Power, Privacy Shape View of Condoleezza Rice

Marcus Mabry

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is arguably the most powerful black woman in American history. But according to Newsweek Senior Editor Marcus Mabry, author of Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power, Rice guards her privacy with the same fierceness that has driven her political career. Mabry talks to Farai Chideya about his new biography of Rice.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is arguably the most powerful black woman in the history of American politics. But how much do we really know about the notoriously private Rice? Journalist Marcus Mabry is filling in the blanks with his new book, "Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power." It's the first authorized biography of Rice.

Mabry is the chief of correspondence and a senior editor at Newsweek and he got only three interviews with Secretary Rice, but she gave him incredible access to her close friends and family. Mabry started by telling me about her relationship to blackness.

Mr. MARCUS MABRY (Author, "Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power"): Condoleezza Rice and the black community have a very uneasy relationship with one another. Most African-Americans self-identify as Democrat, obviously Condoleezza Rice doesn't. And therefore there is a sense, I think, that Condoleezza Rice somehow is lacking in authenticity as an African-American. She is not really a black woman, whether because of her politics or because of the way she speaks or because of the way she holds herself. I was surprised to discover - and I shouldn't have been, I suppose - I think that's absolutely wrong. This woman is quintessentially African-American and she is quintessentially of the time and place she came from.

Now, the reason I think many in the black community don't understand that is because, frankly, they've never seen otherwise. They haven't talked to her friends and family. They haven't talked to her, really, about race. This is not something that she plays up. She is quintessentially African-American and she's - she really is a Southern black woman, and you cannot be with her and not know that.

She even, you know, code shifting when we speak in different ways, African-Americans often when they were with people of different cultures or our own race. She even code shifts to a very solid degree, but to me, as someone who's entire family is from the South, I certainly heard it. IT was not at all the very clipped, precise and somewhat robotic Condoleezza Rice that you see often in the public.

CHIDEYA: So Marcus, you start off the first chapter of the book saying she stood out for what she was not. What do you mean by that?

Mr. MABRY: What I mean by it, Farai, is that in every instance this women has been in for almost her entire life she has never been in the majority. She's always been the outsider, at least that's the way we would think of it. I think the secret to both her success and to some ways her tragic flaws is the fact that, you know, she took to heart - where my title comes from - the saying that she heard from the adults in her community in Birmingham growing up, which is that she had to be twice as good.

As an African-American she had to be twice as good as a white person and, you know, to get half the credit or three times as good to be considered equal. She took that to heart, and so it didn't matter to her that she stood out because was the one who didn't belong in terms of her gender or her color. What mattered to her was that she felt she always belonged. Most of us do not have the wherewithal to feel that way in those kinds of circumstances when we're the only one.

CHIDEYA: You talk about her having a fatal flaw. What do you mean by that?

Mr. MABRY: Well, you know, in many ways, like many kind of Shakespearean heroes, the great strengths that are responsible for their rise, their historic rise - and whatever you think of her politics, she is a historic figure. The same attributes that are responsible for, you know, the things she has accomplished that no woman or African-American, and certainly African-American woman, before her has accomplished, those same attributes are also responsible for some of her greatest mistakes. And I mean things like strength, the ability to not believe what the outside world says to her, but to believe her own internal instincts and what she believes by herself, her own convictions.

The best example is Birmingham. She grew up in segregated Birmingham, yet at the age of eight or nine in Washington, D.C. - when as a little girl in Birmingham she could not get a hamburger at the Woolworth's counter - she stood in front of the White House as an eight or 9-year-old girl from the segregated South and told her dad, one day I'll be inside that house.

There was no reason for a little black girl from Birmingham to believe that, and one could argue it was absolutely delusional. But, in fact, she was right. And her whole life reads that like, Farai. It's quite extraordinary. But in the same way, that ability to only believe herself and to ignore the outside realities also led her to make many of the mistake she made on the way into Iraq and then once we got to Iraq. She believed her internal convictions, like the president did. And that overconfidence, which had always, you know, served her so well in her life, I think was one of her downfalls that led to the mistakes we made in Iraq.

CHIDEYA: So what is Condoleezza Rice's relationship with the president? Who had the tutor role in a tutor-student relationship?

Mr. MABRY: Well, it was interesting, you know, because originally, of course, she was the tutor and he was tutee. This was a Texas governor who hadn't traveled much when they started the 2000 campaign, where Rice actually sculpted this candidate into a credible, would-be leader of the free world. But her best friend actually said to me that - Condoleezza Rice's best friend - said to me that they were like, by the summer of 1999, so even before the campaign really got underway in earnest, he said that Rice and Bush were like Siamese twins who were connected at the frontal lobe. That's how close they were.

And she talks about, as do her friends, about this mutual transfer of energy that happens between both of them. So while she was the tutor in the beginning, in the end, she actually picked up a lot of his values and she kind of abandoned her own realist point of view in foreign policy for more values or an idealist's point of view - neo-con, some of would say - in the mold of George W. Bush. She went from a George H.W. Bush person, having worked in his White House, to a George W. Bush Republican, and that's a very different kind of Republican.

CHIDEYA: Something that comes to mind for me is just the question of why. You've explained that she did change her outlook from being more of realist to more of idealist, but why would she feel the need to do that? What do you think was in her that would explain in her life, or in her emotional and intellectual makeup, that would explain why she would do that?

Mr. MABRY: Well, there are two answers to that. Number one, the easy answer is that 9/11 was a difference. And that's what she'll tell you. When 9/11 happened, she realized that all of a sudden the U.S. had to be concerned about the internal politics of other countries. Realists in foreign policy, they're only currency is power. So all they care about is the power of states relative to each other.

After 9/11, we saw that of course it did matter whether or not there was a "freedom deficit," quote/unquote, in the Middle East. Because that allowed a breeding ground for disillusioned young men who didn't feel free, and they felt frustrated at home and felt that the U.S. was to blame, and they would come and blow us up. Rice saw, intellectually, there was something lacking in realism, so she tended to come over more to the idealist side for that reason.

Secondly, Rice has always been actually very malleable. She's not an ideological person. She's very malleable intellectually. What I mean by that is she is, you know, I talked to one of her college graduate school professors, and he believed - he's a leftist - and he believed with all his heart that Condi Rice was a radical.

And then she works for Brent Scowcroft, a very famous realist. Scowcroft believed that Rice was as much of a realist as he was. Then she works for George W. Bush, and of course she's the best spinner or articulator of George Bush's worldview. So she has worked for all these vastly different men, and each one of them has been convinced at Condi Rice thought exactly like he did.

She has an amazing ability to, because she is all about pragmatism and about her own power, I think, as well, she is able to morph and change and always appear incredibly - to believe whatever, you know, whoever she's working for. And to believe the same school of thought that person believes. It's kind of an amazing thing; many people would say that it's obviously a negative.

It means she lacks intellectual core, but I think this goes back to - again, you asked about how her roots made a difference to this transformation she had when she was in this White House. Her family were pragmatists. They never were waiting for the government or civil rights leaders or anyone else to bring them freedom. As they put it, they went out and got their own freedom as much as you could as a black middleclass person in the segregated South.

And they weren't worried about, you know, oh, one day it's all going to be good. They didn't care that it was an unjust system. They were all - they focused on the pragmatism of getting what they needed in that unjust system. And that pragmatism infuses Condi Rice at a very, very profound level.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned that she stood in front of the White House, and you have a picture of her in front of the White House, and said one day I'm going to be in there. Do you think that she would ever want to be in there as the boss, as opposed to being in the administration? Is this an ambition that she has?

Mr. MABRY: It is not an ambition she has. One of her best friends, actually her best friend, tells me in the book how, you know, this is not someone who goes home and whistles "Hail to the Chief," you know, in the privacy of her bedroom. She just doesn't do it. And it's true. You know, one of the most startling things about Condi Rice is that she has never set a long-term goal since she was 17 years old and failed at her initial long-term goals to become a concert pianist. You know, she discovered at 17 that she wasn't good enough.

When she found out she couldn't do it, number one, she just passionately said, okay, well, I'm not going to be a pianist. What am I going to do? You know, she told me I don't, you know, she doesn't do regret. That's what she told me. So she drops it, finds another major and moves was one. That's what she does. Her motto is move on, get over it. And we see this over and over again in her life. And it's really, really shocking to me.

But the one result which she didn't really cop to, and she said to me - she said I don't spend time analyzing myself. I leave that to others. So I took her up on that and did that in this book. The one effect of failing at the piano as a 17-year-old - and by that time Condoleezza Rice was a sophomore in college at 17 - was that she never again set another long-term goal. She just doesn't do it. She believes in predestination. She's a Presbyterian. Predestination is a real - a very Presbyterian tenet. They believe that God has already laid our path, and that's what Rice believes.

CHIDEYA: When you think about this woman and all that you knew about her before you met her, what surprised you the most when you sat down with her?

Mr. MABRY: She was incredibly warm and gracious, and her friends and family will talk about this. And other people who have worked with her in Washington and other places also talk about it. She has this amazing Southern hospitality, this Southern graciousness, that does not come over on TV or in Senate hearings.

So I think it was a personal warmth and the personal ability to charm. You know, I think the biggest surprise about her personal life is that she likes bad boys. I mean, I had no idea, you know, number one, her favorite men to date are athletes. The only man she ever came close to marrying, she was engaged to, is a former Denver Bronco, which I talk about in the book. But her step mom, Clara Rice, her best friends and best girlfriends, they all tell me that Condoleezza likes bad boys, which really, you know, it's not something you assume when you look at her on TV.

CHIDEYA: Well, on that note, you know, I'm sure there's going to be a lot of surprises for folks who pick up your book. Marcus Mabry, thank you so much.

Mr. MABRY: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Marcus Mabry is chief of correspondence and a senior editor at Newsweek. He's written a biography of Condoleezza Rice called "Twice as Good: Condoleezza Rice and Her Path to Power." You can read the first chapter at our Web site npr.org/NEWS&NOTES.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today and thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit npr.org/NEWS&NOTES. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, the first black senator since Reconstruction. Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke on Barack Obama, Richard Nixon and his new book.

I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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