UNITED NATIONS -- Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who lost out in a bruising bid for the job of secretary of state, may have the last laugh.
Rice has emerged as far and away the front-runner to succeed Tom Donilon as President Obama's national security adviser later this year, according to an administration official familiar with the president's thinking. The job would place her at the nexus of foreign policy decision-making and allow her to rival the influence of Secretary of State John Kerry in shaping the president's foreign policy.
The appointment would mark a dramatic twist of fortune for Rice, whose prospects to become the country's top diplomat fizzled last year following a round of television appearances in which she provided what turned out to be a flawed account of a Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
That episode ignited a firestorm of criticism from Senate Republicans, who questioned her honesty and vowed to oppose her nomination, and exposed misgivings from more liberal detractors who questioned whether her temperament, her family's investments and her relations with African strongmen made her unfit to lead the State Department.
In plotting her political rehabilitation, Rice has kept whatever disappointment she may have felt in check, employing humor to blunt the indignity of the experience.
At the same time, her staff has sought to erect a more protective shield around her, moving to restrict access by mid-level foreign delegates suspected of leaking details about her more controversial positions and sometimes undiplomatic remarks in confidential deliberations at the United Nations.
Last month, Rice marked her reentry onto the national political stage with an appearance on Comedy Central's "Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, a sympathetic host who denounced the "malevolence" of her Republican critics and urged her respond with her trademark cussing. "What would you say to them?" he asked. "And feel free to talk like a sailor."
In December, just days after she withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state, Rice made a showing at the U.N. Correspondent's Association annual ball, where she assured U.N.-based reporters and diplomats she was not disappointed to be sticking around the United Nations for a while longer. "There is no place in the world I'd rather be tonight," she said. The punch line appeared on a screen behind her: a picture of the U.S. State Department.
Rice made light of reporting highlighting her support for controversial African leaders, including Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose government stands accused of backing a brutal insurgency in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo: "I'm amazed by some of the work you do -- absolutely incredible. Some of you have been able to uncover things about me that I didn't even know about myself. Seriously, even I didn't know that I once lost a human heart-eating contest to Idi Amin."
Rice has largely fallen below the radar as media attention, but her standing within the Obama administration remains secure, according to White House officials and Democratic lawmakers. Her U.N. colleagues are betting she will ultimately serve as Obama's national security adviser, probably some time after the U.S. assumes the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council in July.