WASHINGTON — She is immaculately dressed, as always, wearing a gold necklace and a tailored suit in the fashionable color known as "aubergine." And she is relaxed, which is a change from her usual demeanor, as her thoughts turn to life after Jan. 20.
Condoleezza Rice may be the most disciplined person in this town of workaholics. She has always been the perfect young woman, pleasing and impressing others. Her mother Angelena advised her, "Always remember, if you're overdressed, it reflects badly on (other people); if you're underdressed, it reflects badly on you," according to a 2001 interview conducted by the Washington Post's Dale Russakoff. And she has lived by that rule — operating with the steely control that she learned as an ice skater and pianist.
But in a few weeks, Rice will have only herself to please, and that has had a liberating effect. She talks about her past and future as a person with nothing left to prove. She's leaving Washington for real after Inauguration Day, and will return to Stanford University. If Meet the Press calls, she won't be in. "I have no desire to be shadow secretary of state," she told me.
In her desire for a real leave-taking, Rice reminds me of Dean Rusk, another secretary of state who served during a painful and divisive war. Rusk once described to me the immense relief he felt on the day he left office in January 1969: The burdens of the world had come off his shoulders at last, and he could go home to Georgia.
Rice seems to take genuine pleasure in the arrival of Barack Obama as the first African-American president. She was asleep at 11 on election night when his victory was declared — yes, she is that disciplined. But she says of his election: "It is the strongest affirmation to date that America is what it says it is. And it's a reminder that America had to overcome a lot to get there."
Rice has been thinking a lot lately about what her parents had to overcome to create the world in which she could dream such big dreams. They will be the subject of one of the two books she plans to write after she leaves, describing their role as "education evangelists" in the racially charged world of Birmingham, Ala.
"They believed in the transforming power of education," she says. And on this subject, of education and the American dream, the sometimes maddeningly optimistic Rice voices concern. "If we aren't capable of equipping students for the 21st century, we will turn inward," she says, describing a future America that has lost its unifying myth of mobility and success, and its self-confidence.
Talking about Obama, and what she calls "the continuum of the African-American experience," a smile comes over her face. She remembers how her father befriended the radical activist Stokely Carmichael and invited him to their home — and how people might have attacked her, as they did Obama, for her casual acquaintance with a communist agitator.
She knows that she's a superstar now, someone who will never be able to stroll into a grocery store unnoticed. She plans to apply this star power to education. "I'm an educator who took a detour," she says.
Rice's other book will be about foreign policy. This one may take a bit more time. "It's the kind of period that needs a little distance," she says.
Update on Iran: The Bush administration had once planned to announce the opening of an interest section in Tehran this month. That won't happen now, and the story illustrates the broken connection that is the U.S.-Iranian relationship.
An announcement set for September was delayed because of the Russian invasion of Georgia. But the proposal was back on track until a few weeks ago, when the administration became concerned about Iranian interference in negotiations with Iraq over a status of forces agreement. It seemed the wrong time for an opening to Tehran that Sunni Arab allies warned would be seen as a concession.
So now the issue of U.S.-Iranian relations will be handed over to the Obama administration. "We ran out of time," says one administration official. It's the most frustrating and dangerous bit of unfinished business the new administration will inherit.
David Ignatius' e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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