intense involvement in that process. Part of the genesis of her current efforts, Isaacson added, lies in the moral impulse that leads her to analogize the plight of the Palestinians with the plight of African Americans back in the days of the Birmingham bombings.

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129