Bush's secret weapon

Is Condoleezza Rice set to become the US’s first black and female vice-president?

Condoleezza Rice once described her childhood as one where she couldn’t sit at the lunch counter at Woolworths, but her parents still told her she could grow up to be president. Racism and segregation ruled her world in the deep South, but inside the Rice home, the great American myth prevailed.

Stay in school, work hard, trust in God, and yes, you—a little black girl from Birmingham, Alabama—might actually move into the White House.
One can only imagine the howls of laughter this would have elicited from the Rice’s white neighbours.

Well, as the old saying goes, look who’s laughing now. That former little black girl is suddenly being talked about—without a trace of irony—as a serious contender for the Republican vice-presidential nomination in 2004 and George W Bush’s secret weapon for a second term. As an idea it’s both strategically brilliant and a public relations dream, which explains why the buzz around Rice is starting to sound like an army of crickets on a hot summer night.

“Putting the first African-American woman on the ticket would be historic, no doubt,” says Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project, a lobby group working to put a woman in the White House by 2008. She mentions Elizabeth Dole’s failed Republican candidacy in 2000, recalling that she “attracted women to her candidacy who didn’t agree with her politics”.

Which is exactly the thinking behind putting Rice on the ticket in 2004. Assuming Vice-President Dick Cheney doesn’t run due to ill health (he has chronic heart trouble), pairing another big-money white guy with Bush would be nothing but a yawn. But nominating Rice, the current National Security Adviser who, since September 11, has emerged as one of the most prominent and hawkish strategists in the United States war on terrorism, would be another story.

She would be the first African-American and only the second woman (Democrat Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice-president in 1984) on a major party presidential ticket. And the hype that double whammy would create on the campaign trail is proving irresistible to kingmakers whose job it is to explore such possibilities. So too is the prospect of peeling away thousands of women and black voters from the Democratic Party, not to mention beating them at their own game. Conventional wisdom has long held that the first woman in the White House, like the first black American, would be a Democrat.

“Since September 11 foreign policy has been catapulted to the top of the national agenda, giving Rice a lot of visibility, credibility and authority,” says Wilson. “The fact that she is so hawkish actually gives her a strong chance of making it on to the ticket. Because when it comes to the crunch, men always ask one thing about women running for high office: how would she handle a war?”

Rice is an anomaly in Republican corridors of power, which have long been dominated by a white, wealthy, old boys’ network. While her politics veer hard right on foreign policy, she has admitted to being “pro-choice evangelical” and “almost shockingly libertarian” or “moderate” on other issues. There is no question her views on abortion (consistent with libertarian politics) would inflame the Christian wing of the party. Yet the consensus, in a post-September 11 world, is that her expertise in handling foreign policy would trump those concerns. And as polls have consistently shown, in federal elections abortion is never a make-or-break issue.

But her incongruity in a party that attracted only 10% of the black vote in the last election may also be her greatest asset. Just think of the media coverage—not to mention the repercussions for Bush’s own reputation. Bill Kristol, editor of a conservative magazine, the Weekly Standard, says: “President Bush really wants to make the Republican Party more inclusive to both African-Americans and women. If he put Condi on the ticket it would assert a boldness on his part that he is serious about opening the party up.”

Nominating Rice would make Bush look good, but would it give the Republicans some traction where they sorely need it—closing the race and gender gap? Research shows American women vote left in greater numbers than men. Yet soccer moms and urban female professionals, says Wilson, may well throw their weight behind Rice, seduced by the idea of “creating” women’s political history. Would the feminist community support Rice for the same reason?

“I doubt it,” says Wilson. “The women’s community doesn’t vote for women just based on gender. They would need to know where Rice stands on issues such as health care, affirmative action and abortion before they give her their vote.”

Given that Rice has never held elective office, her stance on those issues can only be gleaned from interviews. On health care she has said nothing, but when she was provost of Stanford University she once commented: “I say in principle that I don’t believe in, and in fact will not apply, affirmative action in promotions.” But her pro-choice views, anathema to religious Republicans, could score her major points with feminists.

The black community, however, might be more easily divided. Kristol says a Rice nomination, which by definition would put her in the pipeline for the presidency in 2008, might seriously galvanise black America in spite of her arch-conservative views. “A Rice vice-presidency would be so incredibly historic. It’s entirely possible she would attract a higher percentage of black votes.”

Rice (47) grew up in segregated Alabama, the only child of parents whose focus was education and religion. A prodigy who spoke four languages and skipped two grades, Rice enrolled in university at 15, graduated at 19 and earned her doctorate in political science in her mid-20s, specialising in Russia. Considered one of the foremost experts in Sovietology, Rice taught at Stanford University then worked on nuclear strategic planning for the joint chiefs of staff. She served in the first Bush administration as director of Soviet and East European affairs on the National Security Council.

She left Washington to return to Stanford as provost, only to be lured back to politics by the younger Bush, serving as his campaign adviser on foreign policy. Some have suggested that she tutored him from scratch, a charge she vigorously denies. One year after joining the Bush team, Rice, who is unmarried, has emerged as one of his closest advisers, heavily influencing his dealings with Russia, the Balkans and Israel, as well as his denunciation of the now infamous “axis of evil”. As national security adviser, she is said to exert the most sway on a president since Henry Kissinger.

“I am a realist,” she said recently, describing her stance on global conflict. “Power matters. But there can be no absence of moral content in American foreign policy, and furthermore, the American people wouldn’t accept such an absence. Europeans giggle at this and say we’re naive and so on, but we’re not Europeans, we’re Americans—and we have different principles.”

While the idea of a black woman from the segregated South becoming a conservative vice-president is irresistible to the press, the reality is that Rice is a foreign-policy wonk. She has never publicly declared a domestic agenda nor held elective office. Although the Democrats would cry foul, Kristol says a Bush/Rice ticket is too brilliant an idea for the president to ignore.

“He respects her, he is comfortable with her, and he is very interested in closing the gender and the race gap. She could help him do that. Not to mention that running with her would make history.”

So who does Al Gore—who, despite his defeat, is still considered one of the front-runners for the Democratic nomination in 2004—choose as his own running mate to put up a fight against the inevitable Bush/Rice media frenzy? Hillary Clinton, perhaps?

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