More than anything, the African safari she finished last week was about her and her emerging style as secretary of state. She stuffed her days with what felt like a dozen events, a blur of high-level meetings, roundtable discussions and “townterviews” (more on that later). She seemed engaged throughout it all, scribbling in her notebooks like a dutiful student during meetings, keeping a straight, earnest face even when one Nigerian religious leader told her he was “constipated with ideas.”
“Condi would never do this,” whispered one of Mrs. Clinton’s aides during yet another sweaty town hall meeting. Neither, probably, would Colin Powell. Or Madeleine Albright. Or Henry Kissinger. Or just about any other secretary of state, a job that in the past seemed to go to people who didn’t like to smile much.
But Mrs. Clinton is different. She’s a recovering politician, with First Lady tendencies. And a celebrity in her own right. She can’t resist the rope line even when it’s in a South African housing project teaming with glassy-eyed men and her secret service agents are practically shouting into their cufflinks. Her style is to go heavy on the politics, heavy on the policy, but mix in some real people as well.
“Diplomacy is not just carried out by diplomats,” she said in her farewell-for-now speech from Cape Verde.
Ironically, it was one of these softer, Oprah-style moments that did her in. “My husband is not the secretary of state, I am,” Mrs. Clinton snapped, after a Congolese student at a town hall meeting (also sometimes called a “townterview”) asked what Mr. Clinton thought about an issue. That snippy — but totally inconsequential — comment grabbed more attention that anything else she said or did in Africa. Congo may be burning. Trouble may be brewing in Kenya. Liberia may be heroically emerging from gruesome circus to model democracy. But in the end, Africa isn’t so interesting to most Americans. Hillary Clinton still is.
These trips have their own lingo, I learned, as part of the traveling press corps assigned to chronicle every speech, handshake and hug. “Bi-lats” are bilateral meetings. “Meet-n-greets” are visits to American embassies. “Camera sprays” are essentially photo opportunities, usually staged and no questions allowed, and “spray” can be used as a noun, as in, “there’s a camera spray at 2 p.m. with President X” or as a verb — “come on guys, time to spray the lunch.” The secret service on her plane refer to their M-4 assault rifles as their “sticks.” The secretary of state is called “the package.”
Traveling with this package was like covering a presidential campaign — but 10 times more exhausting. The press corps are steerage at the back of the plane, the only ones in economy seats (the rest are business-class and Mrs. Clinton has her own bedroom on board). It was a telling statement which media organizations could still afford to spring for the trip: among them, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Fox News and yes, Vogue (she’s got a shot at the cover, but probably not until late fall).
Often, we were herded around like goats. “Move! Move ! Move!” her handlers would yell. The secret service were the least of our worries. It was the 20-something aides in charge of babysitting the 30-something and 40-something reporters. Many times they literally pushed us into the press van, Japanese subway style. They said it was their job.
The aides were experts at the camera spray. In eastern Congo, we needed to use two planes to land at a small airport and Mrs. Clinton’s plane circled in the air for 15 minutes so journalists could land first, set up their cameras and get the arrival shot of her, the first secretary of state to swoop into Congo’s conflict zone, despite the fact this very area has been a killing field since the mid-1990s.
In Liberia, though, she missed a great opportunity: Her motorcade drove right past a muddy soccer field where all the players were on crutches and had one leg. It was an amputee soccer game, a spirited match between war-injured men who refused to give up. Bill would have definitely jumped out and charged across the field to commune. Had Mrs. Clinton, that might have been the enduring image of her Africa trip, not the irritated response in Congo.
But the convoy moved on, through the lashing Liberian rain. It’s strange to be in Africa in a bubble. I live in Kenya. I know how it can take two hours to get from the American embassy in Nairobi to the airport. But when the Kenyan government shuts down the main highway for Mrs. Clinton’s motorcade, voila!, it takes only 16 minutes. That day, as we raced to the airport in our air-conditioned vans, we passed thousands of Kenyans lining the road. These people weren’t waiting to wave goodbye. They were stuck in traffic. We looked at them and they looked at us, separated by glass and speed and unable to share even a word. In a way, it was like being in Africa without any Africans. Even most of the big-time hotels we stayed at had windows that didn’t open, denying us that distinctive African pleasure that might have jolted us back to reality: catching a whiff of woodsmoke.