Rice Tries to Revamp America's Image

It will take some doing to dispel the current European caricature of Americans and their president as being reckless and out of touch, but it doesn't hurt to speak French and wear a superbly cut suit while trying.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) is the new face of U.S. foreign policy in more ways than one. On her first foreign trip as President Bush's (search) chief diplomat, Rice is displaying a sophisticated style right at home on the streets and in the salons of taste-making capitals such as Rome and Paris.

Her custom-made suits have included a black boucle number with gold brocade that probably cost more than your first car. She favors chic Italian heels, nipped waists and understated jewelry.

Rice's eight-day hopscotch across Europe and the Middle East is meant to project a different image of the United States, and change the subject from frustration and anger over the Iraq war.

She is resolute in defending American policies, many of which she helped direct as Bush's first-term national security adviser.

But she also comes with intellectual and academic bona fides, as well as years of training in classical piano. She visits a Parisian music school Wednesday. The visit is a cultural grace note after her speech inviting debate with the French political elite on Tuesday.

Rice worked the French national motto, "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite," into her speech at the political science academy Sciences Po, although her accent was distinctly American.

She charmed some in the audience, including Sciences Po economist Francois Rachline, who called her "courageous."

Wednesday morning's Le Figaro gave her a complimentary review.

"With an impeccable silhouette, she put the 'la' back in the new diplomacy," the newspaper said.

Rice's photograph has been on the front pages of newspapers across Europe since last week, with never a hair out of place.

There she is in The Guardian, appearing to keep her distance from British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. And there she is looking chummy with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the International Herald Tribune.

Rice has remarked that the paparazzi-like coverage was jarring for the former Stanford provost, although she has had moments in the limelight, even posing for Vogue in a black evening gown with dÄecolletage.

The intensive coverage of Rice's trip is testament both to the interest Europeans have in the plans and policies of their much larger ally across the Atlantic and to a curiosity about Rice herself.

Rice is the first black woman to become secretary of state, and her race and upbringing in the segregated South are cause for comment as much in Europe as at home.

Her gender and her marital status — single — also draw sexist and even crude remarks in Europe and elsewhere. An Iranian leader called Rice "emotional," and one German headline said she was "coquettish" in her news conference with Schroeder.

In an interview with NBC News in Rome, Rice shrugged off the scrutiny.

"I will do what I do," Rice said. "I'm a package, I'm who I am and that includes being female."