Hillary Clinton Gets Her Message Out, the Hard Way

Despite distractions, and outbursts, Clinton's trip is viewed as a success.

August 14, 2009, 2:22 PM

NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug. 14, 2009— -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton apparently accomplished what she set out to do on her trip to Africa. She pressed governments from Kenya to Nigeria to Libera for reform.

She highlighted the plight of women in Congo, meeting with rape victims and hearing their stories.

But the trip did not go entirely as planned.

Media headlines instead focused on Clinton's more controversial remarks on tangential issues, and America's top diplomat found herself commenting more on someone who was not even there: her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

As Secretary Clinton embarked on the 11-day, seven-country swing through the continent, President Clinton departed for North Korea on what was described by officials as a "humanitarian" mission to retrieve two American journalists being held there.

President Clinton's successful trip was a media coup, one that overshadowed his wife's arrival in Africa. In interviews and press conferences soon after her arrival, reporters peppered her for information about her husband's trip as the rescue dominated headlines around the world.

"I've spoken to my husband," she told reporters. "I am very pleased."

But Clinton wasn't so pleased days later, when in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a question invoking her husband was asked from a Congolese student. The student asked, through a translator, what "Mr. Clinton" thought about a trade deal between China and the DRC.

"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" Clinton said sharply.

"My husband is not secretary of state, I am," she replied, more than a little annoyed. "If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband."

The comments, and video, ricocheted around the world, prompting commentators and analysts to wonder if the secretary was withering under her husband's shadow. She had just spent the past month fighting rumors of her marginalization in the Obama administration while nursing a broken elbow.

Headlines questioning whether the secretary of state was bitter were not what the administration had envisioned when choosing Congo for a visit. The country has been called the most dangerous in the world for women, because of massive and brutal sexual violence committed against civilian women and girls -- something Clinton had hoped to highlight.

More than 500,000 women have been raped during Congo's 15-year conflict, and the problem shows no sign of slowing. Clinton specifically visited Goma, the capital of Eastern Congo -- where most of the violence occurs -- to draw focus to the issue. The top diplomat pledged the United States would give $17 million toward sexual violence programs in the DRC.

Hillary Clinton's Angry Remark

"We want to banish the problems of sexual violence into the dark past where it belongs," Clinton said at a roundtable with NGOs and activists against sexual and gender-based violence.

But the media focus remained squarely on Clinton's "channeling my husband" outburst, following her to her next stop, Nigeria The State Department first tried to say that the question had been lost in translation, but later said the student misspoke and meant to ask about President Obama.

"Perhaps he was nervous in talking to the secretary of state," suggested State Department spokesman PJ Crowley.

Crowley sought to put Clinton's outburst in context.

"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 said.

The question followed her to her next stop in Nigeria, where amongst the very serious issues of terrorism in Northern Africa, corruption and rigged elections, she was asked to explain her comments.

"What was going through your mind?" a reporter asked. Clinton chose to ignore the query, focusing her answer instead on the first part of the question asking her to reflect on her trip thus far.

But that was not the only rhetorical misstep to snatch headlines from Clinton's mission in Africa.

At a town hall event in Abuja, Nigeria, she compared the 2000 U.S. election Florida recount to the allegedly rigged election in Nigeria.

"In 2000, our presidential election came down to one state where the brother of the man running for president was the governor of the state," she told the crowd. "So we have our problems, too."

The comparison drew sharp criticism from conservatives in Washington, who balked at the notion that Clinton would compare a United States election to one in Nigeria marred with missing ballot boxes, inflated voter counts, and shooting of voters at polling stations. Again, the headlines were concerned less with governance in Nigeria and more with whether Clinton made yet another misstep.

Clinton Again References Her Husband Bill in Africa

Again, Crowley tried to explain her remarks.

"The point she is making is that it's about a disputed result and then the willingness of the candidates to accept a flawed result rather than, say, resort to violence," he told ABC News shortly after.

The final stop on her Africa visit was to Cape Verde, a tiny country made up of islands off the coast of West Africa. The country has enjoyed a prosperous and peaceful existence for decades, something Secretary Clinton praised. There she reflected on the entire trip.

"I love coming to Africa," Clinton told reporters. "I am always moved by the kindness and greatness you see in people who live in conditions and under oppression that is hard for those of us in America to even imagine. So I leave even more energized about what lies ahead."

In what seemed a fitting bookend to the trip, she said of her visit to Cape Verde, "I can't wait to tell my husband about a place that I don't think he's ever seen."

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