Sunday, April 02, 2006

Gotta Love Her

What makes Rice so intoxicating?

By Elizabeth Day, The Telegraph Group Limited

The Dean of Blackburn is a holy man and, as such, is not generally touched by earthly desires. He has serious misgivings about the Iraq war. He is a sensible, mild-mannered sort of fellow, not given to unnecessary exaggeration. But that was yesterday. That was BC. Before Condoleezza.

"Oh, I thought she was charming," says the Very Rev Christopher Armstrong, reflecting on his hour-long meeting with the US secretary of state in Blackburn Cathedral. He pauses. A playful half-smile curls his lips. His eyes glaze over slightly and gaze into the mid-distance. It is as if he is recalling a particularly pleasing experience, such as winning the egg-and-spoon race at his primary school.

"She looks nice, she's interesting, she's very aware, very concerned, and she can handle the protesters so well. She knows other people's opinions are important and she values them."

A few hours earlier, Armstrong had been declaiming the war in Iraq in forceful tones in front of the nation's media. Now, he appears to have undergone a quasi-religious conversion. But you can't blame him. This, it seems, is quite simply the Condi effect.

However much people might dislike the thought of Condoleezza Rice, 51, one of the key architects of the Iraq war, defender of Guantanamo Bay and staunch ally of George Bush, it seems that they cannot help but be won over by the reality. Over the past couple of days, as she has been shown round Blackburn, Lancashire, by her new best friend, Jack Straw, she has encountered hostility almost everywhere.

Twenty-five per cent of Blackburn inhabitants are Asian and most of them are Muslims. At Pleckgate School on Friday, more than 100 schoolchildren gathered in vocal protest. Roger McGough, the prominent poet, pulled out of an appearance at a Liverpool Philharmonic concert. At Blackburn Cathedral, Rice was greeted by cries of "fascist" from a crazy-eyed protester wrapped up in a plastic mackintosh. Hundreds marched to Blackburn town hall dressed in orange boiler suits and screamed at her as she arrived for a press conference. Yet Rice greeted it all with a red-lipsticked smile and a heady wallop of fragrance that seems to have left grown men powerless in her wake.

Work experience

In her presence, the normally buttoned-up Straw alternated between looking like a proud father bringing his daughter into the office for work experience and an adolescent schoolboy with a hopeless crush on the head girl.

Why does Rice hold this strange, intoxicating power? It could be her triumph over adversity her success has been all the more remarkable given that she was born into the segregated American south in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1954. Or it could simply be the way she looks. Over the past week, male journalists have written lyrically about her "lacquered hair" and her well-tailored trouser suits.

It was pointed out that her name was derived from a musical expression: con dolcezza, meaning "with sweetness". Even her appearance on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, normally the bloodiest of gladiatorial arenas for unpopular politicians, was marked by a curious and unusually lengthy tenderness.

Although this is the UK's first experience of Condimania, the Condi effect has long been in evidence in her home country. Her considerable gifts have Washington buzzing about the possibility of the first black, female president.

Laura Bush publicly said earlier this year that she'd "love to see her run. She's terrific".

Even her political opponents cannot help but like her. Other significant cheerleaders include Bill Morris, a political strategist and a former close adviser to Bill Clinton who has now turned against the Democrats. His thesis, as propounded in his recent book, Condi vs Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race, is that the only possible Republican candidate who could defeat Hillary Clinton if she runs would be Rice.

Nor is her closeness to male politicians and the accompanying regard in which they hold her reserved to British cabinet members. Jacques Chirac is an admirer. And when George Bush attended a press conference with Rice in March 2003 to talk about the Iraq war, he apparently refused to go into the more unsavoury details of the Iraqi rape camps set up by Saddam Hussain's sons, Uday and Qusay, because he "didn't want to say them in front of Condi".

The unmarried secretary of state returned the compliment a year later when, at a dinner party, she accidentally referred to the President as "my husb ...", before cutting herself short.

This dogged affection for the most powerful woman in the free world extends to the US Condi fan club and its "Condistas" Republican activists eager to "draft" Rice into the 2008 presidential race.

Back in soggy Blackburn, even those who had gathered to protest about the war found themselves going weak at the knees. "I was against the war, but I think she's wonderful," gushed Stephen Walsh, 47, a human resources consultant, who had wrestled himself to the front of the security cordon outside Blackburn town hall in the hope of catching a glimpse.

It was not only the men who were awestruck. Kerry Dayton, 46, a housewife who has lived in Blackburn all her life, was also admiring of more practical considerations. "She always looks nicely turned out and professional," she says.

It was, in the end, simply another example of Condoleezza Rice defying all the odds. No wonder all the world is smitten.