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Rice nominated as Secretary of State

Claire Heininger | Thursday, November 18, 2004

Her legacy lies ahead in the White House, but Condoleezza Rice’s roots are at Notre Dame.

President Bush’s nominee for the next Secretary of State – who earned her master’s degree from the University, served on the Board of Trustees and received an honorary doctorate when she delivered the commencement address in 1995 – first visited the school at the urging of University President-Emeritus Father Theodore Hesburgh.

Rice, a star pupil at the University of Denver, “was going to look at colleges out east – Harvard, Yale,” Hesburgh said. “So I said, ‘Well, you can’t get there without going by Notre Dame so you’ve got to [come] see us first.'”

Rice obliged, touring the campus with her father – who at the time was the University of Denver’s president – and with Hesburgh, who gladly answered her questions about Notre Dame’s political science and international studies programs.

She never made it out east.

“She said, ‘Daddy we don’t have to go any further – I want to come here,'” Hesburgh said.

Though she graduated in 1975 after a two-year stint of concentration in Russian studies and Soviet affairs – beginning her trajectory to government positions in foreign relations – Rice is still passionate about her Notre Dame ties.

This July, Rice hosted about 30 administrators, donors and trustees in the West Wing office that she occupied for the last four years as the president’s national security advisor, where blue and gold memorabilia is proudly displayed on the walls, said Lou Nanni, vice president for University Relations.

“She’s a huge football fan,” Nanni said, recalling the “candid” Q&A session that ensued, with topics ranging from the war in Iraq to Rice’s biggest surprises in the White House to her personal recollections of Sept. 11, 2001.

“She [is] somebody who just by her persona commands respect,” Nanni said. “Obviously people of goodwill are going to differ about policies she would advocate as a part of the Bush administration, but nobody would question her integrity, her commitment to service and her high ideals.”

Greatest among these ideals is Rice’s selflessness, said Irish football coach Tyrone Willingham, who worked side by side with her at Stanford University when he coached and she served as provost for six years in the 1990s.

“What I saw of Dr. Rice primarily is a woman that is well-balanced, that is intelligent, that has the best interest of her organization at heart and does not ask for anything herself,” Willingham said, adding that Rice has demonstrated a “team in front of self” mentality in the White House as well as in academia.

“I think she’s shown that she can do that,” he said, “and do it in an intelligent manner and have the best interests of the president and the country at heart.”

Rice’s close relationship with the president – who she has counseled since his father’s term in office – has been called her biggest asset and her biggest liability as she moves to the State Department.

“One of the strengths she brings to the job is having the president’s ear,” said Dan Lindley, an assistant professor of political science at Notre Dame. “In that way she’ll be better off than Colin Powell,” her predecessor who often appeared to be a lone voice of dissent alienated from the rest of Bush’s cabinet.

In Rice, Lindley said, Bush sees a trusted confidante who fits the pattern of his second-term cabinet appointments – friendly faces and familiar voices.

“We’re not seeing new blood, we’re not seeing new points of view,” he said.

Political science colleague Peri Arnold agreed.

“I think the president is making a choice to guarantee that there will be more unanimity in the foreign policy establishment,” he said. “Condi has demonstrated that she’s happy going along … she’s personally so close to Bush that it’s difficult to imagine how she could play an oppositional or counterbalancing role.”

And while the State Department could gain clout within the administration due to Rice’s influence with Bush, it could also lose ground to the Defense Department because she lacks Powell’s penchant for interagency battles, Lindley said.

“She has a reputation for not taking the strongest positions, for being more of a sounding board,” he said. “If she maintains the quiet pressure she won’t be taking full advantage of the State Department pulpit … hopefully she’ll grow into the job.”

Rice won’t have much time to adjust, as she faces immediate challenges in the Iraq war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the developing nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea, HIV/AIDS initiatives in Africa and damaged relationships with U.S. allies, said Gerard Powers, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Overseeing State Department operations as a visible management presence – rather than individually advising the president from the background – presents another test, Powers added.

“As former national security advisor, she is well-versed in the major substantive issues she will have to address, but taking over the helm of State’s large bureaucracy will present new challenges that will test her leadership abilities,” he said.

Rice’s abilities and instincts are impressive, Arnold said, but may not be enough.

“She’s a woman with many talents, but this is going to be demanding,” he said. “She really becomes the face of the administration’s foreign policy … One wonders, is she up for that?”

Nanni thinks so.

“Clearly the Secretary of State role is going to call for a great more diplomacy,” he said. “But she is about as articulate and persuasive a person as I have met. She’s also someone who’s not easily daunted.”

These traits were a welcome contribution on the Board of Trustees, Nanni said, and may eventually become an asset to the University again.

“Our hope is that when she chooses to step down from her role in public service is that she’ll be able to resume her role with Notre Dame in one capacity or another,” he said. “I think we’re proud of our association with her, as I think she is proud to be a part of the Notre Dame family.”