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March 27, 2009

Travels with Hillary, Part One

Hrcmexico  I've been fortunate (or foolish) enough to have covered and traveled with five secretaries of state over the last almost 20 years (yikes!): James A. Baker III, Warren Christopher, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and now Hillary Rodham Clinton.

((First Secretary of State trip: July 1989 with Baker to Paris, France, for the Cambodia peace conference)).

So I'm always fascinated to encounter a new chief diplomat, to see his or her style, diplomatic approach, and strategy for handling the media. Public diplomacy is a more important part of the secretary of state's job than that of any other senior U.S. official except the president. 

Here's a first take on Hillary, with whom I traveled to Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico, on March 25 and 26. (That little red dot up there is Clinton, taking a tour Thursday morning of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Star photojournalist I'm not.

The following isn't mean to be an analysis or opinion on Clinton's success as secretary of state. It's early days, and we've yet to see how the Obama administration will deal with a major crisis, or whether its big personalities and big egos in the foreign policy sphere can operate together effectively when the times get stressful.

That said, here goes:

_ Hillary speaks bluntly. Baker and Christopher, lawyers that they are, spoke cautiously, in lawyerly constructions. Powell liked to talk plainly, but whenever he got a little "forward in his skis," as he once put it, the White House (Dick Cheney mostly) yanked him back. Rice managed to be both charming and numbingly robotic at the same time. She used phrases like "status quo ante."

Maybe it's her years on the political stage, or her Midwestern upbringing, but Clinton--at least so far--tends to say what she thinks. She briefed reporters on our flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Mexico City and said two things that, whle they may be stunningly obvious to most, other officials have rarely acknowledged: the United States is equally as responsible as Mexico for the drug trade/drug wars, and U.S. anti-drug strategy has failed. "How could anybody conclude any differently?" she said.

Well, that's refreshing. It remains to be seen if the candor continues. Clinton has already received a bit of flack for publicly seeming to question the value of U.S. hectoring of China on human rights--the Chinese already know what we're going to say, she said--and for talking out loud about questions of succesion and stability in North Korea. As she increasingly assumes her diplomatic mantle, I wouldn't be surprised to see her retreat into caution and diplomatic code.

_ Clinton moves fast. All secretaries of state are required, by virture of foreign opinion and good taste, to do "events" that go beyond official meetings--touring local cultural sites, meeting youth groups, etc. Some embrace it more than others. I once accompanied Powell on a tour of a famous stupa, a Bhuddist shrine, in Nepal. He stayed for 15 minutes. Once, long ago, I saw Baker return from official meetings in Sofia, Bulgaria in the months of pro-American euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall. He walked right by a mob of pro-American celebrants, until top aide Margaret Tutwiler grabbed him by the arm and suggest he should interact with the crowd.

Clinton seems to genuinely enjoy these encounters. And she does A LOT of them. In our less than 36 hours in Mexico, along with the official meetings and press conferences, she did the following: met with indigenous students; held a dinner with women leaders; toured the basilica; paid a visit to a Mexican Federal Police base; gave a speech and took questions at a technology unviersity in Monterrey; and went to a renewable energy plant.

_ Consequently, Clinton sometimes runs ... a bit late. Not horribly, late, mind you, but events don't always come off quite when they are scheduled. That's change from Powell, who operated on a strict, military-style schedule, and Rice, who moved through events with the precision of the pianist she is and the ice skater she was.

I covered the White House from 1995 to 1998 and have painful memories of (Bill) Clinton Time, when the president would show up 45 minutes for an event, or linger at fundraisers or other social events long into the night, while the miserable press pool would rue the lost hours as we sat in a holding room or press van. It's not nearly that bad, at least not yet. In fact, Clinton's Air Force plane touched down outside Washington DC on Thursday night more than half an hour ... early.


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Tom Traubert

Great post! Clinton has a superhuman stamina and lots of policy smarts, so I expect her to do well as SoS. Good luck with your travels. Hope you can keep up!

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"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

jon, nancy & warren

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