Powell: ‘I am on the president’s agenda’

Colin Powell listened with growing but controlled anger. He saw the question coming. After all, there is no charge against a secretary of state more serious than the one leveled by some members of his own Republican Party — and even in the administration he serves.

They accuse him of leading a government agency that not only opposes President Bush’s foreign policy, but also tries to undermine it. His response came out in a single well-known barnyard expletive. Then, to emphasize the point, he added: “That’s quotable.”

“I can show you people in Washington who claim to be pushing the president’s agenda, [but] who are not,” Mr. Powell continued, sitting in his small inner office on the seventh floor of the State Department…

‘It’s not how old you are’

Helen Thomas hoped in vain that her 80th birthday on August 4 — a date she shares with the British Queen Mother and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader — would pass unnoticed. “I don’t want anyone to know,” she said. “I don’t see why people have to be stamped by their age — that’s prejudice.”

But nothing made her angrier than the “congratulations” she received on her “retirement”, when she announced in May that she was leaving her front-row seat in the White House press room, where she had reported on eight presidents for United Press International (UPI) over four decades. She was simply changing jobs, and is now a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, the US chain that owns dozens of publications, including the Houston Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner…

Political punch in a package of charm

Condoleezza Rice has rarely heard a question she doesn’t know how to answer, from queries about her tumultuous childhood in segregated Alabama to her success in the male world of superpower politics, nuclear weapons and arms control.

She meets me with the friendly smile and easy hospitality of a west-coaster, defying the image of someone anointed by Washington insiders to become the most powerful woman in the world in a year. The chief foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, Rice is being tipped as a likely secretary of state or national security adviser should Bush win the White House.

As huge a task as this sounds, Rice’s own life story has the word “amazing” written all over it. At 45, she has been the first black woman in just about any job she’s taken on: from special assistant for national security affairs to President George Bush when she was only 34, to provost of California’s prestigious Stanford University (the Harvard of the west coast) where she managed a budget of nearly $2bn…

Trying, crying times

Ted Olson’s eyes fill with tears when he talks about his late wife, Barbara, but he doesn’t mind the emotion, even in public. More than eight months after she died in the September 11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, he still can’t get used to waking up alone in bed and not speaking with her on the telephone several times a day.

“This was a love affair that lasted as long as we knew each other,” he says, staring into the distance. “That relationship was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me, and when I think about her, I can hardly think about anything else.”

Olson has had a lot to think about — he is the US solicitor-general, or the government’s top courtroom lawyer — but trying times such as these are certainly no novelty for him. During the disputed 2000 presidential election, he argued George W. Bush’s case before the Supreme Court. In the early 1980s, he defended President Ronald Reagan in the infamous Iran-Contra scandal…

Working for Uncle Sam

Rob Lowe’s comeback story is of a peculiar kind. For his audience, seeing one of 1980s-Hollywood’s highest-profile heartthrobs in a serious, political role, in an award-winning TV drama series about life behind the scenes at the White House, has provoked a reaction just short of shock. But for the 37-year-old actor and ex-Brat Pack member, whose career had slipped over the past decade, playing deputy communications director Sam Seaborn in “The West Wing” is a logical turn that shows “everything I can bring to a part”.

“It taps more into my abilities as an actor than any other part I’ve done,” says Lowe, whose looks typecast him as the invariable romantic youth from the start of his career. “This is a role on which my physicality has no bearing whatsoever. Sam could have been played by anyone. The hallmarks of this character aren’t physical but verbal and cerebral”…

Big Daddy Larry King

It took Larry King 66 years, seven marriages and five children to discover the greatest “thrill” in life: parenthood. Sitting in the children’s room of his Mediterranean-style mansion in Beverly Hills, with five-week-old Cannon in his arms and 15-month-old Chance playing on the floor beside him, King says that he pinches himself every day — “I can’t believe everything that’s happened to me”.

Having interviewed nearly 10,000 people, among them six US presidents, being recognised around the world by the millions watching “Larry King Live” on CNN every day, and paid “handsomely for something I’d do for free” — it all pales beside the joy of new fatherhood.

“Before, I was so goal-oriented that the (professional) goals were ahead of everything. I loved my children and tried to be a good father, but work always came first. Ten years ago, if you had asked me whether I’d rather have a little baby or moderate a presidential debate, I’d have chosen the debate. Now the babies and the family come first”…

Must be talking to an Anjel

Anjelica Huston has already come to terms with the fact that her first half-century will soon be behind her, but the prospect of joining the ranks of Hollywood’s much-pitied unemployed middle-aged actresses has yet to make her list of immediate concerns. With three films scheduled for release this year, another one having just started production and a script she’s writing to direct, Huston is now busier than she was in her early thirties.

She claims that one can “always find jobs” in show business, or “create jobs if one can’t find them”, although she says that her turning to writing and directing “certainly wasn’t as a result of not getting any work”.

“Most young actors aren’t being offered parts, either, so what’s the point of harping on a negative when you can create something?” she demands. “Go to a class, learn to dance, do something with your life but don’t sit complaining about what you haven’t got. I don’t have $100m — it’s too bad. But I can go and figure something that will get me my next $10m”…

Turn, turn, turn

Arianna Huffington says that she’s had a “political conversion” — not from right to left, but “beyond right and left”. Disillusioned with the “degradation” of US politics, the outspoken Greek-born author and columnist has broken with her conservative past and, apparently, opened up to the sufferings of the poor and underprivileged. She denies she’s become a liberal, but believes that the political system can be changed “through a movement throughout the country, along the lines of the civil rights movement”.

She is also frustrated with the money flooding into US politics; ironic, some say, since her former husband, then-congressman Michael Huffington of California, spent nearly $30m on his unsuccessful senate run in 1994. But that campaign was an “eye-opener”, says Arianna, who is now a staunch supporter of Arizona Senator John McCain’s campaign finance reform efforts…

So busy at diplomacy, he ‘ignored’ the US election

Richard Holbrooke is about to make yet another exit from the US foreign policy stage — the fourth in his 38-year career. Many of the people who know him well, though, are already predicting a stormy comeback.

This is the second time he has come within a whisker of the job that many in Washington say he’s been pursuing for years: secretary of state. In 1996, a year after he brokered the Dayton agreements that ended the war in Bosnia, he lost out to Madeleine Albright — the first woman to hold the top diplomatic post.

This time it was the slimmest of election wins by Republican George W. Bush that decided Holbrooke’s fate. Although the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, was careful during the campaign not to reveal his potential cabinet choices, foreign policy insiders were betting that Holbrooke, at present US ambassador to the United Nations, would most likely have been his choice to succeed Albright…

It’s show time

Conan O’Brien has no regrets that the longest election in US history is over. True, Campaign 2000 and the 36 agonising days that followed were a gift from heaven for late-night TV hosts. They were courted by both Al Gore and George W. Bush, who made “nice-guy” appearances aimed at winning young voters (keener viewers of late comedy shows than the prime-time evening news). At the same time they had a ball firing jokes at the candidates.

But now, with a new president in office, “it gets even better”, says O’Brien, beaming at the thought of the mocking monologues probably being born in the writing room of his show, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”, as we speak.

“Presidents get funnier all the time,” he says. “Nixon was a lot of fun for comedians — a good target. But Clinton may be the funniest. The bonus when you are finally president is that you don’t have to come on these dreadful shows any more”…