Lucy Hodges tackles Stanford provost and ex-presidential assistant Condoleezza Rice on power and political correctness and finds her unfazed by both. In the early 1990s Time magazine pinpointed a small group of rising stars in American life. One was Condoleezza Rice, (now) 40, the first black and the first woman to occupy the number two job at Stanford University in California. She was someone to watch, said Time.
The provost's job at Stanford is widely regarded as a stepping-stone to the presidency of a major American university. But another striking aspect of the appointment was that Rice is a paid-up member of the Republican party, having been then President George Bush's special assistant for Soviet affairs, helping to shape US policy when the sun was setting on the Soviet empire.
Stanford, for all its elitist reputation, is a pretty laid-back, roller-blading, Californian kind of place. Some academics were worried that her selection, coming as it did hard on the heels of conservative Gerhard Caspar's appointment to the presidency of Stanford, signalled a shift to the right. What it seems to have brought is relative tranquillity after a period in which Stanford's reputation was tarnished by scandal. The former president, Donald Kennedy, had been claiming a yacht and cut flowers for his mansion, among other things, as expenses incurred in the course of federal government research. Congress began to investigate, Kennedy was grilled and Stanford was left licking its wounds.
Rice is one of the new brooms sweeping through the university's administrative corridors. Not everybody likes her. She has set about cutting services and firing staff to meet a $43 million budget shortfall. Her most controversial act, which led to a hunger strike by Mexican-American students, was to sack a Mexican-American administrator. But Rice remains unfazed by such conflict. While she admits that campus politics in America are "quite something", she says: "I think I tend to just assume that that's part of the job and not to find it actually all that disconcerting. I don't like going through a spring like we went through (in 1993), but I don't find it overwhelming in any sense."
With a little laugh, she adds: "I didn't sleep badly." Which shows how cool she is in the midst of turmoil. But Rice has worked in the White House, in one of the most pressurised jobs in the world. Not too many higher education jobs can be as high-pressure as the one she had from March 1990 to March 1991, when Poland was being liberated, the Soviet Union breaking up and Germany coming together again. She was the only Soviet adviser at the National Security Council. Her job was to advise George Bush, write his briefing papers, take notes of his meetings with people such as Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and jet about the world with him and US secretary of state James Baker.
Later she was one of three people preparing the actual documents for the foreign secretaries to consider at the time of German unification. Between March and September of 1990 she travelled to Germany 12 times. It was a heady and chaotic time. Rice describes it as a "spectacular" experience. The White House staff was very small. "You feel that you're always living at the edge of making some very big mistake," she says, with another endearing laugh. "You get called at two o'clock in the morning to make a snap judgement about what should or should not be done, what should or should not go to the president. That kind of pressure. I don't think I'll ever have a harder job."
The other contrast between a Stanford administrator's life and her job at the White House - and one which helps her to keep a sense of perspective - is the stakes involved. "I can remember going down to talk to Baltic Americans a couple of days after the Soviets stormed the television tower in Lithuania," she says. "And you have people looking at you and saying, you know, the blood of 17 Lithuanians is on the hands of this administration. And that's tough. Standing up in front of a group of students is not tough."
Rice is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Her views are considered, middle-of-the-road, pro-affirmative action, thoughtful on political correctness, the kind of views any Democrat-voting university administrator might articulate. Although chosen to give a speech at the Republican National Convention in 1992, the convention that was hijacked by the Republican Right, her speech, which was on foreign policy, was quite unlike the usual political rant. Washington insiders noticed the carefully worked out positions, the logical argument, the intellectual as opposed to emotional content.
One has to remember that Rice is first and foremost an academic. She would never have got the provost job otherwise. A scholar of Soviet affairs (she was made a full professor a month before her appointment to provost), she has written two books on the Soviet Union. A third, on German unification, is due out later this year.
Rice was born in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, where she was brought up to believe in herself. Her father, a Presbyterian minister and later associate vice chancellor at the University of Denver, and her mother, a high school teacher, were incredibly ambitious for her. "They had me convinced that I might not be able to have a hamburger at Woolworth's in Birmingham, but I could be president of the United States, if I wanted to be, and probably ought to be, from their point of view."
As an only child, Rice had their undivided attention, which was to stand her in good stead. She has a robust attitude towards racism. She tells a story about a counsellor at her Denver high school who underestimated her because of her colour (the counsellor thought Rice was not college material). "I use that as an example of how sometimes people will underestimate others - and that, I think, is the most pernicious form of racism," she says.
No one seems to have underestimated Rice after that. She became an undergraduate at the University of Denver at 15 to major in music, but then switched to international politics, which was taught by a Soviet specialist. He was, according to Rice, "a wonderful man", who had been the Czech ambassador to Yugoslavia and had fled Czechoslovakia at the time of the coup d'etat in 1948. This man was Dr Josef Korbel, father of Madeleine Albright, President Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations.
Rice speaks Russian. Her doctoral thesis was on the Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak army and it became her first book. It is a study in civil-military relations in states that are not completely independent - client states. She looked at how Soviet influence affected the Czech military. That may be ancient history now, but the problems remain. "What I'm really interested in now, for instance, is how you deal with the military in democratising countries, because militaries are a threat to democratic rule in so many countries," she says.
Rice cites Africa and Latin America, in particular, with their repeated coups. People always ask why militaries intervene. But Rice thinks the real question is why they do not intervene more often, and what are the forces that make civilian control of the military stable. The Soviet Union never had to think about it, but today's Russians do.
Is she hopeful about Russia's future? She gives a rehearsed answer. "Well, Russia's a little bit like a critically-ill patient," she says. "You have to get up every day and take the pulse and hope that nothing catastrophic happened the night before, but every day that it lives it's got a chance.
"And I think that they're getting up every day and they're trying to go through the process of building democracy and it's a mixed picture. I think there are some very good signs. The development of a free press is an excellent sign. And it really is a free press now in ways that it hasn't been ever." She favours the "shock" therapy for economic reforms and points out how very hard it has been for Russians to make some reforms, because hardened attitudes have got in the way. Their attitude towards private property, for example, has prevented them making the progress in agriculture which they should have done.
Rice did not become a Republican until 1980, and the switch was due to Jimmy Carter's foreign policy. By then, she was studying Soviet politics. "I thought the Soviet Union was on the march in the 1970s," she says. "And I thought there was little resistance to that, and that President Carter did not fundamentally understand the nature of the Soviet Union." In retrospect Rice believes even more strongly that she was right. "I think that was a horrible and, as President Reagan put it, a 'sad' episode in human history," she says. "And I think that everything that's coming out now about how the Soviet Union conducted its affairs in foreign policy, what it did to its own people, only confirms that."
The way in which Stalin built vast, military cities like Tomsk and Chita, way out in the Soviet hinterland, shows what a monster was created, Rice says. She visited these cities on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1988, three years after Gorbachev came to power. "You would go through these cities and you would hear 'Attention, Attention,' and it was because you were going through a military city. If it was daytime they would put up curtains so you couldn't see anything. They created this monster really. What are people in places that only make rocket motors for inter-continental ballistic missiles supposed to do? What are they supposed to do?" Rice's second book, The Gorbachev Era, written with Alexander Dallin, looked at the problems Gorbachev faced when he came to power. Her third book, about to be published, is a detailed study of the negotiations and diplomacy in 1990 that surrounded German reunification. Entitled Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft, it is co-authored with Philip Zelikow, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy school of government.
The pair had access to all the American documents under a rule that permits former officials to use their own documents. They were required to undergo a clearance process with the US government, but will nevertheless be revealing far more than would be possible in Britain under the 30-year rule.
Rice has seized all the chances that have come her way. She became involved in government through asking Brent Scowcroft (later national security adviser under President Bush) a tough question when he came to dinner at Stanford in 1984. She was 29. He had come to talk about special commissions being set up to look at US nuclear offensive and defensive strategies. Rice said she did not think such commissions were a good idea because they usurped the authority of Congress. Did he not agree? Soon she and Scowcroft were friends. "When President Bush asked him to come to Washington, he called and said, 'I'd really like you to come with me. I need a Soviet specialist'."
Her experience was so extraordinary that she is not sure she wants to go back into government again. Could it be that good a second time? She wonders, but does not rule it out. Rice had been back at Stanford for two years when she was asked to be provost. She had doubts about whether she could give up the excitement of international travel and research at this moment. The doubts are still evident from the tone of her voice. "But I love this university and I thought I had a chance to do something good for it, so I put those concerns aside," she says.
Being provost is a huge management load. One is left wondering whether she finds it sufficiently intellectually demanding. For Rice loves to talk about ideas. Asked about political correctness, for example, she launches into an articulate exposition of the subject. "I think it's one of those phrases that oversimplifies what is a very complicated problem," she says. That is not the kind of response one would hear from most Republicans. "The complicated problem is that this is an increasingly diversifying society, and people are coming into much closer contact with each other than they ever did."
When Rice was growing up, she explains, she and her friends did not have to think about how they talked to other people because they were all black. They did not have friends of other races. But today, particularly on campuses, races are mixing as never before. There is a cacophony of different views and experiences, and people's feelings are easily hurt. In that context it is perfectly proper for people to take account of one another's feelings, she says.
However, it is another matter to say, you cannot make that argument, because it might offend me. "I find that a problem for a university, because bumping up against people who disagree with you is fundamental to the creation of new knowledge. And so universities can't go silent. You can't have a place where it's not permitted to make a certain kind of argument." But you can have a place which forbids epithets to be thrown at people. "I think those two have gotten confused."
Although she is against quotas, Rice is in favour of affirmative action, that is, voluntary action to broaden the pool of people you look at to find people who are first-rate. "Sometimes you have to look places you wouldn't normally look, like the University of Denver," she says archly.
Rice has been asked time and again whether she is an affirmative action appointment, somebody who would not have got where she has without helping hands. "I understand it's a double-edged sword," she says. "I can't tell you how many times I've been asked by people, 'do you think race and gender contributed to your success?' How the heck do I know. I can't repackage myself as a white male and see whether I would have gotten this far."