August 2, 2008
The Canberra Times

Handling power, not power-dressing, makes Condi a model

To focus on the superficial will erode a powerful woman’s authority. So I’ll be quick about it. Here it is: Condoleezza Rice wears fabulous shoes. There. I’ve said it.

Rice may be the US Secretary of State and one of the most powerful women in the world, but it’s her shoes that go to the true heart of who she is: a woman who loves to shop. She revealed as much when she was here in Australia last week for a whirlwind meet-and-greet with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith’s kinfolk – all three generations of them.

Rice said she and Smith talked about cricket, American football, and the meaty stuff of state. But it was talk of ”shopping” that grabbed the international media headlines. And it was the booty she’s bagged from her shopping trips that caught my eye.

As Rice bent with one knee forward, to lay a wreath at the cenotaph in Perth’s King’s Park, an elegant pair of caramel and cream heels peeked out from her nondescript trouser suit. They were thin and high and not the kind of shoes I would wear on a busy work day. But I was impressed by the fact that she did.

Can such a formidable woman – with the power to shape and change the course of history – get all girly over great shoes? Apparently she can. And is that such a bad thing? Apparently not.

Addressing an assembly of schoolgirls at Smith’s daughter’s school, Rice was effusive about shopping. ”It’s a great pastime, shopping. I love it, even if I don’t buy anything. I just love going to the stores to look.” She told the impressionable audience that she used to ”hit the stores” with her mother on Sundays after church, but that she doesn’t have much time to shop these days.

Which, unfortunately and awkwardly for Rice, wasn’t the case back in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While mayhem and soul rot were terrifying destitute people trapped in a lawless sports stadium in New Orleans – most of them African Americans – Rice went shopping.

Her trip to the exclusive shoe store Ferragamo, on New York’s 5th Avenue, resulted in the worst press Rice has ever received. But rather than duck for cover, or mince weasel

words like her boss, Rice did a most interesting thing. She copped it.

In a very public mea culpa, Rice told Newsweek ”I just didn’t think”. She explained that she saw herself as the person responsible for foreign policy, ”I just didn’t think about my role as a visible African American national figure.”

That was perhaps the most revealing clue – until now – of how the woman hailed for several years as the most powerful in the world, actually views her place in it. That is, she sees herself as a woman just doing a job. And not as a leader to be emulated or to set an example.

But now Rice’s conversation with the Perth schoolgirls has provided further insight. The US Secretary of State discussed grand ambition – and her utter lack of it.

With refreshing openness, Rice said she never wanted to run for head-girl at school, and that such a position of leadership was ”not quite for me”. As for the presidency of the USA – and despite the world media once angling for a Hillary/Condi race – Rice explained that she’d never aim for something like that. In doing so, she gave some golden advice: ”Don’t let anybody define for you what you should be interested in.” She went on to say that deep in her ”soul” she was in fact an academic at heart.

And then her clearest statement yet. ”I know where I’m going and who I am on that score.”

So, Rice knows what she wants when her term is up at the White House. And clearly it doesn’t involve more time spent strutting the world stage. Which is a great shame.

The world needs to see women like Rice – who are sharp, savvy and able to strut in a sexy pair of heels – at the helm of international discussion and decision. To see her imbued with such authority and gravitas sends a powerful message to millions of women and young girls. The example she sets of what’s possible and achievable is unparalleled.

If we look past politics for a moment – the war in Iraq and Rice’s blind defence of the indefensible – and instead look at the extraordinary number of glass ceilings she has smashed, as a single, childless, black woman, then Rice deserves global applause.

Not only has she spent her career mixing with the most influential men on earth, she has managed to cajole and charm each of them. The former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon reportedly was dazzled by her legs, along with her passion for peace. While Britain’s Jack Straw was totally on board with United States policy on Iraq after he travelled there with Rice on her Boeing 757 (mind you, Rice gave him her pull-out bed, while she slept on the aisle floor). Down Under both Stephen Smith and Alexander Downer have been equally enchanted, the latter suggesting Rice and he are ”obviously very good friends”.

With such talent, charm and good taste in shoes, it’s a tremendous shame that Condoleezza Rice wants to step out of the global media spotlight.

But even worse than shameful is that ”other” revelation.

In addition to shoes and shopping, Rice has a passion for football. She says her dream job would be commissioner of the NFL.

Now, I have no idea what American footballers wear on their feet – but it must be bloody damn good.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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