Life is not going smoothly for our secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
Her dream job — NFL commissioner — at long last has opened up, and she had to issue a statement that she wasn’t going to go for it. Other pressing business.
On a trip abroad with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, she gave him her bed aboard her plane and slept in the aisle. Did she get credit for her chivalry and thoughtfulness? Nope. People thought it was a little weird.
She and Straw went to Baghdad to try to talk some sense into the leaders there, warning that there must be a unity government and soon. Instead, their visit seemed to rankle everyone, possibly doing more harm than good.
She finally spilled the beans about Iraq, telling reporters that the United States had made “tactical errors, thousands of them, I’m sure.” Her old buddy Don Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, said he didn’t know what she was talking about and suggested that to call inevitable changes in military tactics “errors” implied a lack of understanding about the nature of war.
She went up to Congress to talk about our new best friend, India, and got yelled at for proposing to give the Indians nuclear help although they won’t abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (Incidentally, India’s new best friend is Iran, which is our new best enemy.)
There must be days when Condi yearns for her other dream job, being a concert pianist. You follow the notes, and they lead you to the end.
She must wonder what the future will hold. During the early stages of the war in Iraq, Rumsfeld was treated like a rock star. His briefings at the Pentagon, during which he jousted jocularly with reporters, were watched avidly on TV all over the world. He was lionized. Editors demanded endless stories profiling his singular talents. We knew as much about Rummy’s comings and goings as we knew about Britney’s.
Now, he is all but a pariah on Capitol Hill. Demands for his resignation from both sides of the aisle and within the military establishment are as common as spring dandelions.
Andrew Card, the Oval Office gatekeeper, is gone. Treasury Secretary John Snow’s days are numbered. President Bush’s popularity has plunged. Karl Rove has been tarnished and minimized by the CIA-leak scandal. Vice President Cheney is metaphorically tiptoeing around the White House.
Rice became the administration’s new star. Now there are signs the wheels are coming off that bus. The fevered talk a few months ago about how she was certain to run for the White House in 2008 (despite her persistent denials) has faded.
She is left slogging around the globe trying to sell a foreign policy that few believe in anymore because the turmoil in Iraq is all anyone sees.
This sad state of affairs, inevitably, has become the fate of second-term presidencies. The boss’s people are exhausted from 24/7 weeks. The “vision thing” has become stale. Voters begin to wonder what they saw in the president anyway. Meanwhile, the “lame duck” is fighting like a demon for his legacy even as pundits begin to focus on the next election, the one to replace him. But Bush won’t change course _ that would be admitting he had been wrong.
There is an answer _ a six-year, one-term presidency. The president wouldn’t have to raise money for a second campaign. It would be long enough to get something done.
It’s not, of course, going to happen. And that’s why we’re all watching Condi. Will she be able to prod the Iraqi government into governing, giving it a firm deadline to get its act together? Will she lay the groundwork for reducing the force structure in Iraq and bringing home U.S. soldiers? Will she be able to convince other countries that democratization of Third World countries is not only desirable but also viable? Will she admit that what this administration is trying to do in Iraq is anathema to conservatives _ social engineering?
It’s a lot to put on the slim, if well-toned, shoulders of one woman. And she doesn’t have much time left. But she’s stood up to Rumsfeld. She’s smart. She knows what’s important (not, at the moment, football), and she understands the players and how extremely vital the stakes are.
She may well be Bush’s last, best hope for saving face and going out with grace.
(Scripps Howard News Service columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)