WASHINGTON — Her dream job is to be commissioner of the National Football League.
But in the meantime Condoleezza Rice is national security adviser to President Bush - and as such is preparing for what is likely to be the biggest half-time show of her White House career. Thursday she will face 2-1/2 hours of questioning before the commission probing the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Appearing before a panel that has already heard from her in private testimony, Dr. Rice will highlight whatever evidence she can that the Bush White House was as attentive to the terrorist threat as could have been expected before Sept. 11, 2001. She will seek to cast doubt on the credibility of Richard Clarke - the former White House counterterrorism chief she herself turned to in the hours following the terrible attacks, and the man who more than anyone else is the reason for Rice's public appearance before the panel - even as she refrains from looking as if she has a vendetta against him.
Through it all, Rice will defend the record on terrorism of the president she is unusually close to and fiercely loyal to, knowing the political ramifications of her testimony in an election year could be great.
"Her goal will be to survive three hours without any serious question marks about her credibility or that of the president," says Geoffrey Kemp, a special adviser on national security to President Reagan. "As long as she drops the schoolmarmy attitude she sometimes has, she should be a credible witness."
Even for someone whose staffers refer to as the "warrior princess," it has to be considered the hot seat.
President Bush has already confirmed that he, too, will appear before the panel - but privately and in the company of Vice-President Dick Cheney. But that has done nothing to dampen interest in Rice's testimony or to deflate expectations for the impact her words will have for the Bush presidency.
That is because Rice, more than any of the strongly opinionated and highly experienced men she has had to navigate among as national security adviser, has been the president's closest confidante, policy crafter, and mouthpiece on national security matters. "She's as close as [commission members] are going to get to the president publicly," says Ivo Daalder, who served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration.
The national security adviser, who serves at the president's discretion and is not subject to congressional confirmation, has always been a reflection of the president he or she serves. Henry Kissinger, perhaps the best-known holder of the job to date, was simultaneously "NSA" and secretary of state, and inextricably linked to Richard Nixon's cold-war era realpolitik.
Rice, who worked under Brent Scowcroft in the National Security Council of George H.W. Bush, advised the younger Bush on foreign policy during the 2000 campaign, primarily from her academic background as a specialist on the Soviet Union and great-powers politics.
Having risen to the No. 2 slot at Stanford University, and already close to the Bush family, she grew personally close to George W. Bush, especially after her father died before the 2001 inauguration.
To those who would claim that she spoon-fed foreign policy to the new president, Rice has said that she has taken the president's "instincts" and put them to policy. The emphasis on stark, black-and-white values and unblinking faith in the exercise of American power have flowed from the top down, she has said, not the other way around.
Yet even though Rice came into the White House claiming Mr. Scowcroft as her mentor, she has not played the NSA role as he did. Scowcroft thought the national security adviser should be little seen and heard, but today Rice is probably viewed by the public as more closely associated with the president than anyone outside his family.
When Rice came into the White House "she was going to cut [NSC] staff, get off TV, and her edict was 'Thou shalt not be operational,' " says Mr. Daalder, now at the Brookings Institution. To the contrary, he says, Rice has ended up on Sunday morning news shows twice as much as any previous NSA - and recently added weekday morning shows to her repertoire.
Mr. Kemp, now a security expert at the Nixon Center in Washington, cites "good reasons why" the White House has placed Rice on the public dais. "She has a unique background, she's a woman, and a highly successful African-American."
That attention is now focused on Rice's role in fashioning the nation's terrorism-related polices, both before and after 9/11.
Coit Blacker, a member of the Clinton National Security staff and a friend of Rice's from her Stanford days, gives the administration high marks for its approach to terrorism since Sept. 11. The administration "got right" the convergence of radicalism and technology, a challenge he says places the world in "a fundamentally altered international system."
"They've taken hold of this in a comprehensive way," says Mr. Blacker, director of Stanford's Institute for International Studies.
But with members of the independent commission indicating they are likely to find that the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented, Rice watchers are focused on what she has to say about the "before."
Given that, some of Rice's friends recommend acknowledging that terrorism wasn't, in Bush's first seven months, the top priority it has become. Referring to the administration in general, Blacker says "a little more humility would be good."
Saying Rice has little to gain by continuing "this comparative malarkey that they did this or that better than the Clinton people," Kemp adds that pedantry should be replaced by "an acknowledgment that things could have been done differently."