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.”