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Rice to State: A Single Voice on Foreign Policy?

When confirmed, Condoleezza Rice will be the 66th person to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. Her boss, President George W. Bush, is our 43rd president. There is a reason the two numbers are not the same.

Presidents have not always been happy with their first choice for this, the supreme appointive job in the executive branch. Most two-term presidents have had more than one secretary of state, and plenty of one-termers have too. And what they looked for in the second has tended to reveal what their problem was with the first.

Bill Clinton switched secretaries of state after his first term, wanting someone more dynamic than the scholarly international lawyer-diplomat Warren Christopher (and finding someone in the spirited professor Madeleine Albright).

The first president Bush also made the change, but far more reluctantly. His first secretary of state, James A. Baker III, was practically a partner president. Baker resigned the cabinet job he loved only to take over the president's failing re-election campaign in the fall of 1992. It was a bitter moment for both men, and in the end it did not succeed in winning the first Bush a second term.

Ronald Reagan replaced his first secretary of state in what was close to record time. Out went the flamboyant and controversial Alexander Haig, a former general who lasted 18 stormy months at State, and in came the low-key George Shultz, a soft-spoken engineer and businessman who served six-and-a-half years.

Jimmy Carter lost his first man at State to the Tehran hostage crisis of 1979-80. Cyrus Vance resigned in protest when Carter tried to rescue the hostages by force. The rescue had to be aborted when two of the helicopters involved collided. The new man was Edmund S. Muskie, a senator from Maine who could buttress the president both in Congress and in the 1980 Democratic primaries, where Carter was being challenged by Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Richard Nixon shifted gears in his second term from the deferential and little-noticed lawyer William Rogers to the imperious and world-renown Henry Kissinger, who all but eclipsed the president (and even survived to serve the next president).

The departure of the current President Bush's first secretary of state, Colin Powell, had elements of both a resignation and a dismissal. Powell had signaled his readiness to go, and the Bush White House had shown little interest in dissuading him. In the end, it just seemed a parting of the ways that had perhaps diverged from the beginning.

The choice of Rice as successor seemed so natural to many within the administration that it scarcely seemed a choice at all. It was not her previous position as national security adviser that made her seem entitled (only two previous secretaries of state had held that job). It was instead her extraordinary relationship with the president himself, one that transcends rapport to a level of mutual reliance.

Of course, when Powell was chosen four years ago, the world was a different place and Powell offered the new president what he needed most at that time: a major figure in Washington on his own since the 1980s, an inside player in three administrations. When he spoke in foreign capitals or at the United Nations, his authority was personal as well as official.

But these same assets that lent so much credibility to the new White House in 2001 would become a source of difficulty for Powell. Because his authority was personal as well as official, it was not always possible to know whether he was speaking his mind or someone else's.

It was possible to imagine him differing from the president, even on matters of great importance. In fact, it became difficult to imagine the two of them agreeing, particularly on the wisdom and necessity of invading Iraq.

By replacing Powell, and most particularly by substituting Rice, President Bush puts an end to any stereophonic messages emanating from his administration. From now on, what comes out of every speaker will be the same.

Powell had been a kind of anachronism in the office. Recognized for his stature as a leader rather than for his foreign policy credentials, Powell had often been mentioned as a candidate for president himself.

This was a kind of throwback to the early years of the republic, when the secretaries of state tended to be proven politicians of the first rank. Five of the first 10 occupants of the big office at State went on to the White House in their own right (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams and Martin Van Buren).

That particular tradition of lofty expectation did not survive the Civil War era. In subsequent generations, secretaries of state were typically not household names. In 1947, the Constitution was amended so that the secretary of state was no longer next in the line of presidential succession after the vice president.

Nonetheless, the position has retained an almost mythic cachet in Washington, in foreign capitals and in the media. And with that it has kept its special power to define a presidency. Or redefine one.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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