- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Condoleezza Rice may or may not run for president in ‘08, but she’s already got the hang of it.

The secretary of state wowed ‘em in Europe, even in Paris, where some of the old geezers leaning on their canes and sipping absinthe on the Champs Elysee thought she was Josephine Baker (without the bananas), demonstrating what we already knew over here: Condi is as good as she looks.

Now she’s off to Asia, and she stopped at The Washington Times for coffee, Danish and conversation about the hard cheeses inevitably served up to secretaries of state.

When we asked her about her harsh characterization of the harsh regime in North Korea (“an outpost of tyranny”), the sort of plain speech that usually sends the ladies-in-waiting at the State Department for smelling salts, she didn’t back down a millimeter. “I don’t think there is any doubt that I spoke the truth,” she told us. “I don’t know that one apologizes for speaking the truth.”

This is not how secretaries of state ordinarily talk, weaned as they usually are on blue john and schooled in the ways of avoiding standing up too tall if the national interest is all that’s at stake. The first rule in Foggy Bottom is that you save your energy for fighting for the really important stuff, like bureaucratic turf. Six secretaries of state have made it to the White House, but none since James Buchanan in 1857. Thin blood can’t cut it.

Naturally a conversation with Condi turns to whether she feels up to saving the republic from Hillary. She clearly expected the question — indeed, one of her flacks urged us, sotto voce, not to forget to ask — and she clearly enjoyed the parrying.

Q: What about 2008?

A: I’m going to try to be a really good secretary of state. I’m going to work really hard at it. I have enormous respect for people who do run for office. It’s really hard for me to imagine myself in that role.

Someone asked whether she would “do a Sherman,” reprising the 1884 declaration of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the infamous terrorist dispatched by Lincoln to burn Georgia: “I will not run if nominated and will not serve if elected.” This is the gold standard of denial.

A: Oh, that’s not fair. [Laughter]

Q: Well, newspapers aren’t fair.

A: The last thing I can — I really can’t imagine it.

The secretary played a similar game of Ping-pong with Tim Russert two days later on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I’ve never wanted to run for anything, and I just don’t have any desire to do it.”

Q: Desire, or intention?

A: Both.

He, too, asked whether she would “do a Sherman.”

A: Tim, I don’t want to run for president.

Q: I will not run?

A: I do not intend to run. No, I will not run for president of the United States. How’s that? I don’t know how many ways to say no in this town. I really don’t.

Q: Period? I will not run as president of the United States?

A: I have no intention. I don’t want to run. I think people who run are great, but I don’t want to run.

Q: It’s a Shermanesque statement?

A: Shermanesque statement.

Q: You’re done? You’re out?

A: I’m done.

Q: There’s news! [Laughter]

A: I hope not.

Miss Rice, as the reader can see, left escape holes big enough to accommodate a Sherman tank. She knows all the ways to say no in this town, to deny emphatically without absolutely, positively, cross-my-heart and hope-to-die denying. The exercise is, of course, arcane to the point of silliness anywhere but Washington. Condi Rice or anyone else is perfectly entitled to make up her mind now and change it later.

The prospect of a Condi-Hillary race is too delicious for pundits and political correspondents to resist writing endlessly about it, although wise heads know that both parties nominating the first woman for president in the very same year is about as likely as the Redskins making the World Series the same year the Nationals win the Super Bowl.

Handicapping a presidential race four years on couldn’t start an argument in a bar anywhere outside the Beltway. But it’s healthy exercise and harmless fun. Besides, Condi Rice is still in the race.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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