Jacob Heilbrunn

The Comeback of Condoleezza Rice

Political conventions may not be important for the presidential candidates, but they do serve the function of acting as a kind of cotillion ball for other ambitious officials. Both Chris Christie and now Condoleezza Rice have used their speeches, ostensibly touting Mitt Romney's sagacity, to promote their own causes. While Rice dwelled on foreign policy, the real crux of her talk was more personal. It was to suggest, as the Washington Post has noted, that she has not finished her public service, that she is, in fact, presidential timber. Poor Romney. At this point Romney must be wondering, as Ronald Reagan once did, "Where's the rest of me?"

The truth, of course, is that no one can muster up much enthusiasm for Romney. Even his wife's speech had a defensive tone to it. And Condi's? She hauled out what has become GOP orthodoxy on foreign affairs. "We cannot be reluctant to lead, and you cannot lead from behind," she said. She added, "That is why—that is why this is a moment and an election of consequence.  Because it just has to be that the freest most compassionate country on the face of the earth will continue to be the most powerful and the beacon for prosperity and the party across the world." All well and good. But what it translates into practice is another matter.

Rice indicated that President Obama had messed up everything that had been handed to him by George W. Bush. But what about the kind of leadership George W. Bush exercised? Rice was notably cryptic on the topic of Iraq, a war that she endorsed. I well recall meeting her at the White House when she was national-security adviser, declaring that because Bush had, more or less, made the decision to take out Saddam Hussein, there was really no need to debate the topic any further. The Decider had decided, and she was not going to buck his decision.

Now Rice, as Peter Beinart notes, treats Iraq as something of a footnote in history. The grand episode has become a marginal one. And Afghanistan is treated with complete silence. Beinart writes,

In her speech, Rice mentioned Iraq once, as a “fragile democracy” beset by “internal strife and hostile neighbors.” That’s a rather passive way to describe a country that the United States invaded and occupied because government officials like Condoleezza Rice swore it had weapons it turned out not to have. The other country that the U.S. invaded and occupied on Rice’s watch is called Afghanistan. Two thousand Americans have now died there. She didn’t mention it at all.

The truth, of course, is that Rice was Bush's enabler, but she didn't really espouse the neocon credo. Her roots are in the realist camp. But she got on board with the program during the early Bush years, trying to avert the worst of the lunacy. In 2006 her moment arrived. Donald Rumsfeld was sacked. Vice President Dick Cheney lost influence with Bush, who started to glimpse the costs of handing over his presidency to a glabrous schemer. But it was too late. Rice had risen in the president's estimation, but she was not able to accomplish anything momentous other than wearing her fancy black leather boots. That could change.

At the core of her convention speech was the notion that her personal success is perfectly aligned with the American dream of self-reliance and success. It's a powerful and conservative message:

And on a personal note: a little girl grows up in Jim Crow Birmingham—the most segregated big city in America—her parents can’t take her to a movie theater or a restaurant—but they make her believe that even though she can’t have a hamburger at the Woolworth’s lunch counter—she can be President of the United States and she becomes the Secretary of State.

Steely and disciplined, relentless and ambitious, Rice may well ascend to the presidency, where she could dispense with the palaver she doled out at the convention and seek revenge on the neocons who tormented her during the Bush years. Watch out for Rice.