INTERVIEWS OF RICE HAVE DIFFERENT GRAINS

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They are just a couple of interviews in a couple of magazines, but put them together and they offer intriguing little comparisons and pose some questions of their own.

In the February Essence, the subject is Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser and one of the most influential women on the planet. She has made a career of being the first woman, the first black, and/or the youngest person to tackle whatever opportunity comes her way.
 
Rice is interviewed by Isabel Wilkerson, who has gone about as far as Rice has, though in a different direction. On leave from The New York Times to write a book about the northern migration of black people, she is the first black woman to have won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism.

On the back end of this comparison is the "O interview" in the February Oprah. It was conducted by who-else-but-Oprah, another successful woman who happens to be black. Her subject? Why, it's Condoleezza Rice.

Although Rice is the subject, the pairings reveal as much about the interviewers; as you should imagine, it is Wilkerson who fares better. She got to her station by proving herself as an interviewer and a writer of depth; Oprah knows interviewing too, but she got her place in line by buying a really large printing press.

Via Wilkerson, we learn that Rice went to birthday parties with Denise McNair, one of the children who died in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, but she was far more frightened in childhood by the Cuban Missile Crisis than by anything related to the civil rights movement. Although Rice has advised two US presidents at critical junctures, she volunteers that her proudest achievement was balancing Stanford's budget during her first two years as provost there.

It's not that Oprah whiffs, but the nuggets she elicits - Rice would rather be NFL commissioner than an elected official, for example - are neither as weighty nor as numerous. And some of her questions are embarrassingly simple, such as when she asks, in the context of the hunt for Osama bin Laden: "Do you know something we don't know?" Rice quickly matches Winfrey mush for mush, though she starts out amusingly: "No - well, probably."

The suspicion is that this double helping of Rice is evidence of an administration PR decision to put its people out in front of we the people, a notion all but confirmed by the February Vanity Fair (from left on the cover are Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and President Bush, courtesy of Annie Leibovitz). More of the shooter's photos appear inside, including one of . . . Condoleezza Rice.

It is hard not to note what all this says: that even, or especially, in a time of high crisis, the administration feels it must put Condi and George through the same mill as, say, Kate and Leopold.

Just as the twin Rice stories are revealing of both interviewee and interviewers, the omnipresence of war coverage this month exposes the lenses through which magazines interpret the world: Esquire brings the conflict down to one man's eye level with "How to Be Tough," for example, while Men's Journal promises tales of "terrorist hunters."

The Atlantic Monthly devotes its cover to the war, and presents an diverse trio of stories. One looks forward - examining the constantly changing religious landscape - while a second looks back, recounting the capture of eight Nazi saboteurs on the US mainland that provided the rationale for military tribunals.

The February Utne Reader's slant on the topic promises some of the introspection that has been missing from the drumbeat, but its lead piece, by Jon Spayde, typified by this mumbling passage, is disappointing:

"Maybe when anger dances with healthy guilt, and both are partnered to living sorrow, when the mind's ability to protect itself from too much pain joins with a problem-solving spirit, and then they all dance together . . ."

Mary Kaldor, whom Utne reprints from The Nation, is much clearer. She puts the conflict in terms of globalization. Instead of flags, enemies coalesce around issues - making them harder to find and fight. She argues, "A new sense of global politics [that] seeks justice . . . is the only way we can begin to win the the `new war' in which we find ourselves."

Foreign Affairs offers a sextet of stories on the war, highlighted by Michael Scott Doran's explanation of how, even if bin Laden's hijacked planes were pointed at us, his sights were trained on forces in the Islamic world. Doran argues well that bin Laden sees America as the surest point around which disparate elements of extremist Islam would rally, so that united they could topple the hypocritical heads of state in their midst.

Perhaps unintentionally, another Doran passage raises a parallel. Bin Laden's "attack was designed to force . . . governments to choose: You are either with the idol-worshiping enemies of God or you are with the true believers." George Bush, of course, is using the attacks to urge nations to make a starkly similar choice.