You had to bypass your automatic race-loyalty circuits in order to fully appreciate the scenario. Under normal circumstances, the sight of a lone, brilliant and articulate black woman deftly fending off hostile inquiries from a delegation of power-suited white guys would go down as a miniature Great Moment In Negro History. But Condoleezza Rice, the most powerful black woman on the planet, has all but deleted race from the narrative of her personal success and she certainly doesn't need a partisan racial cheering squad when she has George W. Bush holding it down for her.
Rice's appearance before the 9/11 commission on April 8 was the definition of a Catch-22: a public failure on her part would invariably be read as yet another example of black incompetence. And a virtuoso political performance from Rice would be a victory for an administration that has squandered international goodwill, undermined the United Nations, used the horror of September 11th as a political trump card, run the economy into long-term recession and started a war to protect us from non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
For what it matters, Rice was convincing -- even as her testimony was starkly at odds with the historical record, her own previous claims and those of other members of the administration. And the underlying point is this: In the long, tangled history of black people in the United States, we have at last reached the point where black politicians have earned the right to be just as dubious and questionable as their white counterparts.
Given the antagonistic racial history of this country, it would be almost impossible for the presidency -- or presidential scandals -- not to reflect the prevailing currents of racism. By the time Frederick Douglass was appointed to the Santo Domingo Commission -- which gathered information supporting President Ulysses Grant's plan to annex Haiti -- he had become the most influential black political appointee of his era. Nevertheless Douglass had difficulty explaining to his supporters why he was still not invited to official White House functions -- even those regarding Haiti. Later, when Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Douglass as US Marshall for the District of Columbia, Douglass saw the responsibilities of the office curtailed so as to not offend white residents.
Booker T. Washington served as the unofficial advisor on Negro matters to President Theodore Roosevelt, but when Roosevelt made the mistake of having lunch with Washington in the Oval Office, it set off a firestorm of criticism that threatened to undermine Roosevelt's support from Southerners. (Roosevelt later downplayed the meal, saying that he had simply ordered sandwiches and happened to offer one to Washington.)
When the Great Migration began shifting the population balances in Northern cities, Franklin Roosevelt attempted to attract black voters into the Democratic Party by creating a "black cabinet" of advisors. Roosevelt appointed Robert C. Weaver as an aide to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, placed Mary McLeod Bethune at the head of the National Youth Administration's Office of Minority Affairs and created an interagency Department of Negro Affairs.
Still, it was a political scandal that pushed Roosevelt to expand his list of black appointees on the verge of World War II. When Roosevelt's Stephen Early knocked down a black police officer during a dispute in New York, the administration feared it would lose critical black support in the coming election. Within 24 hours of the incident, Roosevelt had appointed Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. as the first black general in the Army, federal judge William H. Hastie the first black civilian aide to the Secretary of War, and Campbell C. Johnson as first black head of the Selective Service.
The civil rights era provided the backdrop for Kennedy's appointment of Thurgood Marshall as Solicitor-General and Johnson's elevation of Marshall to the Supreme Court (acts that ironically set the precedent for the nomination debacle of Clarence Thomas three decades later). Jimmy Carter famously appointed Andrew Young as the US Ambassador to the United Nations, but Young was forced out of the position when his decision to meet with Palestinian representatives ran afoul of the Administration's Israel policy.
The Clinton Administration boasted more high-level black appointments than any previous presidency. It also featured more scandals and subsequent resignations of black appointees than any previous administration. Clinton nominated -- and subsequently abandoned -- Lani Guinier, as an Under-Secretary in the Department of Justice amid racialized charges that she was a "quota queen." He was less than steadfast in his defense of Jocelyn Elders, who resigned from the post of Surgeon-General for mentioning masturbation publicly (an indulgence that might have saved Clinton from further scandals of his own.)
Mike Espy, the former Mississippi Congressional Representative who had staked a claim as an early Clinton supporter, was appointed as Secretary of Agriculture and resigned as a result of a probe into his relationship with the Tyson Chicken company. And Ron Brown, the Clinton-appointed Treasury Secretary, managed to buck the trend, fending off charges that he had accepted a $700,000 bribe from the Vietnamese and retaining his position until his death in a plane crash in 1996.
Condoleezza Rice's position is fundamentally different from those of her black predecessors. Unlike these others, she is not solely waiting upon Presidential support. The Bush administration's credibility is, on one level, dependent upon Rice's credibility as an individual. Still, if anyone will be called upon to fall on his or her sword to spare the Administration further scandal, it will be Rice.
Media attention of late has passed over the more serious allegations made by Richard Clarke -- that the administration had essentially special-ordered intelligence linking Saddam Hussein to September 11th to justify attacking Iraq -- and focused on events prior to the attacks on New York and Washington, DC. And the result of this was the demand that Rice testify in public under oath about failures which, at worst, can result in charges of incompetence, rather than a demand that Bush and Cheney answer questions about impeachable offenses.
When you boil away the excess, Condoleezza Rice may have more in common with John Erlichman and H.R. Haldeman -- the Nixon-era appointees who were forced out in the vain hope of sparing the President further political fallout from Watergate -- than she does with Mary McLeod Bethune, Andrew Young or any previous black politician. And that's a dubious honor.