Interviews June 2007

Travels With Condi

David Samuels, author of "Grand Illusions," discusses his travels with Condoleezza Rice and her ambitious efforts to secure peace in the Middle East
Also see:

Statecraft and Stagecraft
Author David Samuels interviews former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, and George Schultz.

When the Secretary of State strides into a room, light bulbs flash and digital recorders slide in her direction. She speaks with an air of measured calm, holding her shoulders erect, anchoring her message in familiar notions of democracy and freedom. But behind Condoleezza Rice’s carefully controlled exterior is a vibrant character with a personal flair the State Department hasn’t seen in decades. As David Samuels relays in his June 2007 profile “Grand Illusions”:

Rice works out regularly with a trainer, has dated NFL All-Pro receivers Rick Upchurch and Gene Washington, is a talented classical pianist, and wears sophisticated clothes that show off her long, athletic legs, facts that may seem trivial, but actually provide valuable clues to an underlying truth about the secretary of state: She is an extreme personality.

Even more striking than her lemon-meringue-colored suits or her taste for professional athletes is Rice’s bold optimism about the world’s future. Her colleagues call her outlook “the theology,” alluding to her unshakable faith that history is moving in a progressive direction. Centuries of bloodshed in the Middle East have not deterred her from promoting free elections in Palestine; years of setbacks in Iraq have done little to cloud her dream of a post-Saddam democracy. When pressed to justify her rosy worldview, she seeks precedents in history. “Not that long ago,” she tells Samuel,” say 1944, or maybe even 1946, would anybody have said that France and Germany would never go to war again? Anyone?”

More often than World War II, Rice cites the Cold War when defending her political views. From 1989 to 1991—the pivotal period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the U.S.S.R.—she oversaw Soviet and East European Affairs for the National Security Council. Later, when she returned to her teaching post at Stanford University, she remained a sought-after expert on Europe’s newly emerging democracies. Today, when Rice speaks of the Iraq War, she tends to frame it as the latest chapter in America’s ongoing story of triumph over oppression, with Islamic extremism filling the role Communism once played. In this, she departs from her predecessor, Colin Powell, who views extreme Muslim factions as a discordant threat rather than a monolithic enemy. Her philosophy also contrasts with that of Henry Kissinger, who does not see history as an upward arc and would opt for a far more gradual transition from dictatorship to democracy in Middle Eastern societies.

Despite these ideological differences with former Secretaries of State, Rice emerges from Samuels’s portrait as a sophisticated thinker who embodies many of the values Americans hold dear: faith, discipline, racial and gender equality, and a diverse palette of personal interests. She is loyal to the president but able to command respect in arenas where he does not. Her ideas are optimistic but they are not simple-minded; her press-perfect sound bites are informed by centuries of world history. In the end, though, Samuels worries that Rice’s lofty vision of an unfolding global drama—with America in the spotlight and time on our side—is “yet another illusion, whose price is likely to be high.”

Samuels has written two previous pieces for The Atlantic, including a recent story on Japanese suicide and a September 2005 profile of Yasir Arafat. We spoke in early April.

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

In reporting this story, you were invited to attend certain elite press events in Jerusalem and Ramallah. You also met with Rice in her private study. How did you get this special access?

Well, I don’t want to give away any of my super-secret reporter’s tricks for insinuating myself into situations where I don’t belong. But I will say that most of what I do involves writing letters and making phone calls and writing more letters and following those letters up with more phone calls and e-mails, until someone finally takes pity on me. I find that reporting generally consists of continuing to ask questions and bother people and not being embarrassed by the fact that no one really wants you around. If you go on bothering people long enough, it often becomes easier for them to talk to you once and get it over with then it does to keep saying no. Saying that you are reporting for The Atlantic Monthly doesn’t hurt, either. 

Also see:

Interviews: "A Conversation With George Schultz"
George Schultz speaks with author David Samuels about American diplomacy in the Middle East, the Cold War, the global spread of market capitalism, and his relationship with Condoleezza Rice.

In this particular case, I submitted a request for an interview with Rice at the beginning of last year, and no one called me back for months. I finally interviewed her for the first time in her study in August, and then it took another half-year of waiting around and showing up at the UN in September and flying out to California to interview [former Secretary of State] George Schultz until someone became convinced that I was actually writing a piece.

Then I convinced them that I was going to show up in Jerusalem in February, at which point they decided it would be a good idea to be nice to me. Once I had spent all that time with Rice, I think it seemed silly not to give me a second interview so I could update my quotes from the first interview. So we met one more time in her study. Before that happened, I think I traveled back and forth to Washington five times, because the interview kept getting canceled. Each time it got canceled, I got to interview another one of her aides in depth, as a consolation prize. So we’re talking about a process from start to finish that took about a year. 

Your article offers an unusual meta-perspective on the relationship between the politicians and the press. Instead of making your role transparent as most journalists do, you spend a lot of this piece describing what it’s like to sit for hours waiting for the Secretary of State to appear and leave with nothing but staged photos and tired old sound bites. What made you decide to report on the actual process of reporting?

I tend to concentrate on the little details of how the Secretary of State uses her hands when she speaks to reporters, or the way the flags are set up, or the way the photographers charge into a room to get the one iconic shot of three politicians holding hands, because those are the things that I actually see in front of me, and that you would see if you were in my shoes. I’m a great believer in the idea that if you put enough pressure on the little details that most reporters take for granted, they will reveal the inner meaning of events that all the self-important blather from politicians and reporters alike tends to obscure. 

In general, I think it’s fair to say that reporters pretend to know a lot more than they do and spend most of their time advancing story lines that are created by politicians, or editors, or by some vague consensus of what right-thinking people have decided is the right way to frame a certain question. This is not because reporters are lazy or stupid, although some of us are. As a reporter working a beat, you have very little time to stop and think big-picture thoughts about whether the story lines that everyone uses every day actually explain what you see in front of you. You have other things on your mind. You need to get into the press conference, call your sources, get your quotes, write your lede, talk to the guy on the desk, and get your story in by 6 pm or else you’ll be shut out of the paper. It’s impossible to get up every morning and re-invent the wheel. 

I should also say that there are some very bright and very talented reporters who cover the Secretary of State, and who know her much better than I do. I found that the most informative and insightful stuff about Rice came from Glenn Kessler, who covers the State Department for the Washington Post. I owe a number of key insights about Rice to Glenn, who pointed me to sources and people that I would have never found on my own. Glenn has a book about Rice called The Confidante which is coming out in September, and which contains all the real inside dope that he wouldn’t give to me. 

You make several references to Rice’s belief in the primacy of “underlying historical forces.” Could you explain what this means to Rice and how it influences her Middle East philosophy?

The fact that Rice comes from a serious academic background means that she sees the world, to some degree at least, the way an academic would, and not the way an oil lawyer from Houston might, for example. Most academics these days would be aghast if you told them that Joseph Stalin alone was responsible for the Soviet Union turning out the way it did, or that Napoleon conquered Europe because he was a genius. Instead, they would explain all the ideological and social and historical factors that led to Stalin playing the role that he did, which should properly be understood against the background of five hundred years of Russian history. By the time they were done explaining, you’d probably come to the conclusion that history is much bigger than any one man.

When Rice talks about “underlying historical forces,” what she means is that the decisions that we make in the present, and the conditions that in turn shape our decisions, are themselves the products of much deeper historical currents, which emerge from the deepest wellsprings of a people’s history and culture. What this means is that our decisions don’t matter as much as we like to think they do, and that it often takes a long time to truly know whether our decisions are right or wrong.

I’d have to say that I am very sympathetic to the way Rice thinks, especially when you start to look hard at the alternatives. For example, there are plenty of people who overstate the case about how the Bush Administration was rude to our allies in Europe, which made them hate us, or how easy it would be to wake up tomorrow and convince the Iranians that they don’t want nuclear weapons, simply by saying that we want to be friends. For people who believe that history isn’t very important, it is easy to see major shifts in the temperature of the world, or the way people understand the world, as passing whims that a clever dealmaker can erase tomorrow. I think that Rice rightly believes that point of view is nonsense. It’s hopelessly condescending to people whose histories and ideas and desires might clash violently with ours, and who actually believe that they will win. I’d be very worried right now if the Secretary of State believed that the only things standing between us and a deal with Iran were good manners or wearing a colorful headscarf when she visited the Middle East.

At the same time, there is also something quite alarming about the idea of a chief diplomat who, deep down, believes that diplomacy is nonsense, or, more accurately, a way of managing a flow of events that is largely beyond the control of human actors. The danger of the historical perspective is that you stop paying attention to the details, because in the end the grand sweep of history will take care of the details. Your job is simply to set big events in motion and then manage the visuals. And I think that attitude is very dangerous, and I do think that is something we have seen repeatedly from this Administration.

You mention that Rice, like the president, is a regular churchgoer. This is not uncommon in high levels of American government—even Clinton and Gore were religious Christians—but in Rice’s case, you seem to feel that her tendency toward religious faith is directly related to her “view of life and optimism and larger forces.” Can you discuss this a bit more?

As a person who participates in regular religious observance, and who believes in one God, a God who truly loves mankind but suffers from some very notable lapses of attention, I do think that religious people have access to a kind of optimism, a faith in the future, that secular people do not fully understand. That’s why, for example, religious people have more children on average than secular people do. It’s also why religious people are sometimes capable of subordinating their happiness in the moment to the demands of their faith, and why religious people are capable of sacrificing for their faith in ways that secular people find completely horrifying or misguided. 

It would be entirely presumptuous of me to comment on Condoleezza Rice’s religious life after interviewing her twice in her study and watching her at a handful of public events. But I do feel that the idea that history has a purpose, and that it is moving in a particular direction, fits easily with accustomed ways of thinking for many religious people, and is hard for many secular people to understand. The gift of this kind of optimism is that it allows you to truly believe that things can change, and to act on those beliefs, despite the fact that everyone around you insists that you are wrong. And sometimes things do change. 

The danger of that, of course, is that history may not be moving in any particular direction. We may simply be caught on a wheel of pain, the way that the Buddhists imagine. 

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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