Anatomy of an Outburst: Why Did Hillary Clinton Get Angry in Africa?

Sharp response raises questions about feelings, relationship with Bill Clinton.

August 11, 2009, 5:58 PM

Aug. 12, 2009— -- Seemingly insulted, Hillary Clinton bristled Monday when a Congolese student, speaking through a translator, asked her to state her husband's opinion -- rather than her own -- on a trade deal between China and Congo.

The outburst made headlines mostly because it was such a rare moment for Hillary Clinton, known for a steely control of her temper.

While most of us can't relate to being one half of America's most powerful political couple, or to even having an opinion on Chinese trade contracts in Congo -- let alone a husband with opinions on them, too -- we can certainly relate to feeling upstaged or put down.

There Clinton was in Kinshasa, sweltering away in nearly 100-degree heat, recovering from a broken elbow, expounding on just the sorts of things Americans don't want to read about when they drink their morning coffee and pick up the paper: wartime rape, illegal mining, the World Bank.

On this, her longest overseas trip as secretary of state, she looked and sounded very much like America's senior diplomat. Until, that is, she was asked to convey her husband's opinion on the trade agreement.

Adding insult to injury was Bill Clinton. Fresh off retrieving two American journalists from the indignities of the North Korean gulag, and still basking in the headlines and accolades that followed, the former president was in Las Vegas Monday living it up in the conditioned air of one of the city's most expensive steak restaurants as he celebrated his 63rd birthday (several days early).

One cannot help but understand why Hillary Clinton got angry. But nor can one be expected to ignore a senior diplomat whose statements were anything but diplomatic.

"Now she's secretary of state and the world still wants to know what HE thinks about the World Bank. She's the nation's chief diplomat, and HE's the one who gets to save damsels from North Korea's Mr. Evil," wrote conservative columnist Kathleen Parker in an e-mail.

"As secretary of state, obviously, she needs to keep her cool. But as wife of Bill, who can blame her? That little eruption has been a long time coming. The only surprise is that the student who posed the question didn't suffer any burns," she wrote.

For Clinton, a picture of such cool collectedness that she was attacked on the presidential campaign trail for not showing enough emotion and then accused of bluffing the one time she cried, the outburst was a rare demonstration of her feelings.

"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," Clinton said sharply, pointing with both hands at the questioner.

Clearly a nerve was struck. Since the campaign, it's been suspected that Clinton was worried that she would be upstaged by Bill Clinton, and her reaction in Africa has been read by some as proof of that suspicion.

"I think her reaction is pretty clear. Hillary Clinton has had to walk in her husband's shadow for decades, biding her time, holding her head high while suffering public humiliation, all the while knowing that she's the wonky one, not he," wrote Parker.

It now appears that there was a problem with the translation. The student was really asking about President Obama's opinion and not Bill Clinton's, but the secretary's reaction was authentic.

Her supporters are willing to acknowledge that the secretary got angry and "reacted sharply," but they caution reading too much about her psychology or her relationship with Bill Clinton into a one-off comment.

"I tend to think this is an episode that will quickly pass. It doesn't mean much," said Bob Shrum, an NYU professor and Democratic political consultant.

"She reacted rather sharply and it's usually best to save such sharp reactions for the holding room, out of public sight. To read more into it, to say she 'cracked' or was 'stressed' — those are loaded words and I think unfair," he said.

"I don't think she has a problem with her husband playing an active role in diplomacy," Shrum added.

Bill Clinton also has a reputation for playing it cool and came under fire when his ire rose during his wife's presidential campaign. He shocked an audience into silence when he railed against then-Senator Obama, calling the candidate's attacks on his wife "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

But Hillary Clinton kept her temper far more under control during the campaign. Candidate Clinton attributed the difference in temperament to the way the public believed a woman should act. She was routinely labeled "strident" during the campaign, an adjective many women thought was intentionally sexist.

It was during her husband's 1992 presidential campaign that, in an unguarded moment, Clinton allowed too much anger to surface, a mistake she had not made again until this week.

"I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life," she told reporters.