At the Conservatoire Hector Berlioz in Paris, an eager group of sixteen French youngsters were learning to read music when they received a special visitor: a secretary of state on a mission to reshape American diplomacy—and her own image.
Rice was accompanied by more than two dozen aides, reporters, and other officials, including the mayor of Paris. They squeezed into the small classroom, but that did not seem to faze the businesslike teacher, who continued to lead the children through their paces. Rice, tapping her toes to keep time, soon joined in a French music comprehension refrain with the children, singing softly, “Fa-do-sol-si-re-la-sol.”
“I remember this,” she said, telling the children through an interpreter that she learned to read music from her grandmother when she was three, even before she learned to read. “It takes a lot of work to learn to read music,” she said. “You have to practice and practice and practice.” She didn’t mention that after years of study, in college she had abruptly abandoned her ambition to become a concert pianist, shifting to Soviet studies instead, when she realized she would never be in the top ranks.
As reporters watched the initially stilted conversation, one of her aides, Jim Wilkinson—who, more than anyone, was the impresario of the event—circulated among them, quietly making sure they understood how “cute” the staged event looked.
Rice was nearing the end of her first overseas trip, which began just days after she had been confirmed by the Senate. Almost every moment had been meticulously planned for weeks by Rice and her top aides, starting from the day President Bush announced that she would be his nominee for secretary of state in his second term. The State Department traditionally prides itself on being worried about the policy, not the politics, but Rice and her team had brought a White House sensitivity to images and message discipline. The overriding goal of the trip was to signal to Europeans that the Bush administration was serious about repairing relations ruptured by the Iraq War. But there was also a deeper, more personal mission at stake: eliminating the stereotype of Rice as a cold and bloodless White House staffer and catapulting her into a world figure with possible political aspirations.
No detail was too small, especially for Wilkinson, a hyperactive former Capitol Hill staffer whom Rice had brought to the National Security Council for his savvy at shaping media images. He had commissioned studies from the State Department historian’s office. He wanted to know what makes the difference between a good secretary of state and a bad one. Proximity to the president, the historian responded. That conclusion made Wilkinson feel better about Rice’s chances.
Wilkinson also wrote down a list of negative questions about Rice, a clear-eyed exercise designed to think seriously about the concerns of the media and the State Department. Once he had that list down, he could then look for ways to answer them—or at least neutralize them. Among the questions were these:
• Hadn’t she been a bad national security advisor?
• Didn’t she have disdain for the Foreign Service?
• Isn’t she part of the neoconservative cabal that doesn’t care about diplomacy?
• Isn’t she cold and unfriendly?
To counter the notion that Rice was cold, Wilkinson decreed that almost no pictures should be allowed of Rice alone after she moved to the State Department; instead she should always be photographed with other people in an effort to warm her up. On her first day on the job, for instance, he arranged for a crowd of people to stand around her when she addressed State Department workers from a staircase in the building’s main entrance. In another subtle switch, he decided that massive podiums were to be avoided for speeches because she has such a slim frame and stands just five feet, six inches tall.
To show Rice cared about diplomacy, he wanted Americans to see that their secretary of state was at work overseas. He arranged a series of cultural expeditions, such as the trip to the Paris conservatory, each scrupulously chosen to suggest Rice’s appreciation for the local culture. Of course, he loved the photographs that then would be printed in the newspapers back home. He would stuff the drawers of his small office, just outside Rice’s suite, with positive press clippings of Rice, especially photographs that captured exactly the image he had wanted to convey.
In Washington, Wilkinson decided to move Rice’s news conferences with foreign officials upstairs to the ornate rooms of the seventh and eighth floors of the State Department. Rice would be photographed sitting in front of a fireplace or walking fifty feet to a microphone, evoking the spirit of presidential sessions in the White House. Powell, by contrast, had always escorted visitors to the front door of the State Department and then would speak to reporters in front of the glass doors as other people walked in and out of the building. During the transition, Wilkinson had watched a Powell news conference and to his horror saw a man speaking loudly on his cell phone in the background during the entire news conference. The whole thing seemed undignified and unprofessional. The “walk-outs,” as the Powell sessions were called, were banned; the Rice news conferences were henceforth known as “walk-ups.”
To make sure the Paris visit came off without a hitch, Wilkinson even borrowed Nina Bishop from the White House advance team. The most iconic image of the Bush presidency came amid the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center. Surrounded by firemen, Bush appeared to spontaneously grab a bullhorn to help extort the firemen and the entire nation to stand firm. It was Bishop who had arranged that trip—and had even handed Bush that bullhorn.
“I Do the Hiring Here”
When Bush won reelection in 2004, Rice was ready to go back to California. She hadn’t expected to be national security advisor in the first place. She told friends she hadn’t even wanted that job because her father had been terribly ill during Bush’s first campaign. Though she had been Bush’s foreign policy advisor in the 2000 campaign, she wanted to return to California to be with her dad. But Bush persisted, and Rice finally said yes. Randy Bean had begun to explore installing a webcam system and other ways for Rice to keep in touch with her father when he died just four days after she was named national security advisor. “That was his gift to her,” Bean said. “He freed her to go to Washington, unburdened.”
Now, with the first term nearly finished, Rice really was desperate to return to Stanford. But Bush had other plans. Two days after the November 3 election, on a Thursday, she flew up to Camp David with the president, the first lady, and the chief of staff, Andrew Card. The president met with her privately on Friday morning, November 6, and got quickly to the point: Powell was out, and he wanted Rice to be secretary of state.
“I would have to think about that,” Rice replied. She noted that she had planned to go home and it had been four really long years—actually five years, when you count her year as his campaign advisor. She suggested Bush should consider sweeping away the whole foreign policy team so he could start fresh in the second term. The current crew had gone through the September 11 attacks, two wars, and many other difficult issues.
“I think you may need a new national security team,” Rice said.
“I do the hiring here,” Bush replied.
Bush and Rice discussed the job periodically over the next three days, for a total of about two hours. She was exhausted from the campaign, and spent most of her time at Camp David sleeping or watching football in her cabin, not thinking about the job. She felt very comfortable with the president. She certainly didn’t need assurances of access or other guarantees if she took the job, though she was wondering how they would retain their unique close relationship if she were no longer in the same building but in different parts of Washington.
“We’ve been very close, down the hall,” Rice told Bush. “I see you eight times a day, and I don’t want to lose that connection.”
But she did want to know Bush’s feelings on one issue. Would he be willing to support the creation of a Palestinian state in his second term? This was critical for Rice. With long-term Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat on his deathbed, she wanted to know how far Bush would go to support the Palestinian cause. The president assured her he was on the same wavelength.
There was one other concern for Rice: the travel the job would require. From outside appearances, Rice might appear to be a model of brains and polish, a high achiever who is comfortable spending endless hours on the road, going from banquet to banquet. Beneath the public image, however, is a woman who hates to travel. She thinks of herself as a “nester,” and doesn’t enjoy sightseeing or long trips away from home. Powell didn’t like travel, either, and had been heavily criticized for his reliance on “telephone diplomacy.” Rice understood that in this age of instant communication, Powell’s approach had been wrong—lengthy dinners, lunches, and meetings with foreign officials overseas were now even more essential. But she didn’t savor that part of the position.
She wouldn’t commit to the job that weekend, even as Bush teased her every so often, asking, “Have you made up your mind yet?” She called her Aunt G, Genoa McPhatter, her closest relative, who said she was pleased for her. She called a few other relatives and also Coit Blacker.
“No shit,” Blacker replied. “I thought you were coming back home.” Blacker had been arranging a spot for her at Stanford, and he knew she had been planning to begin packing the next week so she could be back at Palo Alto in January.
“I thought I was coming home, too,” Rice replied. Blacker asked how Bush was convincing her, and Rice said he had big plans for the second term and wanted to build a foreign policy foundation for the future.
By Monday, Rice was excited about the opportunity. Before they left Camp David, she told Bush she would accept the job.
On Friday, Bush sent Rice a powerful signal that he would listen closely to her. “I believe we’ve got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state, and I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state,” he said during an East Room news conference with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. “I believe it is in the interest of the world that a truly free state develop.” Never had the president so publicly committed himself to set such a date for action.
The following Monday, Powell’s resignation was announced.
“Don’t Brief Down”
Rice asked Wilkinson and John B. Bellinger, her legal advisor, to cochair her transition team, essentially reprising the roles they had had when Rice had to appear before the commission investigating the September 11 attacks in the first term. Wilkinson would handle communications and Bellinger would focus on preparing for the confirmation hearings.
Bellinger viewed the transition as akin to the friendly takeover of a company. But he also knew that the State Department was in near terror over Rice’s arrival, in part because his deputy at the NSC, a foreign service officer, bluntly told him about the fear spreading through Foggy Bottom, as the department’s headquarters are sometimes called by careerists. Though Powell has been a lonely figure in the upper echelons of power in the Bush administration, he was beloved by the bureaucracy. State Department workers thought he was an inspiring leader who had won long-needed funds from Congress and who listened to their ideas. Powell publicly said he saw his role as bringing the State Department’s voice to the interagency debate; Rice, it was believed, was planning to impose the White House’s voice on the State Department.
Wilkinson felt a chill as he walked through the State Department parking garage the first time and spotted many bumper stickers supporting John Kerry for president. One assistant secretary of state was even reported to have held a staff meeting in her office to bemoan Kerry’s defeat. Rice knew she needed to take some steps to reassure her new troops. She thought every move sent a signal. She took pains not to appear to be shoving Powell aside, since he was still secretary until the end of January. In fact, she and her aides decided they would not set foot in the secretary’s office until the day after Powell left. She also ordered her staff never to make comparisons between her and Powell, even off the record.
Rice was scheduled to receive management briefings, twice a week for two hours, from the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, in a windowless room on the first floor of the State Department. She deliberately asked that the first briefing be given by Grant Green, the outgoing undersecretary of state for management, in an effort to show the State Department that she cared about the inner workings of the agency.
The briefings gave Rice a sense of the quality of the troops she would inherit. William Burns, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, gave a brilliant overview of the situation in the Middle East; he would later be given the plum post of U.S. ambassador to Russia. But she and her staff felt a number of the assistant secretaries, particularly Elizabeth Jones (Europe), Roger Noriega (Western Hemisphere), and Connie Newman (Africa), gave mediocre presentations. Rice would end up replacing all of the regional assistant secretaries. But while Powell had a mix of political appointees and foreign service officers in those posts, Rice decided to use mostly foreign service officers again, in an effort to reassure the building.
The State Department, which proudly regards itself as the first cabinet department, is a vast organization of 57,000 people, many located in 264 embassies, consulates, and other missions overseas. The United States has diplomatic relations with 188 countries, few of which can command the full attention of the secretary of state for an extended period of time. Each secretary must figure out how he or she will interact with the 19,000 civil servants and foreign service officers who implement and manage U.S. policy on a day-to-day basis, including the 8,000 employees located in the sprawling State Department building in downtown Washington. Rice looked at the memoirs of every recent secretary of state and read carefully the sections on how they managed their transitions. George Shultz, who served under Ronald Reagan for six years, also organized a dinner at the Army-Navy Club which every living secretary of state (except an ailing Warren M. Christopher) attended to give Rice tips and instructive war stories.
One of a secretary’s first decisions is how he or she will organize what is known in the building as “the seventh floor”—the place where Rice and her top aides would work. In the past two decades, there have been three basic approaches to managing the building: the James Baker model, the Colin Powell model, and the George Shultz model. Baker had a very strong seventh floor that essentially ignored the rest of the State Department; he and a handful of aides made the policy, to the resentment of the career staff. The polar opposite to the Baker approach was Powell, who ran the State Department like a military organization, allowing each section to do its tasks and so permitting ideas to bubble up from the ranks; this made him a popular leader. Shultz’s approach was something of hybrid; he ran the building, but he was also respected by it.
Rice and her aides claimed they chose the Shultz model, but in reality she adopted Baker’s style. She was not going to let the building run her. Baker, after all, is regarded as one of the most successful secretaries of state, while Powell—at least in initial postmortems—is considered a failure.
But after the respect Powell paid to lower-level officials, Rice’s approach was resented. Powell could be instantly reached by e-mail and would often respond quickly, though he had his favorites in the department. Rice doesn’t use e-mail and prefers formal meetings, even with assistant secretaries.
Under Rice, secrecy is paramount. On sensitive issues, in fact, Rice will warn other officials, “Don’t brief down,” meaning don’t tell lower-level aides about the discussions. So, for example, people would be ordered to send cables overseas without understanding why the cables were being sent. With so little communication between the seventh floor and the other levels, even senior officials were left puzzling over the policy, looking for clues in Rice’s public statements—which were often deliberately obtuse. A midlevel State Department official overseeing Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan, for instance, quit in 2006 after telling colleagues he only knew what the United States was doing in one of those countries (Jordan) because Rice didn’t care about it.
Rice is obsessed with leaks. Lower-level officials who, under Powell, regularly briefed the press were told they could no longer return reporters’ phone calls. The press aides in each bureau—who varied in quality under Powell—were given access to less and less information, so even the real professionals could barely do their jobs. The drafts of the secretary’s speeches used to be circulated widely through the building so different bureaus could react to them; this practice was stopped under Rice. Often, her speeches overseas are completed on the plane, and reviewed only by a small circle.
Two weeks after taking office, Rice became furious over a newspaper article on U.S. policy toward North Korea that appeared the morning she was to meet with the South Korean foreign minister. She gathered together lower-level aides working on the issue to express her displeasure. “I don’t like leaks,” she said, banging the table for emphasis. A chill quickly went through the building.
“We Look Like Six Monkeys”
Having decided to assemble a strong seventh floor, Rice then needed a formidable group of advisors at her side.
In putting together her team, Rice was not afraid of big egos or clashing personalities, or even the occasional outsider; however, she expected and wanted absolute loyalty. She welcomed disagreement and debate over policy, but she would not tolerate disloyalty to the overall project: This was Team Rice. Within days of becoming secretary, she fired the assistant secretary of state for law enforcement and narcotics, Robert Charles, because she discovered that Charles—a former aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert—had tried to drum up support on the Hill for a position he was advocating on Afghanistan. Rice felt Charles was trying to box her in—and his abrupt dismissal was intended to send a message.
Each key player on Team Rice had a distinct role to play, and, like a skilled football coach, Rice put together an initial lineup that was impressive for its diversity and cohesiveness. She set up the staff so no one person had complete authority. She worked closely with Dina Powell, then head of White House personnel, going over a list of names almost every day in her apartment. She ended up offering a key post to Powell as well.
Many of her top aides had long histories working with each other. Wilkinson, Powell, and the chief of staff, Brian Gunderson, had worked for former House majority leader Richard Armey. Gunderson had been chief of staff for Robert B. Zoellick, the new deputy secretary of state, in the first term when Zoellick had served as U.S. trade representative. Zoellick, in turn, had been a senior aide to Secretary of State Baker during the administration of Bush’s father, working closely with Rice and the incoming counselor, Philip Zelikow, on the reunification of Germany. And the new undersecretary of state for political affairs, R. Nicholas Burns, had been a special assistant to Zoellick during that period—and then was Rice’s deputy at the NSC.
Wilkinson, at thirty-four, was the youngest and possibly oddest member of Rice’s inner circle. A self-described Texas conservative, opposed to abortion rights and a supporter of the National Rifle Association, Wilkinson hailed from a small East Texas town of a thousand people and had once considered becoming a mortician. The baby-faced Wilkinson was full of nervous energy, often irritating but in an endearing sort of way. At senior staff meetings, when most people are polite and cautious, Wilkinson would burst in and declare, “We look like six monkeys trying to fuck a football.” That certainly got people’s attention. (One senior official once asked Wilkinson what he meant by that remark, and Wilkinson said if the official didn’t understand it, he couldn’t explain it.)
Wilkinson was skilled at the art of political warfare. During the 2000 presidential campaign, he helped promote the notion that Al Gore claimed to have “invented the Internet”—which was not quite true but made Gore a subject of ridicule. During the invasion of Iraq, he was the brains behind the vast media center erected in Qatar, where many reporters covering the war came to loathe him. In Control Room, a documentary about Al Jazeera’s coverage during the war, Wilkinson makes a brief appearance that captures his relentless, grinding manner. He is shown repeating the same banal talking point to a network correspondent before the camera turns on, as the camera is running, and then even as the correspondent is removing the microphone from Wilkinson’s suit jacket.
At the White House, Rice had given Wilkinson the grand title of deputy national security advisor for communications, but in reality he spent a lot of time spinning reporters. Many top officials couldn’t understand at first what Rice saw in Wilkinson, but ultimately concluded she liked his forceful, direct way of saying there was a problem—and then working actively to fix it. She also valued his instincts about handling the media—and the politics of decisions. At the State Department, he thought nothing of throwing his weight around and quickly antagonized career professionals with his demands and his refusal to follow tradition.
Wilkinson dearly wanted to be chief of staff. He was tired of being pegged as media handler and wanted to be more involved in the mechanics of policymaking. Rice first indicated she wanted to offer the job of chief of staff to Bellinger, but he told her he wanted a position with line authority. She said she understood and made Bellinger legal advisor, an important senior-level post. Then she turned to Gunderson, forty-three, even though she had never worked with him before. She broke the news gently to Wilkinson, going out of her way to walk to his office to tell him about her decision to hire someone else.
Each secretary of state re-creates the job of chief of staff to suit his or her own needs, and Rice had decided to divide it in two. Wilkinson would be in charge of planning, strategy, and communications, with the title of “senior advisor,” while Gunderson would focus on personnel and congressional relations. Both would report directly to her, meaning that political operatives—not State Department officials—controlled her schedule. Gunderson also had close ties with the conservative wing of the Republican Party, and so had the essential job of protecting her vulnerable right flank. Dialing around Washington, he kept in close touch with Karl Rove, the political guru at the White House, and key conservatives throughout Washington, making sure no one thought that Rice was straying too far from the fold.
Wilkinson knew Gunderson well and so couldn’t feel too down about not getting the job. Gunderson, for his part, was shocked that she had reached outside her circle for such a critical position. Others in the inner circle were surprised by the choice and felt the taciturn Gunderson was too quiet at first. Rice tried to reassure Gunderson before she departed on her first trip, telling him with a note of relief in her voice, “I think this is going to work well.”
For the crucial role of spokesman, Rice chose loyalty over State Department tradition. She named Sean McCormack, a relatively low-level foreign service officer who had been spokesman for the National Security Council during Bush’s first term. The NSC spokesman is often a foreign service officer, but never had one returned to State as an assistant secretary of state. McCormack had served two brief tours overseas, in Turkey and Algeria, and had been among the junior staff who traveled with Madeleine Albright before landing at the White House. His elevation greatly angered traditionalists at State, not to mention other, more experienced public-affairs specialists around the building. (The complaints grew even louder when Rice permitted three other former NSC aides to leapfrog over more experienced foreign service colleagues, prompting the president of the American Foreign Service Association to publicly complain about the “damaging impact of this controversy on professionalism, morale and esprit de corps” because loyalty seemed to be the main criterion for promotion.)
McCormack also had the misfortune of following the legendary Richard Boucher, the longest-serving spokesman in department history, having served Baker, Christopher, Albright, Powell, and then, briefly, Rice while McCormack awaited Senate confirmation. Boucher had made an art form out of the 12:30 p.m. daily briefing; the entire department would stop and listen to Boucher’s daily remarks in order to craft their conversations later that afternoon with embassies and foreign officials. McCormack, an affable man married to a journalist, had a rough start trying to follow Boucher’s footsteps. Frequently, McCormack would simply refer reporters’ questions to previous statements by Rice, rather than try to move the policy forward with his own words. The department began to tune out the briefings. McCormack improved as the months passed, but his selection showed that Rice intended to be her own spokesman.
Copyright © 2007 by Glenn Kessler. All rights reserved