News & Politics

Being Condi

She has style, power, and proximity to the President. As her days get tougher, she looks to passions outside of politics to sustain her.

Condoleezza Rice had been looking forward to this night for weeks. It was three days before her 52nd birthday, on a Saturday this past November, and she was taking 11 of her friends to the Kennedy Center to watch Yo-Yo Ma perform with the National Symphony Orchestra. On this night she would not have to think about Iraq or North Korea.

At around 7, she answered the door to her Watergate apartment and found her childhood friend Mary Bush. “Ah, good,” Rice said, smiling, “you’re here just in time to help me accessorize.” Bush, an international-finance consultant who lives in Chevy Chase, made a fuss over Rice’s sexy black Oscar de la Renta dress with the fire-engine-red design along the bottom.

Rice held up three pairs of earrings and asked Bush’s opinion. They chose a set of ornate gold-and-diamond clusters. “No necklace,” Bush suggested. “Leave the neckline simple.”

Rice put on a shawl, then posed without a shawl. She was trying to decide if she should wear one of her gold bracelets. She slipped one on.

Rice’s driver took them across the street to the Kennedy Center—a trip she typically makes by car for security reasons—and the women headed to the president’s box to find their friends, including national-security adviser Steve Hadley, NBC4 anchor Barbara Harrison, the Kuwaiti ambassador, and members of the chamber group Rice plays with. Rice listened to Ma’s performance as she would a national-security briefing—analyzing every note.

At intermission, the 12 went into a private room where there was a baby grand piano and a cello. They sipped Champagne and ate strawberries and birthday cake. Yo-Yo Ma joined in, helping to sing “Happy birthday, dear Condi.” The pair had remained friends after playing a duet 3½ years earlier at Constitution Hall.

When it was time for the second half of the performance, Rice told her friends to go back to the box without her. She sat down at the baby grand. Ma, who wasn’t playing in the second half of the evening, picked up his cello. The two played the music of Johannes Brahms, Rice’s favorite composer.

At dinner afterward at the Kuwaiti Embassy, Rice talked almost entirely about music, about Brahms and compositions so complex they transport her. “When I play,” she once said, “my mind can’t do anything else.”

At the start of her third year as secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice remains one of the world’s most powerful women. Her close friendship with the President has given her the potential to be one of the most influential secretaries of State in decades.

As a woman who rose to the top in the largely male world of foreign affairs and national security, her personal life—most of it shielded by armored car, presidential boxes, special entrances, and a guarded manner—has been watched as closely as her diplomatic moves.

A mix of glamour and seriousness, her looks, demeanor, and range of interests—from football to fashion—have been a source of stories both at home and abroad.

She made headlines when she donned a pair of high black boots as she greeted troops in Germany in 2005 and when cameras caught a flirty exchange she shared with Canadian foreign minister Peter MacKay last September. She inspired hordes of women in Spain to copy the “Condi flip” when she visited there in 2005. In a recent episode of the NBC sitcom 30 Rock, Alec Baldwin’s character is dating Condi Rice.

President Bush has called her “Martha Stewart with access to nuclear codes.” She’s sharp and poised. She’s always on message. But those traits also have made her seem robotic and cold.

Former secretary of State George Shultz says most people don’t see the real Rice, the one who invites staffers to her home for holidays if they have no place else to go. But she has rarely let down her guard. “I’ll listen to the news and pick up the phone to call her,” says her cousin Lativia Ray-Alston. “I’ll say, ‘How you doing, kid? You hanging in there?’ In true Condi fashion, she’ll say she’s fine. She’ll tell me, ‘I’ll make it through this.’ ”

As her stature has grown in Washington, so too has criticism, most of it over her role in the prosecution of the war in Iraq. Former weapons inspector David Kay has said that she was “probably the worst national-security adviser in modern times since the office was created.”

In January, the morning after the President announced a US troop surge in Iraq, she took a relentless beating by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republicans included. She faced it with a stern expression and seemed to be working hard to maintain her cool. But the hostile confrontation seemed to signal a new day for Rice in Washington, a dimming of her star power, a shift from adulation to gloves-off criticism.

As a woman more and more under fire, she appears to sustain herself by both holding on to her reserved manner and drawing on her passions in life—hobbies such as music as well as the people close to her, a tight group of friends and family who have always been there for her.

Her family made her who she is today, instilling in her extraordinary drive and confidence. “When you have your first standing ovation at age three,” says cousin Connie Rice, referring to Condoleezza’s early piano playing, “you just expect to have more.”

Rice still turns to her family. After she arrived at an underground bunker on September 11, 2001, she immediately called her aunt Connie and uncle Alto Ray in Birmingham.

The organ bench sat empty at Westminster Presbyterian Church on the morning of November 14, 1954. According to a biographer, Angelena Rice, who typically played hymns on Sundays, was in labor. While she lay in a segregated Birmingham hospital, her husband, John, a second-generation minister, delivered Sunday’s sermon. The baby was their first, and John was hoping for a boy—though he wasn’t disappointed when he found out it was a girl.

Angelena named their child after the Italian phrase con dolcezza, a musical notation meaning “with sweetness”—and brought her home to the parsonage where they lived. They’d later move several blocks away to a modest brick ranch house that the church built in a newly developed middle-class black neighborhood called Titusville.

Angelena taught science and music. She’d perform arias at school to expose children to the arts. While ministering, John worked as an athletic coach and later a guidance counselor. “He was the town sage,” says Connie Rice, a civil-rights attorney in Los Angeles. John was holding tutoring sessions and college fairs at his church during a time when “few blacks thought about going to college,” says Rice’s aunt Connie Ray.

While her parents were at work, Condi would stay across town with grandmother Mattie Ray, who taught piano lessons. The little girl would bang on the keys, so her grandmother decided to teach the three-year-old how to play. “I could read music before I could read,” Rice has said.

She began performing “concerts” for family members. She loved playing hymns, in particular “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Angelena would say, “That is the most beautiful music ever played in this room.”

Rice’s parents sensed their daughter was precocious, so they arranged for an IQ test. When they returned home, says one biographer, Angelena told her family, “I knew my baby was a genius!”

Rice wasn’t yet five when Angelena tried to enroll her in kindergarten. When the school refused, she took a year off from work to home-school her. According to biographers, she created a rigorous schedule that included studies all morning, a break for lunch, and more studies in the afternoon. Rice seemed more mature than other kids. “You know how some children like to be around old folks?” says her aunt. “She was like that.”

When she started school, Rice was so ahead of her classmates that she’d tutor them. Her mother believed the textbooks the white schools passed down to the black schools were outdated. So she bought the most challenging textbooks of the time for her daughter’s class. Rice sped through those, too.

Everything Rice did was given attention and encouragement. As an only child, she had a playroom filled with toys, including black and white dolls. Her father read her the news and discussed world events with her.

Instead of going out to play, Rice would practice the piano. Says Connie Ray: “The message always was, ‘Work three times harder than everyone else.’ And Condi did.”

When her parents took her to Washington for the first time at age seven, she peered through the White House fence and, as the story goes, told her dad: “I’m going to work there one day.”

Birminghami n the 1960s was called “Bombing­ham.” Police commissioner Bull Connor was using police dogs and fire hoses on civil-rights marchers. Still, Rice grew up in what Mary Bush calls a “microcosm of idyllic America.” Her parents and many others in Titusville created a protective cocoon for their children.

When the schools emptied so students could join the marches, Rice’s parents picked her up and brought her home. She’d go to ballet lessons and practice French and the piano. Parents in Titusville kept their children “so programmed and so busy that they weren’t looking up and out,” says Connie Rice.

Rice’s parents didn’t march. John Rice would tell kids in his youth group to fight oppression quietly by getting an education. “Things will not always be this way,” he’d say. He’d encourage them to think about what they’d do next.

But he couldn’t keep hatred from landing in their backyard. Rice has said she remembers feeling the floor shake at her father’s church when a bomb went off a few miles away at 16th Street Baptist Church, killing her classmate Denise McNair and three others. After that, her father often sat with a shotgun in front of the house in case members of the Ku Klux Klan came by.

John and Angelena were proud people. Rather than drink from a “colored-only” water fountain, they’d wait until they were home. They separated themselves mentally from the Jim Crow laws, seeing themselves as just as educated as whites—they both had college degrees—and just as deserving.

They were the descendants of slave­owners as well as slaves; their ancestors were the children of a white plantation owner and a slave. Those children were given positions in the house rather than the fields, so they had access to books and could read. This helped them advance faster—a source of pride for Rice’s parents. John Rice would tell stories of Condi’s grandfather, John Wesley Rice, who saved money from picking cotton so he could attend college—a story Condi loved and repeated.

“Condi was like a sponge,” says her aunt Connie Ray. “She just soaked her parents right up.”

Their pride kept them from being intimidated by anyone, even at a time when speaking out could get a black man hanged. John Rice nearly ripped the beard off a store Santa Claus who sat the white children on his lap and not the black children. Santa must have sensed John Rice’s agitation because he put the young Condi on his knee.

Angelena wanted her daughter dressed in the finest clothes, so she shopped in the best stores in Mountain Brook, a white neighborhood nearby. Supermarkets in the black part of town carried weeks-old produce, so she bought groceries in the white neighborhood. She was always dressed beautifully and carried herself with an air of dignity. Whites generally left her alone, says Connie Ray, assuming that she was shopping for an employer.

A Washington Post profile reported that Rice and her mother were looking at hats in a department store once when the child picked one up. “Get your hands off that,” the white salesclerk said. Angelena angrily told the saleswoman not to talk to her daughter that way, then told Condi she could try on any hat she wished.

“Condi has always been so sure of herself,” says Connie Ray, “because that’s the way her mother taught her to be.”

The Rice family left Birmingham when Condi was 11. Her father got a job as an administrator at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and later at the University of Denver, where they’d remain through Rice’s teenage years.

Her parents enrolled her in St. Mary’s Academy, a Catholic school in Denver with only a few minority students. In a meeting with one of the school’s guidance counselors, Rice was told she wasn’t “college material.” According to her cousin Lativia Ray-Alston, her father angrily told Rice: “She absolutely does not have a clue of the stock you are made of.”

Rice thrived in spite of the comment. Biographers say she earned straight A’s and kept a packed schedule. She began figure skating. She’d get up at 4:30, be at the rink by 5. She’d go to school. Then practice piano, go back to the rink at night, and more piano when she returned home.

Rice’s busy world was disrupted at age 15 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Angelena didn’t believe in keeping her daughter in the dark. She told Condi everything—what was wrong with her, what surgery she’d need, that the doctors said she’d be okay. But privately, Angelena told her younger sister, Genoa, that if anything were to happen to her, “I need you to always be there for Condi and to take care of her.”

Rice dealt with her mother’s illness “from the 50,000-foot level,” says cousin Lativia, noting Rice’s emotional distance from her mother’s illness. She reassured her cousins that her mother would be fine and kept up her busy schedule. Her grades didn’t waver. Angelena lived another 15 years, but decades later Rice told a reporter that in those years she feared her mother’s death “in the abstract every waking day.”

Rice graduated early from high school and at 15 enrolled in classes at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. She was exposed to other first-rate musicians—and their skills made her question her own abilities.

“I went to one of those Aspen Music Festival summer programs,” she once said, “and I met 11-year-olds who could play from sight what had taken me all year to learn, and I thought, ‘I’m maybe going to end up playing piano bar or playing at Nordstrom, but I’m not going to end up playing Carnegie Hall.’ ”

Rice announced to her parents that she was changing her major to political science. According to an article in Christianity Today, her father looked at her and said, “Condoleezza! Black people don’t make money in political science.”

“Music either,” Rice told him.

She enrolled in a class about international politics taught by former Czech diplomat Josef Korbel, father of future secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Rice has said that the subject stirred something inside of her and she “fell in love” with Russian language and culture. Later, she’d earn a PhD and name her car “Misha” after Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1981, she was awarded a fellowship at what is now Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, the first African-American to receive one. That same year, at 26, she was named an assistant professor of political science. She was the only African-American woman on staff. “She always projected an element of confidence beyond her years,” says a former colleague. “And she got noticed because of it.”

Rice was 30 years old and already a popular professor at Stanford when her mother died in 1985. She grieved deeply but relied on her faith to carry her through, reminding herself that her mother would always be watching over her. She worried about her father, who was living alone in Denver. She convinced him to join her in Palo Alto, and he got a job at Stanford working as a liaison to area public schools. Later, Rice would exhume her mother’s body and move her to a cemetery in Palo Alto. California was home for John Rice and his daughter.

Rice was always trying to set her father up, but he met Clara Bailey, 18 years his junior, on his own. She was a principal, and he came to visit her school. At the time, he’d blast jazz in his apartment “to drown out his thoughts” about Angelena. Clara would stay on the phone with him to keep him company, and they’d sing hymns. “Condi knew he needed someone,” says Clara Bailey Rice. “She’d call him every day, and she’d see him every day.”

John was equally protective of his daughter. He couldn’t sleep until she called him at night to tell him she was okay. Sometimes he’d park in front of her house and wait for her car to pull up. One night, he set her condo alarm off trying to get in. Rice came out in her pajamas. “Daddy!” she yelled.

Every Sunday during football season, Rice would go to her father’s house to watch the games. She had grown up watching football with her dad—he’d schooled her in the sport—and she enjoyed it.

As a little girl, she told her parents that she was going to marry a football player. At Stanford, she opened many political-science classes with a football analogy. She dated former San Francisco 49er Gene Washington. She’d even work out with the Stanford University football team, whose wins put her in a great mood, say former colleagues.

Some years later, Paul Brest, then dean of the Stanford University Law School, hosted a fundraiser with an executive of the 49ers. Brest didn’t know a thing about football. “I’m not going to let you embarrass the university,” Rice told him. She took Brest and his wife to a game and sat between them, explaining every play.

“Football is like war,” Rice told them. “It’s about taking territory.”

The confident young Stanford professor caught the attention of former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who met Rice at a dinner at the university in the late ’80s. He’s famously remarked that he noticed “this young slip of a girl” asking intelligent questions about international law. They kept in touch. And when Scowcroft was named national-security adviser by incoming president George H.W. Bush in 1988, he asked Rice to join him in the West Wing as an adviser on the Soviet Union.

Says a colleague at Stanford: “Condi was never someone who tried to trace a path to Washington. She just ended up there.”

Rice returned to Stanford after two years at the White House. She was brimming with excitement. Being in government during the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet bloc was thrilling for the Sovietologist. “I’ve been to Europe 30 times or so now, and I’ve never paid my own way,” she told a reporter in 1993.

She’d made lots of friends in Washington; power broker Vernon Jordan and his wife, Ann, gave her a going-away party. “We had more Republicans in our home that night than we had in a very long time,” says Jordan.

Back at Stanford, colleagues asked Rice for an insider’s view of Washington. One professor remembers a lunch in honor of her return where Rice talked about what she’d learned. “You don’t have time to build up any intellectual capital,” she told the group of scholars, borrowing a thought from Henry Kissinger. “You go to Washington with whatever knowledge you have, and then you burn it down.” She added: “The problem is that sometimes people stay beyond the time that they have any intellectual capital left.”

Even though she hadn’t had much managerial responsibility, she was named provost at age 38.

Because the university president who chose her, Gerhard Casper, didn’t like to hear what he was doing wrong, “she became a lightning rod for criticism,” says a colleague. She was often seen on campus defending his decisions—a skill she’d use years later as President George W. Bush’s defender in Washington.

Some didn’t like her style. “I don’t do meetings,” she told a colleague. She was blunt, intimidating—and too conservative for many.

George Barth, a piano teacher in Stanford’s music department, didn’t know what to make of her. He knew she was tough and that she’d ruffled some feathers. So he hesitated when her office called and said she wanted piano lessons.

Barth assumed he’d be teaching an “amateur in an amateur way, where we’d meet once in a while.” They began practicing every Wednesday afternoon and then sometimes two or three times a week. Once she brushed up on her skills, she wanted to take on tough pieces, like Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn”—and she’d work for hours perfecting them.

“When I’d say things she should work on, she’d quietly repeat them, as if that was a storage mechanism she used,” he says.

She never made the same mistake twice. If Barth mentioned a book about classical music, especially Brahms, she’d take the book home and read it.

Rice began playing publicly in a quintet with law-school dean Brest and others. In their first concert, they played a Brahms piece that, says Brest, “is as hard a piano movement as you can imagine.” Toward the end, Rice turned the last page of the music so triumphantly that it fell on the floor. “Luckily, she had it memorized,” says Brest. They finished the performance and took a bow. Says Brest: “You could just see the satisfaction in her face.”

In the summer of 1998, Rice traveled to Kennebunkport to visit the Bush family. The elder Bush wanted Rice to spend time with his son George, who was considering a bid for the White House and needed a foreign-policy tutor. According to biographers, they worked out and talked football. They went fishing. They traded family stories. And by the end of the weekend, Rice had agreed to work with the younger Bush.

John Rice discouraged her—he thought academia was more important than politics. “Just wait,” he’d tell Clara. “She acts stubborn, but she’ll change her mind.” When Rice was named provost, he’d told her she needed to drive something better than her 12-year-old Buick. “Why don’t you get a Mercedes?” he suggested. Rice insisted her Buick was fine, but a month later she pulled up in a black Mercedes E320.

But this time she didn’t listen to her dad. She was excited to work for George W. Bush. There was speculation that if he won the election, she might be appointed Secretary of State or national-security adviser.

Rice spent the year making trips to Texas, helping shape the candidate’s foreign-policy vision. She became part of the “Vulcans,” a group made up of Dick Cheney, Richard Armitage, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and others, who would define Bush’s foreign policy. The team was named after the god of fire, a statue of which stands in Condi’s hometown of Birmingham.

John Rice was being interviewed about his daughter for a profile in George magazine when he collapsed because of a heart arrhythmia. The reporter called Condi, who was driven to her father’s house by her assistant.

John Rice was rushed to the hospital, where he remained on life support for a few days. Condi and Clara took turns sleeping in his hospital room. For the next several months he remained bedridden with strokelike symptoms. Some days he would talk, and some days he wouldn’t. The elder Bush sometimes called to check in with him. They’d become fond of each other.

Clara propped John Rice up in bed to watch television the day President-elect George W. Bush appointed his daughter to the position of national-security adviser. “He just stared,” says Clara. “He didn’t say a word.” Condi asked Clara and her father if they’d move to Washington so she could stay close to him.

John Rice died six days later, on Christmas Eve 2000. Condi was at his side. She began to cry—one of the only times Clara ever saw her shed tears. “Tell Mom that I love her,” she told her father.

When Rice left Palo Alto to move to Washington a month later, she asked Clara to visit her father’s grave often. “Could you put flowers on my mother’s grave, too?” she asked.

The next few years would prove tumultuous. National-security adviser Rice would be criticized for failing to cool the fighting between the State Department and the Pentagon leading up to the Iraq war, for failing to ensure that the administration had an effective postinvasion plan, and for making misleading statements about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

According to Bob Woodward’s State of Denial, Rice nearly turned down the position of Secretary of State when it was offered. She was exhausted from the 2004 campaign and wasn’t sure she was the right fit. “You know, Mr. President, you probably need new people,” she told him. But the President talked about all they could accomplish in the second term. He said he was committed to getting a Palestinian state—one of Rice’s goals. By the end of their weekend visit at Camp David, she’d agreed to take the job in early 2005.

National-security adviser Steve Hadley, her former deputy, says that when she was appointed Secretary of State, the two talked with President Bush about how to stay close. She checks in often with the President by phone and meets with him weekly, sometimes in his residence. “She’s very attuned to the President—what he needs, what his concerns are,” says Hadley.

They’re also close friends. “They’re like two peas in a pod,” says Mary Bush. They spent this past Thanksgiving with their families at Camp David. When the President was criticized about the government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina—some suggesting tinges of racism—Rice was upset. “He’s not like that,” she told colleagues.

They’ve changed together. Rice began her career as a protégé of Brent Scowcroft’s and a believer in his realist position, which reserves the use of American military power for the protection of vital US interests. That changed with the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Today she’s promoting “transformational diplomacy,” a theory that promotes the nation’s role in building democracies abroad.

Says former colleague and foreign-policy expert Michael McFaul: “There is this fundamental question about whether she’s changed her views or the President changed his—and she went along like a good soldier.”

On January 26, 2005, Rice would be sworn in as Secretary of State. Before the ceremony, her cousin Lativia, her aunt Connie and uncle Alto, and her aunt Genoa were buzzing around her condo at the Watergate, the women putting the finishing touches on their hair and makeup. As Rice was about to leave, Lativia looked at her proudly. “Who would have thought a little girl from Birmingham, Alabama?”

“I know,” Rice said.

“Today you’ll make a country proud,” Lativia told her.

Rice’s extended family is small and tight. They’ve remained that way, despite Rice’s schedule. If they call her, no matter where she is or what’s going on in the world, she’ll always call back.

Her aunt Genoa lives in Norfolk and comes to Washington twice a month. Rice bought two condos at the Watergate, one for friends and family when they visit (she has been a paid member of more than half a dozen corporate boards). Her cousin Lativia, who lives in Atlanta, says she and Rice get giddy as their visits draw near. “We’ll call each other constantly and say, ‘Only five weeks left!’ And then, ‘Only four weeks left!’ ” she says.

Everyone in Rice’s family says they enjoy the same things with her—watching movies or staying up late and talking over a bottle of wine. They never bring up politics. Lativia will often arrange private shopping trips at small boutiques to indulge her cousin’s passion for shoes. It isn’t uncommon for Rice to drop $300 to $400 apiece on several pairs of Ferragamo heels.

Her aunt Connie still marvels at her niece’s energy. They’ll get home from shopping, and she and her husband will be too tired to cook. “Condi will go right in the kitchen, put on her apron and say, ‘Let’s get busy. Let’s get it done.’ ” Her aunt says Rice has always been a natural cook. Last year, she prepared the Christmas turkey at Aunt Genoa’s house.

She’s equally close with her stepmother, Clara Bailey Rice. Condi calls her every Sunday night and visits once or twice a year in Palo Alto. When Condi was home recently, Clara threw her a barbecue, inviting friends from Stanford and decorating the backyard in red, white, and blue. Clara told a few friends Condi might come to church with her. That Sunday, a huge crowd had gathered, and everyone was putting their babies in Rice’s arms for a picture.

Clara will watch Condi on TV to see if she’s getting enough sleep or losing too much weight. Rice never tells anyone in her family if she’s going to be on television or in a magazine.

Clara looks forward all year to spending time with Condi. They’ll sit at the kitchen table and reminisce about her father. Clara says she’s tried to pick up with Condi where her father left off. She sends Condi Easter baskets as her dad did and letters and cards telling her how proud she is. She tells her all the good things people are saying about her. Clara hears the bad, too, but she leaves those comments out. “She admired her mother because she thought she was so tough,” says Clara. “Condi’s a strong person, too. Maybe that’s why I feel like she needs someone. Because maybe she’s not always as strong as she appears to be.”

Security concerns have transformed Rice’s life. Before 9/11, she would run down to the Watergate Safeway for groceries or pick up Chinese takeout. She’d drive her own car when visiting Palo Alto.

Today she travels in an armored car. Security agents guard her front door. If she has plans to visit her cousin or aunt, each has to send to her security detail an hourly schedule of what they’ll be doing, down to taking a walk around the block. A lead team comes out to prep for her arrival. “She doesn’t even notice them anymore,” says her stepmother.

Friend Mary Bush wishes she and Rice could be a little more spontaneous at times. “Why don’t we go to Old Town?” Bush said one day. Then she realized it would be tough for the security guys and dropped the idea. They’ll often shop before or after store hours to make it easier.

Bush says that being in public with Rice is like being with the rock star Bono. Young people are constantly asking her for an autograph. When she and Rice go on vacation together, some people ask to play tennis with her—and she usually says yes.

She understands what a big deal it would have been for her to have had a conversation or played tennis with the Secretary of State. So she’s gracious, say friends. “Kindness may not be the currency of Washington,” says former attorney general John Ashcroft, adding, “She’s taught me kindness. Just being involved with her reminds you of the value of it.”

Attention has been focused on her unmarried status. At the contentious hearing on the Iraq war in January, California senator Barbara Boxer created a stir by suggesting Rice might not understand the price being paid by American families because the secretary had no “immediate family” who might be sent to Iraq.

“I thought you could still make good decisions on behalf of the country if you were single and didn’t have children,” Rice told the New York Times the next day.

One friend says Rice dates often. Another says it’s hard for her to meet an intellectual equal. Her stepmother wishes she’d meet someone. Clara has a photograph of a friend of a friend who wants to take her out. “We’ll see about that,” Rice told her recently. “Right now I’m too busy.”

Rice isn’t a fixture on Washington’s party scene. She prefers small gatherings of close friends at her home. She throws a Christmas party every year “that looks like a meeting of the National Security Council,” jokes a friend. Former beau Gene Washington has taken her to several parties. He says people treat her like a movie star. They stare and make a fuss about talking to her. “Condi doesn’t work the room,” he says. “The room works Condi.”

Because security concerns keep Rice from going in the front entrance of hotels, she often goes through the back, which tends to lead through the kitchen. Former adviser Jim Wilkinson says it’s not uncommon for hotel and kitchen workers—many black and Hispanic—to line up to catch a glimpse of her.

“There’s something different about her,” says John Hillen, former assistant secretary for military-political affairs at the State Department. When Hillen has met with foreign dignitaries abroad, they’ve been inquisitive about her. “There’s no reserved ‘Send my regards,’ ” he says. “They’ll lean forward, eyebrows go up, and eyes are twinkling.” They want to know how she’s doing, if she has a boyfriend, if she’s going to run for president. “It’s made my job easier,” says Hillen. “It’s a great icebreaker to talk about her.”

She can be equally unpopular. One adjunct instructor resigned when she was selected to speak at Boston College’s commencement last spring. Some of her travels abroad have been met with angry protests. When Hurricane Katrina hit, she was on vacation in New York. She was criticized for shopping for shoes during the nation’s greatest natural disaster. When she took her seat at Broadway’s Spamalot that week, the crowd booed.

To get to Rice’s office at the State Department, you take the elevator up to the seventh floor, lock your cell phone and any other electronic device in a safe, and walk past two armed men guarding what look like doors to a bank vault. After passing through the light-blue Treaty Room—often used for ceremonies—you follow a hallway whose red carpet stretches to the opposite end of the building. Its walls are lined with portraits of former secretaries of State.

Rice rarely walks this hall to get to her office. She has a personal elevator that opens at her suite. Here her security detail keeps its eyes on about two dozen TV monitors.

The secretary’s office is small. There are mauve high-back chairs positioned around a coffee table. At her brown Federal-style desk she can look out the window at the Potomac River or gaze at a portrait of George Marshall. She wanted the painting in her view, says chief of staff Brian Gunderson. Marshall’s decisions after World War II shaped today’s world, and she believes that the Bush administration’s post-9/11 decisions will shape tomorrow’s.

In her bookcase, she has a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, volumes about foreign policy, a biography of Laura Bush, and a book about her favorite football team, the Cleveland Browns, among others. She has two photographs—one of herself standing between Tony Blair and Bush. In the other, she’s posing with all of the living former secretaries of State.

There are several footballs and a couple Cleveland Browns helmets next to things like a glass-enclosed Torah, a gift from former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, and a small piece of marble signed in black magic marker amz 6-7-06—a piece of rubble from the house where US forces found terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi. On the credenza is an issue of Vogue and a small standing mirror. In her bathroom, she keeps a hot-iron hair straightener.

Staffers say she spends little time at her desk. She doesn’t use e-mail; she thinks it can be misinterpreted. Sometimes her assistant will schedule time for “reading,” but not much—she’s a speed reader. In meetings, she’ll be on page three while everyone else is on page one, says a colleague.

Rice is usually up and on her elliptical machine at 4:30 am. If she meets with her trainer, he’ll have her doing agility drills like those done by football players. “She wants to be pushed physically,” says trainer Tommy Tomlo, who comes to the State Department’s gym or to Rice’s home. “She’ll get off a 16-hour flight and want me to meet her at the gym.” She reads six newspapers every morning, says Gunderson. “It’s rare to mention an article that she hasn’t read.” Then she’ll start making international calls to different time zones.

She gets to the office by 6:30. Colleagues say she’s always dressed impeccably. Vanity Fair put her on its best-dressed list this year. “She’s steered clear of that cliché, patriotic color palette,” says Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan. “She’s not going to leave her femininity or sense of style in a closet because of what she does.” She often wears designer suits by Akris—a label Givhan calls the new Armani—that tend to be cut along feminine rather than boxy lines. She’s comfortable being sexy. When the British ambassador threw her a surprise 50th-birthday party, she slinked down the stairs in a red, strapless, floor-length gown and kept her shoulders bare the entire night.

For someone who once shunned meetings, Rice’s days are full of them, often booked in 15- to 20-minute increments until 7 at night. “She doesn’t like idle time,” says deputy chief of staff Ruth Elliott, who’s worked for Rice for 12 years. “Her days are booked down to the minute.”

To keep herself going, she eats healthy meals, downs power bars, and drinks lots of water. Her trainer calls her a “bad girl” if she eats a cinnamon-raisin bagel. If she’s on foreign travel, her staff will request her meals be light. “I think she worries about getting cancer,” says a friend. “That’s why she takes care of herself so much.”

At night, Rice often meets friends for dinner at Aquarelle in the Watergate or Cafe Milano. She’ll meet up with people like mentor Brent Scowcroft (though he’s been a Bush-administration critic), Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, friends visiting from Stanford, or members of the chamber group she plays with.

Some friends avoid talking about the war or any topic that might point to failings of the Bush administration. They don’t want to make her uncomfortable. Says Vernon Jordan: “There are times when it’s bad manners to talk about certain things.”

Rice recently took up golf. She goes out to Andrews Air Force Base for lessons. After former student Kiron Skinner asked her where she finds the time, Rice replied: “Sundays.”

She squeezes a lot into that day.

She goes to church at National Presbyterian and plays piano with her chamber group. She’ll invite friends over to watch football or spend time with family or shop. “What’s so attractive about Condi,” says onetime beau Gene Washington, “is that she really hasn’t changed.”

She goes out of her way for people, friends and colleagues say. She once played a concert at the Kennedy Center with the granddaughter of California representative Tom Lantos, a 21-year-old opera singer who suffered from a serious pulmonary disease, to shed light on the young woman’s illness.

When a member of her staff saw a car accident that resulted in a woman’s death, Rice sat with him for hours and talked about the power of prayer and why bad things happen to good people.

The Secretary of State gets more than 800 e-mails and 500 letters a week. Some are from detractors, but the bulk are from children.

“Dear Ms. Rice, I am 7-years-old. I take piano lessons. I am a straight A student. I am in my choir at church. My nickname is Condoleezza.”

“Dear Ms. Rice, I’m 12 years old. I live in an Indian community that, I’m sorry to say, has a little bit of favoritism toward boys. In life, my goal is to become a lawyer, and make a difference by setting right from wrong, but I face hardships since, as you know, I’m a girl with brown skin.”

Some of the children ask Rice if she plans to run for president. Despite Web sites that attempted to draft her, Rice has told everyone the same thing: She’s not interested. “I’m not a politician,” she has said.

What she will do next is a mystery even to those who know her best. Some assume she’ll return to academia. Others can’t imagine that. Says one colleague: “She’s not just going to step off the world stage.”

But while Washington has been where Rice has lived for the past six years, it is not home. Ask friends what she likes about the city, and they’ll say her job, the Kennedy Center, her chamber group, autumn.

Her heart, they say, is in California. Her parents are buried there. She prefers the West Coast’s temperatures and scenery. Many of her friends are still based at Stanford.

Her stepmother, for one, thinks the draw back west will prove irresistible. When the Secretary of State sees the President through to the end of his term, says Clara Bailey Rice with anticipation, “Condi’s coming home.”

Senior writer Brooke Lea Foster wrote about DC charter schools in the October issue.

Don’t Miss Another Big Story—Get Our Weekend Newsletter

Our most popular stories of the week, sent every Saturday.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.