Aug. 11, 2009— -- The State Department today suggested there is more to the story of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's curt response Monday to a Congolese student who seemed to ask her to give her husband's opinion on a local issue.
On Monday, at a town hall in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a Congolese student asked the secretary and former NBA basketball player Dikembe Mutombo a question through an English translator.
"We've all heard about the Chinese contracts in this county, the interferences from the World Bank against this contract. What does Mr. Clinton think, through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton, and what does Mr. Mutombo think on this situation?" the translator said.
"Wait, you want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the secretary of state. I am. So, you ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I'm not going to be channeling my husband," she said sharply.
Muted clapping and laughter could be heard from the audience, but most students may have likely been confused. It turned out the student had intended to ask about President Obama's opinion, not former President Bill Clinton's.
Clinton spokesman P.J. Crowley was very careful in his comments today, saying he doesn't know exactly what happened, but he suggested that the questioner misspoke instead of the translator, as Clinton aides first suggested on Monday.
"It is our understanding that the student -- perhaps he was nervous in talking to the secretary of state; he meant to say -- meant to ask a question about, you know, the views of President Obama. By mistake, he said the views of President Clinton," said Crowley during the State Department briefing Tuesday.
Clinton has long been fighting suggestions that she's been sidelined or overshadowed by others in making foreign policy decisions. But Monday, her heated response to a question about her superstar-status husband may put the question back into the spotlight.
Crowley attempted to put the secretary's response in context.
"Obviously, you know, she is the secretary of state," he said. "As we've seen, her husband, as a significant global figure in his own right, you know, has his own agenda."An abiding theme that she has in her trip to Africa is empowering women. As the question was posed to her, it was posed in a way that said, 'I want to get the views of two men, but not you, the secretary of state.' And I think it obviously -- she reacted to that," he added. "At the conclusion of the town hall, she and the young man, you know, got together, and I don't think there were any hard feelings on either side."Asked if Clinton had any regret in how she responded to the question, Crowley said he had not spoken with the secretary.
"She's currently in the air coming back from Goma, and I have not talked to her," he said.
Clinton's intense irritation followed the successful surprise trip Bill Clinton took to North Korea to free two American journalists detained there, a trip that eclipsed her own exhausting mission to Africa.
Her response -- albeit, due to a misunderstanding -- showed how unwelcome the suggestion was that Clinton is her husband's spokesperson.
The news of his visit broke after Clinton had left for her trip to Africa last Monday. Since then, she has been peppered with questions about her husband's trip, and whether she had played a role in it, rather than what she planned to accomplish in Africa.
Hillary Clinton Fights Notion She Has Been Marginalized by Administration
"Clinton repeatedly reiterated that her husband was not involved in making policy, rather, she was. So I suspect when she was asked this question she was pretty much ready to blow," said ABC News' Cokie Roberts. "If you're secretary of state, and someone asks you about your husband's view of something, I think any woman would be upset."
Clinton is in the midst of an exhausting 11-day tour around the African continent that has been aimed at highlighting global problems affecting developing nations, such as disease, political violence and food security.
On Monday, she participated in the signing of the Pepfar Partnership Framework, an international health initiative combating AIDS, with the Angolan foreign minister.
Recently, Clinton has made a point of saying how involved she is in daily foreign policy decisions, and scoffs at reports that she has been marginalized within an administration filled with foreign policy heavyweights.
A broken elbow in March prevented her from going to Moscow with the president and high-level U.S. officials to meet with Russian leaders, and attending a major world summit in Italy the following week.
After delivering a major foreign policy speech in New York and appearing on a slew of political talk shows, she made the highly publicized remark at a press conference: "I broke my elbow, not my larynx."
While Clinton has fought hard against the suggestion, it could be that the recent misunderstanding could put the question of whether she is being overshadowed back into play.