Condoleezza Rice’s amen corner on the right was going to hail her Thursday appearance before the 9/11 commission as a stunning success no matter what she said. And so they did, with President Bush declaring that she had done “a terrific job,” Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Shelby describing her as “very candid” and radio personality Gordon Liddy announcing, “a star is born.”
But that was just spin. On Thursday, a star flamed out. Permanently.
Despite the praise from her president and the Republican establishment that since the 1980s has been grooming her as a candidate for national office, Rice’s appearance dealt her political ambitions a fatal blow.
This is not to say that Rice’s performance was the complete disaster that her bitterest critics imagined. The national security adviser stayed on message, remained reasonably composed and delivered her talking points about as ably as a deputy press secretary. Admittedly, she seemed brittle and ill-prepared when questioned by Democrats Bob Kerrey and Tim Roemer. She filibustered when it would have been better to be frank. And she did not inspire confidence in her abilities with the complaint that, while she had been warned about the presence of terrorist sleeper cells in the United States, she had not been told how to deal with them. But Republican commissioners, especially former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson, eased the tension by tossing Rice enough softball questions so that she could appear to be in only slightly over her head.
Unfortunately for Rice, however, her testimony will be remembered for a single exchange.
Commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste asked Rice if she could recall the title of President Bush’s daily briefing document for August 6, 2001, which crossed her desk more than a month before operatives associated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Queda network attacked the world Trade Center and the Pentagon. After several inept attempts to avoid the question, Rice finally answered, “I believe the title was, ‘Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.”
Rice knew she was in trouble; she claimed immediately that the August 6 briefing paper was a speculative document, not a real warning. The administration’s defenders then spent the rest of the day trying to convince Americans that they had not heard what they had, in fact, heard. But, as 9/11 widow Lorie Van Auken correctly noted after the title was revealed, “That pretty much says it all.”
What it says, above all, is that Condoleezza Rice will forever be remembered as the national security adviser who knew bin Laden was determined to attack inside the United States but who, by all indications, felt no great sense of urgency about that threat. On “The Daily Show,” host John Stewart simply played the tape of Rice’s response to Ben-Veniste’s inquiry. It got the best laugh of the night.
Fair or not, the impression that Rice created on Thursday will spell the end of her political prospects. She will never win a place on a national Republican ticket as a candidate for president or vice president. No matter how much Republican operatives may try to spin her back onto the short list, it is simply impossible to imagine that Rice, or anyone else, could survive the repeated airings of that exchange in an election year.
Because Rice has always been a political player, as opposed to a genuine security analyst or strategist, this is the dramatic news from her appearance before the 9/11 commission.
Remember, as recently as late February, political reporters and strategists were buzzing about the prospect that Rice would end up on a 2004 or 2008 GOP ticket. In late February, when rumors swirled that Vice President Dick Cheney might be dumped from Bush’s ticket this year, the National Journal mentioned two possible replacements: former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rice. The Reuters news service sent the story of the Rice-replaces-Cheney speculation around the world. Former presidential adviser Dick Morris announced that Rice was one of only two Republicans who could win the presidency in 2008 — the other being Secretary of State Colin Powell. Conservative activists launched a “Bush-Rice ’04” website at www.bushrice04.org, and declared, “our mission is to convince President Bush that his best chance at reelection, and the Republican party’s best chance for victory in 2008, is to choose Condoleezza Rice as his running mate in the 2004 presidential election.”
The Bush/Rice website will keep campaigning to make the national security adviser the Republican nominee for vice president. In low-level Republican circles, Rice will continue to be portrayed as vice presidential or presidential timber, just as some of the faithful continue to imagine that former Florida Secretary of State Katharine Harris will someday be a U.S. Senator.
But it is a fool’s mission now.
Condoleezza Rice is not finished as a Bush administration insider. But she is, unquestionably, finished as a candidate for vice president or president.