After a year filled with unpleasant surprises for other Bush administration leaders, count Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has emerged as the biggest political winner.
Compared to the bashing that other top members of Team Bush have taken in the polls, she's the Oprah of the administration: beloved, unbowed and buzz-worthy as a possible presidential candidate in 2008.
A December Time magazine poll, for example, found her approval rating to be 53 percent, "the highest in the Administration," vs. 41 percent for President Bush. And that was before Bush and Company experienced a slight improvement in the polls after the President's televised pre-Christmas speech on Iraq.
In fact, sometimes it seems as though everybody is talking about Rice running for president except her!
"I will not run for president of the United States," she said, beating back host Tim Russert's persistent questions on NBC's "Meet the Press" last March. "How is that? I don't know how many ways to say 'no' in this town."
Actually, Rice does know how to say "no." It is others who refuse to believe her. She said "no" to Russert again on Oct. 16, noting that she was flattered but wanted to do other things with her life. She said "no" again to "Fox News Sunday's" Chris Wallace and again to a BBC television program, "The Politics Show," on Oct. 23.
Yet, the yay-sayers, which is the opposite of nay-sayers, point out that, even when she pressed on whether she absolute, positively, definitely will not run under any possible circumstances, no way, no how, Rice always leaves a little bitty opening.
One item in US News and World Report last May quoted unnamed "political associates" of the secretary of state as saying, "She definitely wants to be president," but she doesn't want to quit to do it; "She wants to be drafted."
Credibility-wise, the use of unnamed sources in stories like this remind me of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn's line about an oral agreement not being worth the paper it's printed on. I advise that you give hot Condi-draft tips as much credibility as you should give to the names that are not backing them up.
Nevertheless, that blind news-gossip item fed a rising cottage industry in Draft-Condi-for-2008 Web sites. One can find lavish praise for Secretary Rice's prospects on these sites, along with T-shirts, bumper stickers, bobble-head dolls and invitations to contribute cash to the draft-Condi cause. Major credit cards accepted.
Or, if you're really interested in political fiction out of the Twilight Zone, you can pick up political consultant Dick Morris' book, "Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race" (HarperCollins)
Am I being cynical? No, just sarcastic. If I came out with my own book, titled, "Is Dick Morris Right? Or Does America Just Like to Watch Girls Fight?," that would be cynical.
Praising popular celebrities by saying they should run for president is a long-cherished American tradition. But when it fires up a serious campaign for someone before much is known about their beliefs, that's when I get cynical.
Condi's no dummy. She sees how tough it is for even the hungriest of candidates to run for president, let alone win. Nowhere in her distinguished background has she shown an appetite for the long, hard, often-energizing, often-humiliating slog to the White House. Americans promise a Rose Garden to the winner at the end, not on the road to get there.
As such, I can't help but wonder how much of this Run-Condi-Run excitement would be swirling around her if she were white.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's great that we have advanced so quickly from a time when black skin was an indisputable liability for a presidential candidate to its becoming a measurable asset, as some pollsters found when multitudes were urging Colin Powell to run.
But serious governing demands substance more than symbols. The more I learned about Colin Powell's beliefs, the more I believed he was someone for whom I could vote. I feel the same, so far, about Sen. Barack Obama, the rising black Democratic star from Illinois. I enjoy being a swing voter. We keep both parties on their toes.
I might want to vote for Dr. Rice, too, were she to defy my expectations and run anyway. But, first I'd have to know what she believes.
Where does she stand on jobs, schools, housing, crime, outsourcing, immigration, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, criminal justice, economic development and the priorities of a Congress that cavalierly cuts taxes without cutting spending, except on social programs?
Political views aside, I like Condoleezza Rice. She's gifted, expertly informed and a well-qualified manager. She also says that she's not interested in running for president and I take her at her word. But, if she changes her mind, I eagerly look forward to finding out what she believes. Great nations do not grow on national security issues alone.