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A Chance to Erase Doubts, or Raise Them

Times Staff Writer

Rarely has so much seemed to hinge on a single government official stepping into the glare of television lights and raising a right hand before God and country.

But Thursday, when Condoleezza Rice becomes the first national security advisor to journey to Capitol Hill to testify, in public and under oath, she must defend her president and his actions on his most fundamental constitutional duty: protecting the nation’s security.

What is potentially pivotal about Rice’s appearance before the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is that she will testify at a critical moment. Bush has made fighting terrorism the centerpiece of his presidency, and the war in Iraq is the centerpiece of his fight against terrorism. Yet American voters are expressing increasing doubts about his handling of the war as U.S. troops face deadly new attacks.

Rice’s immediate task will be to answer questions about the past, but the larger challenge will be about the future -- whether her performance reassures the public or adds to its unease.

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“It may be one of those moments when we look back and say ‘before’ or ‘after’ Condoleezza Rice’s testimony,” said James Hilty, a specialist in the presidency at Temple University. “She has become the prime defender of the administration’s national security policy.”

While no historical parallel is exact, there have been similar moments. Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, appearing ramrod straight in full uniform before congressional investigators, wrapped President Reagan’s Iran-Contra policies in a mantle of patriotism that critics could not penetrate. During Watergate, on the other hand, the unshakable testimony of White House Counsel John W. Dean III began the unraveling of Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Rice, testifying in public after weeks of resistance by the White House, brings a mixture of assets and liabilities to her task.

In Bush’s words this week: “She’s a very smart, capable person who knows exactly what took place, and will lay out the facts.... I’m looking forward to people hearing her.”

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But others are less confident, at least privately. Many Bush loyalists were dismayed by Rice’s demeanor in recent TV interviews, when she appeared defensive and combative. “She was shrill, and she isn’t normally,” said one former National Security Council colleague. “You could hear the agitation in her voice.”

And the string of decisions and events that led Rice to be called before the panel gave her little choice but to face the issues head-on.

For one thing, at the outset of the new administration, Bush and Rice decided to keep Richard Clarke -- a veteran of the first Bush and the Clinton administrations -- in his job as National Security Council counterterrorism director. Second, in a break with past practice, the president insisted that Clarke report to him exclusively through Rice.

That made Rice solely responsible for what the president learned about appraisals of terrorist threats from Clarke and others in the months before Sept. 11. She was also responsible for coordinating counterterrorism efforts, including ranking its priority relative to other threats and problems.

In testimony to the commission last month, and in a bestselling book published on the eve of his appearance, Clarke argued that the Bush administration responded slowly to his warning that the terrorist threat was urgent. As Clarke’s conduit to the president, that put Rice squarely in the commission’s crosshairs.

As fate would have it, despite Rice’s famous poise and celebrated intellect, there is little in her past that has prepared her for this moment.

Raised in Birmingham, Ala., she is the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who made sure she became everything she could be -- including a concert pianist, a competitive figure skater and a top-flight student.

Rice carried that drive for excellence into her professional life. She started her career as an academic, studying the Soviet Union and its military, and becoming an assistant professor at Stanford University in 1981 at the young age of 26.

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Eight years later, she moved into government, serving the president’s father as senior National Security Council director for Soviet affairs, where she made her reputation as a concise and incisive briefer, someone who could help a busy president cut to the heart of a problem.

But these accomplishments largely have been in solo and insider roles. Seldom has Rice been exposed to the rough-and-tumble of public confrontation.

Her direct style and firm views have sometimes caused her trouble. After leaving the first Bush administration, Rice became provost of Stanford, where she had a tempestuous tenure.

“Condi is not a moral relativist,” said Coit D. Blacker, director of Stanford’s Institute for International Studies and a Rice confidant. “She has very strong views that are informed by a certain kind of religiosity.... She thinks through issues carefully, seeks divine guidance, makes a decision and sticks to it. Other people might call that being stubborn.”

Rice left Stanford in 1999, and signed on as foreign policy advisor to then-presidential candidate George W. Bush. She has been at his side pretty much ever since.

She has testified before Congress twice before, in 1987 and 1988. But on both occasions she appeared as a political scientist sharing her expertise on the Soviet military. The questioning was polite and collegial, not adversarial.

One academic, who asked not to be identified, has known Rice for 20 years and said her self-righteous streak could cause her trouble if commission members challenged her core positions.

“She will be pretty cool under fire. But at the same time, she’s a somewhat rigid person,” he said. “If pressed, she won’t lose her cool, but she is more likely to just repeat her answer in different words than deal with specifics of the question.”

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Under the lights and under oath, Rice’s main objective will be to put to rest the concerns Clarke raised about Bush’s leadership.

Damage-control experts suggest that Rice avoid turning the hearing into a duel with Clarke. Instead, they said, Rice should showcase her integrity.

“This is not a 15-round heavyweight battle,” said Kenneth M. Duberstein, former chief of staff to President Reagan. “This is Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor to the president of the United States. In that way, she can be quite disarming.”

“The tone has to be measured, deliberate, noncombative, but with some passion on the issues [she] cares about,” said David Gergen, who has advised presidents of both parties on damage control. “It’s about defending the president, not discrediting opponents.”

In recent days, Rice has prepared for the testimony by reviewing facts and documents with National Security Council lawyers and participating in a “murder board” -- a mock hearing in which staff members play the roles of commission questioners. She is also under orders to get some rest so that she appears relaxed.

The format of the hearing should help. By prior agreement, Rice’s appearance is to last 2 1/2 hours.

Some insiders expect her to hit the ball out of the park.

“The history is that someone who answers questions for a long, long time in front of the cameras tends to build up a sympathetic audience,” Gergen said. “My guess is that she will be highly successful and beneficial to the president.”

But even if her performance falls short, it is unlikely the Clarke controversy will escalate to Iran-Contra proportions, said Suzanne Garment, whose book “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics” is considered a classic. “There’s a ceiling on this one,” she said, because the questions involve judgments and policy decisions, not misconduct.

All the same, Garment said, Rice also was unlikely to make the public forget what Clarke said. And the political stakes for the president are high even if his handling of the Iraq war does not enter the realm of scandal.

“It’s an election year, and it’s a rich rhetorical target, even if it’s not a classic scandal,” Garment said. For Rice, the best outcome “is she could return it to the realm of ordinary political controversy.”

Times staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this report.


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