For Condi Rice and Colin Powell, They Were ‘Days of Fire,’ Too

Peter Baker’s portrait of the Bush-Cheney administration sheds light on the roles that the first black secretaries of state played in shaping American foreign policy.

President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell meet in the White House, May 12, 2006, Washington, D.C. Martin Simon-Pool/Getty Images

After the 2004 presidential election, Powell became a quiet dissenter toward the administration’s war policy. After Powell resigned, Bush found in Rice a more suitable partner in an effort to reset America’s international relationships. In many instances he regarded the woman who grew up as part of the black middle class in segregated Birmingham, Ala., as both a trusted adviser and little sister. Rice, in turn, basked in the glow that proximity to the president afforded.

Where Powell experienced profound frustration over his inability to sway Bush toward more robust diplomacy during his tenure, Rice found the president more open to diplomacy, to the lasting chagrin of Cheney. Amid rancorous debates over whether Geneva Convention rules applied to al-Qaida prisoners, Rice opposed the Cheney-led group that said they did not with a personal plea to a president increasingly concerned with his place in history.

“Mr. President,” she said, “don’t let this be your legacy.”

As a study in black political leadership, Days of Fire offers up an incisive portrait of two of the leading contemporary black foreign policy leaders’ relationship not just with a president but also with the multilayered and global institutions of power centered in Washington and spreading out globally. Powell’s and Rice’s successes, shortcomings and mistakes remind us how far blacks have come since the civil rights era, and the high costs and unspoken collateral damage behind these achievements.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.