Call it Condimania. Her fans call themselves "Condistas." A team of teens who will be barely old enough to vote in 2008 have already opened the campaign, distributing "Condi for president" buttons.
The Germans call her "coquettish"; the French admire her chic pointy shoes. When I stepped into a beauty salon in Madrid the other day, the hairdresser curled the coif in back, handed me a mirror, and told me proudly: "That's the Condi flip."
Condoleezza Rice and the Condi flip is suddenly everywhere, last week giving splashy front-page interviews (denying, in that carefully ambitious way of major-league politicians, that she has any presidential ambitions) and ubiquitous television chats, and this week talking to heads of state in Asia, looking both glamorous and authoritative. That's not an easy combination for any woman.
Style has rarely been either a characteristic or a qualification for secretaries of state. Henry Kissinger had his square, dark-rimmed glasses, and Madeleine Albright her funky hats, but these were carefully contrived affectations. John Marshall, who served briefly as secretary of state under John Adams, dressed so carelessly that one visitor to his office said he looked as if he had bought his clothes in "some antiquated slopshop of second hand raiment."
Condi in power boots, however, makes a fresh and exuberant statement, fusing style and substance, talking tough policy with feminine panache, making a formidable package as tough as nails (carefully manicured).
Here, finally, is the triumph of womanhood flourishing on the world stage, needing no label of race or "gender." She's black without a hyphen, at the top of her game with no bow to affirmative action. When we talked last week over coffee at The Washington Times and I asked her about the public's interest in her fashion style - noting that Madeleine Albright had said she envied her svelte body - she laughed without being defensive, and said she likes clothes.
"You know, when I was 5 years old, my poor father would go off to work on his sermon on Saturday - he was a Presbyterian minister - so he would go off to work on his sermon. And my mother and I would go shopping. Shopping is fun."
When the State Department released the transcript of the interview at The Times, a State Department wise man, presumably thinking fashion talk was beneath a secretary of state, had deleted this part of the exchange. But that's Foggy Bottom's fustiness, not hers. Denial of political ambition or not, she has a politician's touch for making herself human.
The buzz in Washington (and Manhattan) is the notion that Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton are on course for a collision in 2008. Hillary has made feints toward the center, even on abortion, and Condi describes herself as "mildly pro-choice." Hillary, who once publicly embraced Mrs. Yasser Arafat, gives the appearance of having adopted hawkish views on what to do in the Middle East, but she hasn't Condi's strength, experience or intellectual heft in foreign affairs. Condi had the ear of the president on foreign policy even before he ran in 2000, and has driven policy decisions since.
When the appointment of John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations gave certain Europeans fainting spells, certain pundits here insisted that the appointment must have been forced on the secretary of state. She insists that he was her first choice: "John is a straightforward, tough-talking, very good diplomat and I think that's what you need at the United Nations." Even if he really wasn't, she demonstrated that she understands the Washington dance, and knows when to lead and when to follow.
Hillary vs. Condi is a media dream. Both women would have lots of obstacles to climb over and that's what pundits and correspondents drool over. Condi can't afford to alienate the Republican base on the social issues and Hillary needs the deep pockets of the Hollywood lefties contemptuous of the red states that elect presidents. There's the "First Laddie" dilemma as well. Condi isn't married, and Hillary has to share the stage with a bigger-than-life husband who travels with a lot of baggage.
Condoleezza Rice insists that all she wants be is the best secretary of state she can be, and can't imagine running for president. Perhaps. But a lot of other people have no trouble imagining it. Four years is an eternity in politics, and the secretary of state has a lot of heavy lifting ahead. The new star in Washington says her job now requires "a willingness to stand firm and to hold positions that are not always popular, but that are right."
Whether she likes it or not, that's the stuff presidential candidates are sometimes made of.