Recently, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been getting a lot of press coverage, for being confronted by students on the Bush Administration’s “enhanced interrogation” (i.e., torture) policies.First, it was Stanford University students, where Dr. Rice resorted to finger-wagging and scolding. Then it was an encounter with a fourth grader at a D.C. Jewish Day School.
The common theme, was for Rice to take any opportunity to 1) defend the program, 2) distance herself from key decisions, and 3) downplay the considerable power and responsibility that she held in the Bush Administration. Of course, in times of scandal, it’s not unusual for officials to shirk responsibility. But I find Rice’s pattern of minimizing her role disturbing for an additional reason: gender.
Before the torture scandal came to the foreground, Rice defended her National Security role prior to 9/11. Her downplaying of her knowledge and options was so exasperating, that she was famously asked to recount the title of a memo which clearly warned of al Qaeda’s intentions. Then there was this exchange:
One exchange between Rice and commission member and former Sen. Bob Kerrey was particularly heated:
Kerrey: "You said the president was tired of swatting flies. Can you tell me one example when the president swatted a fly when it came to al Qaeda? Prior to 9/11."
Rice: "I think what the president was speaking to was ..."
Kerrey: "No, no, what fly had he swatted?"
Rice: "Well, the disruptions abroad was what he was really focusing on. The CIA would go after Abu Zubaydah, go after this guy and ..."
Kerrey: "Dr. Rice, we only swatted a fly once on the 20th of August, 1998. We didn't swat any flies afterwards. How the hell could he be tired?"As if that weren’t enough, some later accused her of covering up a key meeting, in which she was pointedly warned of a coming attack.What amazes me about all of these encounters, is the fact that - both as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State - Dr. Rice held positions of considerable power and responsibility. Yet she tends to describe her roles in passive terms, as though she were merely a secretary, not a Secretary. This is perhaps more striking in the way she snapped at a Stanford student, saying “I didn’t authorize anything,” but merely passed along the president’s authorization. Is that what a Secretary of State does - simply relay messages? I find this instinctive recoiling into a stereotypical female role particularly offensive, as a woman.
In Men & Women of the Corporation, Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes vicious cycles of powerlessness, in those who have little power in an organization - often because they hold a token position. The person who senses their lack of influence, has less latitude in her own behavior, and responds by limiting the behavior of those around them. This diminishes everyone’s power. The “swatting flies” exchange is a classic example.Whether we shared her politics or not, many of us cheered the occasion of another woman in such a position of power. By posing as a mere secretary, rather than as the Secretary that she was, Secretary Rice lets many women and feminists down.