WASHINGTON — For those lately bereft of leadership, the past few days have provided both a respite and a reason for hope.
Make that two reasons — two women — Sally Yates and Condoleezza Rice.
It's likely that neither would prefer to be singled out as women who are brilliant but rather as brilliant people who happen to be women. Nevertheless, I'm guessing that women (and enlightened men) who heard Yates and Rice had an extra spring in their steps. I admit, they made me proud.
Yates, as most know by now, is the former acting attorney general whom Donald Trump fired, perhaps confusing his current role with his previous gig on "The Apprentice." The Donald dumped her because she refused to enforce his travel ban, which she found "unlawful."
Rice, former secretary of state during the George W. Bush administration, happened to be in town the same day to promote her new book, "Democracy." Watching her Tuesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," one was reminded of her unique story growing up in the segregated South to become one of the most powerful individuals on the world stage. Responding to questions about current foreign affairs, she was characteristically reasonable and — that rarest of qualities these days — palpably sane.
As I watched both women, the word that kept coming to mind was competent. Oh, how once gone, we miss it. Other equally dusty adjectives include whip-smart, steady, unflappable, knowledgeable, focused, straightforward, correct.
Anyone watching Yates during her hearing would have been impressed with her calm, her clarity and, especially, her dominance under questioning. Notably, she schooled Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, when he tried to suggest that her legal reasoning was incorrect and that she was partisan in her decision not to enforce the travel ban.
It must have taken a supreme act of will for Yates to keep a straight face when countering his condescending reading of a statute pertaining to executive power in restricting immigrants' entry into the country. First, Cruz asked if she was familiar with statute blah, blah, blah, section blah, blah, blah. Not off the top of her head, she said. Upon Cruz's rendering of the statute in his best GreenEggsAndHam voice, Yates said that, yes, she was familiar with that and with a subsequently promulgated statute that she felt overrode the previous. Namely, that immigration law can't be applied either preferentially or as discriminating on the basis of race, nationality or place of birth.
But, she said to constitutional-lawyer Cruz, she was mainly concerned with the constitutionality of the president's ban. Brief pause for relishing the moment. It was riveting theater, made all the more enjoyable because Cruz comes off as persistently arrogant. His debating skills may have been superior to other Republican primary contenders, but debates are won with arguments, not confidence.
Yates also testified on the subject of Michael Flynn, whom Trump also fired, but only after The Washington Post revealed what Trump had known — that Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the transition and then lied about it. Yates said she had warned Trump transition officials to beware of Flynn. And, apparently, President Barack Obama personally warned Trump against hiring Flynn.
Meanwhile, Rice, who before becoming secretary of state was national security adviser to Bush leading up to the Iraq War, looked rested and radiant at the "Morning Joe" table and made one hope she's in close contact with the current administration. Her observations on Russia ("Putin is an eye-for-an-eye guy") were especially illuminating. Validating what others had testified during the Senate hearings, she said Putin despised Hillary Clinton and leaked hacked emails from Democratic campaign computers in hopes of hurting her. It was payback, in other words, for when then-Secretary of State Clinton challenged the fairness of Russia's elections in 2011.3 comments on this story
But here Rice deviated from the popular narrative that Putin wanted Trump to win and warned against ascribing other motivations to him. Putin would have wanted anyone to win against Clinton, she said. Regarding Russia's interference in the 2016 election, this has long been one of Russia's goals, mainly to undermine Americans' confidence in the democratic process. Hence, in part, Rice's timely book.
Whatever one's political persuasion, I doubt I'm alone in noting the too-rare character exhibited by Rice and Yates. Being reminded of what we once expected of leaders and leadership, maybe we'll insist upon better next time. As we've seen, there are other women besides Clinton who could be president.