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Testimony presents challenges for Rice

Besides the facts, demeanor is factor

WASHINGTON -- Focus on the facts. Avoid arrogance. Give no ground but still show compassion.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice faces a balancing act as she prepares to testify in public Thursday before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terror attacks. She needs to defend the Bush administration's efforts to combat terrorism without seeming to be defensive.

And she will need to make sure that the cool, polished manner that is usually her strength does not come across to the American people as cold.

Rice, 49, is well-rehearsed for this forum. She answered the commission's questions in private for more than four hours two months ago with what both Democrats and Republicans said was candor and cooperation.

More recently, she has firmly defended the administration's response to the attacks in other public forums.

This time, though, the stakes are higher, in part because the White House fought so hard to keep her from testifying before the commission in public -- and under oath -- before it finally relented.

In addition, the commission now has heard from Richard A. Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism chief who accused Bush and his national security team of doing too little to thwart Al Qaeda before the attacks and of being fixated on Iraq after the attacks.

Rice will be speaking to the nation and the world as well as to the commissioners. Seated right behind her in the hearing room will be family members of those who died in the attacks. Those family members, who embraced Clarke after his testimony, have their own long list of questions they think she should answer.

Rice, a former Stanford University provost, is "very good at making her point; she's very good at arguments," said Wayne Fields, a specialist on political rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis. "She's also very tough, and sometimes that toughness becomes the persona through which everything else is seen. She needs to relax that. This is about national anguish more than it is about any administration."

At the same time, though, it is important to the White House for Rice to offer reassurance that the administration has done its utmost in the fight against terrorism. President Bush has pinned his reelection strategy on his resolute response to terrorism, and his poll numbers in that regard have been slipping.

"He just cannot afford to take any more hits on national security," said Democratic strategist Paul Begala.

Bush expressed his confidence in his national security adviser yesterday, telling reporters: "She'll be great. She's a very smart, capable person who knows exactly what took place and will lay out the facts. . . . I'm looking forward to people hearing her."

Begala said that because of her loyalty to Bush, Rice has a penchant "sometimes to go beyond the facts in her zeal to make the president look good."

"There's a huge difference when you put one hand on the Bible and the other hand in the air," he said. "She has to stick straight to the facts because she's so gifted and bright that no one is going to cut her any slack if she gets the facts wrong."

There are a number of points on which Rice and others on the Bush national security team have seemed to contradict one another, and Rice herself at times has seemed to offer conflicting accounts.

She's already modified one statement, backpedaling in her private appearance before the commission from her May 2002 statement that no one could have predicted that a hijacked airplane could be used as a missile. It was later revealed that officials had considered the possibility several times.

Thomas Kean, the Republican chairman of the commission, has said the panel wants to use Rice's appearance to look at "what substantive differences there are, perhaps, in testimony between Dr. Rice and any other witnesses." The commission was insistent that her testimony be under oath, thus under threat of perjury.

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