At least one former senator intent on confronting Ms. Rice seemed sensitive to her background.
“Let me say at the beginning I’m very impressed, indeed, I’d go so far as to say moved by your story, the story of your life and what you’ve accomplished,” Bob Kerrey, a commission member and former Democratic senator from Nebraska, told Ms. Rice, referring to her early childhood in segregated Birmingham, Ala. “It’s quite extraordinary.”
Actually, Ms. Rice has said in interviews that there is nothing unusual about her success given her upbringing by parents and grandparents who were college educated and who prodded her to excel.
It was Mr. Kerrey who brought a touch of the extraordinary to a mostly tepid, inconclusive televised hearing. His wild-card questioning and difficulty remembering Ms. Rice’s name gave the starchy national security adviser a chance to show, live on every network and cable news show, a flash of personality so often missing from her public persona. “I don’t think I look like Dick Clarke,” she said with a patient smile after Mr. Kerrey repeatedly called her “Dr. Clarke.” Richard A. Clarke, the former counterterrorism chief, testified before the panel last month.
CNN and other news outlets had hyped her appearance as a kind of showdown, but as it turned out, Ms. Rice’s much-anticipated moment in the spotlight did not shed new light on the administration’s handling of terrorist threats before Sept. 11. If anything, her measured performance brought a breath of reality to a television universe too often clotted with distorted images of black women, most notably the angry Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth making her vengeful comeback on the NBC show “The Apprentice.”
The fact that Ms. Rice is a black woman is rarely mentioned in Washington — she is so much a part of the establishment and blends so smoothly into the buttoned-down Bush White House that her heritage is usually invisible.
And after her testimony, Lee H. Hamilton, a commissioner and a former Democratic House member from Indiana, told reporters that he found Ms. Rice “articulate,” an adjective that even she has dismissed as condescending.
Mostly, Ms. Rice spoke as fast as she could to throw a protective cordon around the president. In an administration in which the president is rarely described as “articulate” and the taciturn vice president spends much time in undisclosed locations, Ms. Rice is one of the most familiar faces on television.