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Secretaries of State take the heat

President Bush's secretaries of State have a good deal of charm. But, as Colin Powell and now Condoleezza Rice discovered, charm doesn't help much when you are up against the president's inner circle, led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In the march to war, they walked all over Mr. Powell and saddled him with the ultimate humiliation of having to read to the United Nations Security Council a mendacious speech about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

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On the eve of war, according to Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker, a foreign diplomat told Powell at a social event that he had heard that Mr. Bush was sleeping like a baby. The secretary replied, "I'm sleeping like a baby, too. Every two hours, I wake up screaming."

So, few were surprised when, after Bush's reelection, Powell resigned. And characteristic of camaraderie in the White House, a source let it be known that no one had asked him to stay.

So now Ms. Rice is jetting around the world putting out diplomatic fires, some of which others in the administration have helped to fuel. One of the most vexing of those fires, which set the chanceries of Europe ablaze, came from their impression that the Bush administration was not categorical enough about forbidding cruel and inhumane techniques in interrogating terrorist suspects.

The issue dogged the secretary's footsteps from Berlin to Kiev. And her job wasn't made easier by the way the White House sometimes undercut her assurances to foreign ministers.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, on whose instructions I do not know, defended the practice of "rendition" - that is, secretly moving suspects to other countries - as a vital tool in the war against terror.

That led foreign diplomats and American reporters to ask, "Who speaks for the president?" The visiting Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, after a meeting in the Oval Office, told reporters, "I'm quite happy that Condoleezza Rice went to Europe. She took the heat."

She did indeed, just as Powell did before her.

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Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.


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