Condi: The Queen of No Soul
Editor’ Note: As President Barack Obama becomes the latest Democratic politician to “look forward” rather than to do the hard work of holding Republicans accountable for past crimes, George W. Bush’s top aides have begun the much more pleasant task of rehabilitating their reputations.
In one of the more curious reputation-cleansing exercises, Bush’s chief foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice is offering up her mediocre talents as a concert pianist to accompany Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin in a benefit for a cultural center in Philadelphia, as documentarian Sebastian Doggart notes with some outrage (and a touch of sarcasm):
Two events, both of which feature a public figure named 2005’s “most powerful woman in the world,” may go down as the most bizarre of the year.
The first took place last Saturday, in San Diego, where Condoleezza Rice was the Distinguished Speaker at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Convention. That’s a very long way from the world-changing press conferences she was commanding at the State Department 18 months ago.
The second occasion is one of the weirdest concerts ever conceived, pairing Rice as a concert pianist with Aretha Franklin on vocals. Its organizers, the Mann Center of Philadelphia, are marketing $95 seats with this enticement:
“The Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin pairs up with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for an evening of classics and R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
“Ms. Rice will enchant us with selections from Mozart and more, and will feature Aretha on vocals... This extraordinary effort is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Don’t miss this amazing duo for one night only!”
I’ve been investigating Condoleezza Rice for the last five years, and have completed two films about her, with a third due out in July. Of all the stranger-than-fiction discoveries I have made about Rice, this spectacle, scheduled to take place on July 27 in Fairmount Park, is certainly the most surreal.
The Philadelphia Weekly agrees, describing it as "the most unusual musical pairing since Ben Folds & William Shatner … or maybe even Burt Bacharach & Dr. Dre.”
I set my iPod to play my modest collection of Aretha Franklin songs to try and find the connections to Condi Rice. “Son of a Preacher Man” was up first, and, yes, I could see the link. Rice’s father, John Rice, was a Presbyterian minister.
According to his illustrious daughter, who is his only child, John was hoping that she would be born a boy: “I was supposed to be his all-American linebacker. He already had the football bought. I was going to be named John, like him.”
Then came the impatient first chords of another Franklin song, “Think,” a commandment Rice has passionately followed, from her diligent studying to be “twice as good” as the white children in her class, to her meteoric academic rise to become Provost of Stanford, to the careful encouragement and advice she gave President George W. Bush as his closest and most enduring confidante.
Next up was “I say a little prayer.” Also very appropriate. According to what her biographer Glenn Kessler told me, “Rice prays every day. She goes to church regularly. She believes that God has set forth a plan. One reason why she doesn’t really look back, she doesn’t dwell on the kinds of mistakes she might have made, because what is happening is God’s plan is unfolding and this is how it’s going to be.”
A final validation of the Rice/Franklin connection came in “Do Right, Woman.” How aptly this song captures Rice’s longstanding drive to do the morally correct thing!
When asked by a Stanford student last year how the U.S. should go about winning the hearts and minds of the rest of the world, Rice replied, “first of all, you do what’s right. That’s the most important thing.”
Just in case Aretha intended her lyric to have a less ethical and more political meaning, then Rice’s continuing status as a darling of the American Right shows she is complying with the song’s mandate at least in where to position herself.
Music has also been part of Rice’s life. It’s in her very name, Condoleezza, which derives from the Italian musical notation, con dolcezza, or “with sweetness.”
According to Julia Emma Smith, her neighbor and family friend whom I interviewed in Rice’s hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, “her mother started her taking piano when she was just three. By the time she was five, she could play Beethoven and other classical music. Everybody thought music was going to be her career.”
Marcus Mabry, author of the excellent biography Twice as Good, continues the story: “When she was 17, as a sophomore at the University of Denver, she went to a famous music camp at Aspen. There she saw little kids who could play from sight music that had taken her weeks or months to learn how to play.
“And at that point she saw she wasn’t good enough and she dropped it, with no emotion, no feeling whatsoever.”
Rice explained what happened: “I encountered the realization that if I stayed a music major, I would end up teaching kids to murder Beethoven… I didn’t wanna really be second best.”
Her piano teacher at the University of Denver, Theodor Lichtman, gave further reason why she could never have made it as a concert pianist: “In taking very specific technical directions she was very good, very obedient. Emotional directions she didn’t have an easy time with. As long as it was mechanical things -- do this, hold your hand this way – that was fine.”
“But as soon as I touched her inside,” he said, tapping his heart, “there was a resistance.”
Rice continued to play music in chamber groups while living in both Stanford and in Washington DC. She accompanied cellist Yo Yo Ma in a 2002 performance of Brahms's Violin Sonata in D Minor for President Bush at Constitution Hall.
She again performed Brahms – whom she admires for being “passionate but not sentimental” – in a recital for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in December 2008. So a performance with Queen Aretha can thus be seen as a logical progression.
The pairing makes even more sense since she listed the song “Respect” as her third favorite piece of music ever in a 2006 interview with the Independent. (Mozart’s “Piano Concerto in D Minor,” which she is scheduled to play at Fairmount Park, and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” took first and second place, respectively. Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” trailed unexpectedly in fourth place.)
Grabbing an opportunity to play with Aretha Franklin is a no-brainer for Condi Rice – a fun and exciting opportunity that any pianist would leap at. It also sounds a whole lot more fun than her engagement last weekend, with those laugh-a-minute members of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
Although Rice pocketed a fat free from the discarded metal kings, she’s making it abundantly clear that her motives for the Fairmount Park concert are charitable.
“Dr. Rice is graciously donating her services to the Mann Center,” its Chief Executive Catherine Cahill told me, “in support of our arts education programs for the area's inner-city youth. She’s not just a highly accomplished pianist, she also wants to give back to the community.”
Rice has no problem with such munificence after a highly lucrative 16 months following her release from the State Department’s payroll. She landed a whopping $2.5 million advance from Crown Publishers, part of Random House, to write three tomes, one on her experience in the Bush Administration, and one on her parents called Extraordinary, Ordinary People (due out this October).
She’s also raked in a good salary as a professor at Stanford’s Hoover Institution (even though she has yet to teach any courses to students). And her aggressive representatives at top Hollywood agency William Morris demand six-figure speaking fees from corporations keen to leverage her experience both in government and as a former director of Chevron, J.P. Morgan, Hewlett Packard and Charles Schwab.
How wonderful that such a thunderous revenue stream allows her to demonstrate publicly what a “compassionate conservative” she is!
The Mann Center’s validation of her philanthropy also will shore up the political capital that she stands to gain from the event. Since leaving office, many of her public appearances have been dogged by protests, and she has wisely kept a very low profile at Stanford.
Accompanying Aretha Franklin’s virtuoso rendition of two operatic arias (with proceeds going to charity) is a classy and uncontroversial step back onto the public stage.
It’s also part of a well-conceived political strategy. She is one of very few African-American women in the Republican Party, and that, coupled with her extensive experience in government, stands her in powerful stead as an important GOP figure in a post-Obama political era.
She’s never actually been elected to office, and has said she doesn’t like the cut-and-thrust of politics. But if she plays her cards right, I would not be surprised to see her as a vice-presidential Republican candidate, possibly with Mitt Romney, in 2016.
But I am surprised that such a political resurgence is possible – and indeed that she has been invited to perform in Fairmount Park at all, especially given her role in torturing detainees during Bush’s “war on terror” (as well as her key role in the invasion of Iraq).
This is an opinion shared by Professor Alan Gilbert, who was Rice’s political history teacher at the University of Denver. Commenting on the announcement of the concert, he said: “I suppose it is better that she play music (soullessly) than torture people. If she were not a war criminal, it would be charming.”
Over the course of researching and producing my investigative documentary on Rice, “American Faust: From Condi to Neo-Condi,” I came to share Professor Gilbert’s view that the gravity of Rice’s crimes and misdemeanors, still largely unknown to the American people, outweigh the benefits of President Obama’s view that “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
The counter-point that “we need to read the page of history before we can turn it” underpins “American Faust.”Through the form of a biographical documentary, we tell a Faustian story of a woman whose hubris tempted her into a pursuit of power that destroyed her core values, and hurtled America into a perilous new direction.
It’s a portrait of a woman who has changed the world but about whom most people know very little. It overturns the popular misconception of Rice as a yes-woman to Bush and reveals her as his chief confidante – with deeper and more enduring influence than even Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or Karl Rove – and thus responsible for much of the Bush legacy.
Quest for Power
The film follows her step-by step quest for power, starting at the age of ten, when, on a visit to the White House, she turned to her father and said, “Daddy, I'm barred out there because of the color of my skin, but one day I'll be in that house.”
Forty years later, having achieved her dream, Secretary of State Rice said, “I want to leave office without anyone knowing where I stand on any of the issues.”
Our team did our best to portray her in a balanced way. Archival interviews with Rice herself form the core of the documentary. Her supporters include both Presidents Bush; her step-mother Clara Bailey Rice; Oprah Winfrey; mentor and later critic, Brent Scowcroft; her former fiancé, Rick Upchurch; childhood friend Celeste Mitchell; John McCain; former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger; Dick Cheney; and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Offsetting these positive accounts are some explosive criticisms. Author Laura Flanders relates how she was such a devoted board member for Chevron (despite its violent repression of Ogoni tribes-people in Nigeria) that they named an oil tanker after her.
Rice’s record as National Security Advisor is devastatingly attacked by CIA Director George Tenet and Counter-Terrorism chief Richard Clarke. They reveal how she ignored scores of warnings in the spring and summer of 2001 that an Al Qaeda attack was imminent.
Biographer Marcus Mabry pinpoints the period between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq as the period when she abandoned her realism and advocacy of a humble foreign policy, to become a fully fledged ‘neo-con’ idealist.
With the winds blowing towards Baghdad, Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff, says she had no qualms about pumping up the case for waging war in Iraq (“we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”).
Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Florida, pinpoints 56 times that Rice misled the American public. Richard Ben-Veniste, a senior 9/11 Commissioner, points to the techniques that Rice used – wordplay, filibustering, amnesia – to avoid telling the truth.
The question then arises: why would Aretha Franklin want to buddy up to a woman with such a sketchy record. Franklin has been hailed as a role model for women and people of color, while Rice’s record on both counts has been execrable.
“American Faust” documents how, while Provost of Stanford, she pulled up the ladder of affirmative action that had secured her tenure, and implemented budget cuts that led to dozens of lawsuits for unlawful dismissals of female professors.
Rice’s behavior while the levees were breaking during Hurricane Katrina infuriated black groups who felt that she had dishonored her position as the senior black member of the government. Spike Lee comments in the film: “She was buying Ferragamo shoes on Fifth Avenue and went to see ‘Spamalot’while people were drowning.”
Maybe Ms. Franklin feels she owes Ms. Rice a debt of gratitude. After all, Rice’s boss awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Nov. 9, 2005, at the White House. That kind of R-e-s-p-e-c-t may need payback.
Yet, I suspect that both Ms. Franklin and the concert organizers at the Mann Center are unaware of the film’s most explosive revelation: that it was Condoleezza Rice who is primarily responsible for the Bush Administration’s torture program.
It was Rice who ordered the CIA to use the torture techniques and dictated which procedures to use for how long. The CIA agents who carried out these brutal interrogations were acting under orders that came directly from the chairwoman of the Group of Principals: Condoleezza Rice.
The role of the Principals – a group that included Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Attorney Generals John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales – was to select and authorize “enhanced interrogation methods” proposed by the CIA.
According to Christopher Anders, attorney for the ACLU: “The CIA would come in and give a presentation of what they wanted to do, to the point where, where they were choreographing interrogations and the torture from the basement of the White House itself.”
Journalist Glenn Kessler said: “These ‘enhanced interrogation methods’ included water-boarding, fingernail extraction, and sleep deprivation. Condi signed off on the orders to the CIA with the words, ‘This is your Baby, go do it!’”
Richard Clarke, chief counter-terrorism adviser between 1992-2003 concurred: “Rice decided what torture to use on what person.”
“American Faust” reveals that the techniques that Rice approved went far beyond the mock executions and water-boarding already made public. Our film has first-hand accounts of torture techniques that make stress positions look like a slap on the wrist.
Binyam Mohamed had his penis cut, and acid poured into the wounds. Khalid el Masri was drugged, sodomized and imprisoned without charges. Abu Omar was tied to a wet mattress and subjected to jolts of electricity through the mattress coils. Mamdouh Habib had his fingernails torn out.
Even John Ashcroft, known for a nutty rendition of his song “Let the Eagle Soar” but not for his leniency toward Moslem prisoners, objected to the torture meetings that Rice chaired: "Why are we talking about this in the White House?” he asked. “History will not judge this kindly."
Ashcroft’s concern was well-placed. According to historian David Rothkopf, author of Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power, “it was recognized by Condoleezza Rice, among others, that they did make a pact with the devil. They essentially said we will do whatever it takes, regardless of morality, regardless of law, in order to protect the American people.”
Rice did what she could to conceal the torture. She authorized the CIA to send detainees outside the U.S., to ‘black site’ countries, including Thailand, Italy, Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Syria, Jordan, Macedonia, Egypt, Morocco, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, as well as to the ‘torture ships’ USS Peleliu, USS Bataan, and USS Ashland.
When congressional and legal investigations began into the detention program, videotapes of CIA interrogations of terror suspects were destroyed. She avoided all questions about this felony, and stepped up her work as an international ambassador for the most blatant legal black hole of all, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which she called “essential for the war on terror.”
These were the actions, then, that comprised Rice’s Faustian bargain. They were the crimes that led to Rice becoming the Queen of No Soul.
The consequences of these crimes will cause damage America’s reputation for generations and open the country to more terrorism. The illegal imprisonments, kidnappings and torture that Rice authorized have become a recruitment tool for anti-U.S. militants around the world.
As General David Petraeus, Republican hero and the current leader of U.S. Central Command, put it: “We end up paying a price for it, ultimately. Situations like that are non biodegradable. They don't go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick.”
Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, Dean of the Academic Board at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, agreed in last week’s New Yorker: “Torture is wrong under any circumstances,” he asserted. “The publicity surrounding Guantanamo, water-boarding and other ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ have created far more terrorists than most people understand. For a country that professes to stand for the rule of law and individual rights, we look like the worst kind of hypocrites.”
I have thought long and hard about how such a highly educated, cultured woman of faith as Dr. Rice could have fallen to the infernal point of ordering medieval acts of torture, fomenting a catastrophic war, and supporting the trampling of the rule of law and the Constitution.
This is a similar conundrum to the one posed by historians and philosophers after World War II. How could well-schooled Nazi officers spend their evenings weeping over Rilke poems, and playing Schubert in string quartets, and then wake up the next morning to gas thousands of men, women and children?
Education and culture did not bring more humanity to man, just more knowledge to create more sophisticated forms of violence and barbarity – just as it did with Dr Rice and the decisions she made on which “torture cocktails,” which combination of techniques, to be employed.
So what happens now? Earlier this month, I was at Kent State University, which was commemorating the 40th anniversary of the shootings by National Guardsmen that left four students dead, and nine injured. I was helping the Kent State Truth Tribunal record testimonies.
I met some of the injured and the families of those killed. They all shared an enduring outrage and anger that no one has ever been held accountable – let alone imprisoned – for the massacre.
Doris Krause, mother of one of the fallen, 19-year-old Allison Krause, told me: “I hope this is the last time I come back here. Even after forty years, there is so much bitterness.”
There will be no closure around the murderous acts of May 4, 1970, unless formal culpability is assigned to, or accepted by, those responsible for the killings – not just the guardsmen who fired, but right up the chain of command responsibility.
That means Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes (who made a public statement the day before the massacre that “we are going to eradicate the problem, we’re not going to treat the symptoms”), right up to President Nixon (who called student protesters “bums) and his Vice President Spiro Agnew (who urged university authorities to “just imagine the students are wearing brown shirts or white sheets and act accordingly”).
The same principle of command responsibility applies to the Bush Administration’s torture program. Its legacy will continue to poison U.S. military and civil society, and act as a rallying call to her enemies, until Rice and her accomplices are held accountable.
In “American Faust,” Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, whose position as Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff made him a first-hand witness to her actions, states: “I think Americans should be appalled that Dr. Rice was sitting giving the authority to water-board.”
Marjorie Cohn, former President of the Lawyers Guild, calls for her to be removed from her current research position at Stanford University: “We hope to continue this pressure until Rice and her fellow war criminals are punished for their crimes.”
Alan Gilbert, Rice’s former history professor at the University of Denver, identifies the specific laws she has broken under the U.S. Constitution, the UN Convention against Torture (of which the United States has been a signatory since 1988), and the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
Manfred Nowak, the UN’s chief Torture Commissioner, says: “There’s an obligation under the Convention against torture, to investigate every allegation against torture, and there is a responsibility to bring this person to justice.”
Christopher Anders of the ACLU states: “You can be sitting in the State Department and if you’re making decisions that are authorizing and facilitating a crime being committed, you’re responsible for that crime.”
With such a “smoking gun” still in her hands, it is flabbergasting that Rice remains at large. We filmed her at Stanford University (where ABC news cheerily reported her new love of golf) claiming, Nixon-like, that “by definition, if the President authorized it, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention against Torture.”
This is as brazen a perversion of the law as the memos written by Bush administration attorneys claiming water-boarding was legal, which Rice used as further justification for her torture program.
Escaping punishment is one thing. Flaunting her infamy like a pop star is another.
And that’s where the Fairmount Park concert becomes a real outrage. Her appearance is the equivalent of Sergeant Larry Shafer, the one National Guardsman who has admitted firing on the Kent State students, accepting an invitation, two years after the shootings, to sing an aria at the Metropolitan Opera; or Gov. Rhodes taking a cameo role on“Dynasty.”
There’s no artistic reason for Rice, a mediocre pianist by her own admission, to be on that stage with the incomparably more qualified Ms. Franklin, whom Rolling Stone magazine ranked No. 1 on its list of “The Greatest Singers of All Time.”
Rice is on the ticket because of her notoriety, the personal fame that she gained while desecrating the posts of National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, two of the most honored positions of authority in the country. It makes former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s appearance on “Celebrity Apprentice” look the epitome of good taste.
There is a time for telling stories, and there is time for action born of civic duty – or, in Ms. Franklin’s words to “Do right, woman.”
As a documentarian, I have done my best to tell Rice’s story objectively. But the failure of the media, Congress and the judiciary to pursue the evidence now publicly available on these crimes is intolerable.
I am now working with a growing group of activists to try, as a first step to bringing Rice to justice, to have her banned from the Fairmount park stage on July 27, and to prevent this real-life equivalent of “Springtime for Hitler” proceeding.
Allies in this endeavor include Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent-turned-whistleblower who, along with two other women, won Time’s Person of the Year in 2002; and the Stanford-based Action Condi group. Earlier this week, Steven Jewell MD, one of its leading advocates, a retired emergency physician, wrote this letter to Rossen Milanov, the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra:
“By appearing on stage with Ms. Rice, you associate yourself and the Philadelphia Orchestra with crimes against humanity. Under Article 8 of the Rome Conventions, torture is defined as a crime against humanity, along with genocide, slavery, systematic rape, and disappearances of political opponents.
“It would be a grave mistake to tarnish your own reputation and that of the orchestra with this event, and I urge you to do the right thing for the orchestra and your own reputation. Those who condone torture are complicit in the continuation of a horrible crime. I remind you of the holocaust poem that addresses the torment of the "Good German" during the Nazi period:
"’THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
“’THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
“’THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
“’THEN THEY CAME for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.’"
“I implore you to do the right thing.”
Maestro Milanov has yet to respond.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass.” Those words were recently cited by Rwandan President Kagame as an inspiration to him in his efforts to heal the wounds left by the1994 genocide that left 800,000 dead, and to secure truth, justice and reconciliation, in his country.
The successes his community tribunals have achieved, (although recent reports of re-education camps have shown this program has been far from perfect), give hope that, given the right political will, a similar process of holding the criminals accountable, and then moving on, could happen in the U.S.
Measures could be implemented to prevent torture from recurring. But President Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder have made it clear that justice for the torturers is not a priority for them.
The only way that will happen is through a concerted grass-roots movement. Every citizen can participate in this endeavor. Here are some suggestions on how you can make a difference:
Do right, ladies and gents! Join the conspiracy of truth and justice!Sebastian Doggart is film-maker, writer and human right activist. The film “American Faust: From Condi to Neo-Condi” is available at www.indiesdirect.com/americanfaust
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