Clinton, Congo and Cooler Heads.

So, earlier today I was checking out the video of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton* momentarily losing her cool after being asked a question that she thought was about what “Mr. Clinton” thought about an international trade issue:

“”You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?” she asked incredulously when the student raised a question about a multibillion-dollar Chinese loan offer to Congo.

“If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion,” she said. “I am not going to be channeling my husband.”.

No, it wasn’t an “outburst,” a “meltdown” or a “blow-up.” It was nowhere near a big deal** – unless, of course, you happened to be the extremely nervous Congolese student on the other end of Clinton’s withering response.

And given her background, her husband’s sometimes mettlesome ways and the relentless misogyny she’s faced over the years, Clinton’s initial exasperation at the question could certainly be understood.

But …

More than anything, that response almost perfectly crystallized the reason why I preferred Barack Obama to Clinton, McCain and any of the other contenders for the White House last year. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that very little separated Obama from Clinton in terms of agenda (if anything, I preferred Clinton’s more ambitious health care goals). There was also a moment when – very early in the primaries – I found myself wanting Obama to gracefully bow out so that the stronger Democratic candidate could win the nomination.

But when it came to diplomacy, it became apparent very early on that Obama had no peer in the presidential race. He hardly ever seemed to lose his cool. He almost always seemed willing to disarm his opponents with poise rather than pique.

Remember his deft touch when Jeremiah Wright nearly threatened to consume his campaign? Remember John McCain’s sneering performance in their debates, punctuated by the “That One” remark? Remember the moment we all – regrettably – came to know Joe the Plumber?

In retrospect, that impromptu confrontation had the potential to get ugly. It’s almost amazing that anyone could have bum rushed Obama like that in the streets, especially given the heightened security that he was supposedly outfitted with from the start. But Obama completely diffused the situation. He politely answered the questions, and sent the perturbed – and phony – plumber back on his way.

Most importantly, when it came to matters of foreign policy, Obama was wedded to the idea that engaging your enemies was best while Clinton and McCain seemed all too eager to embrace military force as a solution. Of course, Clinton and McCain called Obama “naive” while Obama countered that diplomacy was no sign of weakness.

Yes, at some point during the campaign, I decided that I would rather have the composed Obama representing our country’s interests abroad rather than someone given to “running hard right.” We saw what eight years of that brand of cowboy diplomacy did to our country’s rep around the globe.

Can you imagine President Obama dressing down an obviously jittery college kid? Even on his worst day? Right.

Then again, it’s definitely possible that I’m making too much of this.

I don’t think Clinton is an ugly American. I’m not out to do the dirty work of that The Corner can do so skillfully. I can understand why some might actually applaud her reaction. And I don’t want the true purpose of her visit to Congo to get lost because of the news media’s silly cycle.

But it’s nice to remember that, once upon a time, my instincts might have been right.

*I’m a sucker for using formal titles. Sorry if that seems awkward.

** Unless you’re referring to the presence of Dikembe Mutombo. That was really dope.


(x-posted)

20 thoughts on “Clinton, Congo and Cooler Heads.

  1. Leigh August 13, 2009 at 4:56 pm Reply

    Ok, so I just watched that video and I think she comes across as pretty rude. But I also like Melissa McEwan’s interpretation of it as the proper diplomacy for a visit to a country that has a massive rape epidemic:

    http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2009/08/good-diplomacy-dismissed-as-clintons.html

    “it’s bad enough that Clinton’s unapologetic insistence on being respected as a person and a Secretary of State is being treated like something about which she ought to be embarrassed, but even worse is the utter disregard for why such a posture is important in a place with a rape epidemic.”

    I don’t know if I’m totally on board w/Melissa’s interpretation, but I’m trying. Big Tent Democrat also wrote about it in a post merely titled “Patriarchy.”

  2. Winslowalrob August 13, 2009 at 5:07 pm Reply

    http://aleksandragadzala.blogspot.com/2009/08/whither-americas-africa-policy-no.html

    Not a fan, and aleksandra says it better than I can.

    This looks bad guys…

    • Winslowalrob August 13, 2009 at 5:37 pm Reply

      http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/sns-ap-af-clinton-im-secretary,0,63574.story

      It was a mistranslation (the dude wanted to know what obama thought about it), and she found the dude afterwards to let him know it was not personal and that everything was butta. But the snap itself was indefensible for a public official.

      • ladyfresh August 13, 2009 at 10:12 pm Reply

        Wanting to know what Obama thought of it is NOT better.

        • Winslowalrob August 13, 2009 at 10:28 pm Reply

          I may be wrong, I just read on False Hustle a linked NYT piece that the translation was correct (and he wanted to ask about Dikembe Mutombo’s opinion as well), though the NYT was involved so its obviously suspect to me :).

          I gotta know more about what the student was getting at. It seemed like a China in Africa question (which is like the only thing in life I know anything about), and perhaps he conflated Chinese governmental structure with American governmental structure so that Presidential/ruling party opinion is the only thing of consequence. I mean, I have been to enough stuff in the US where students ask pretty… suspect questions based on stereotypes. And considering Hillary’s all around silence on China in Africa (bum bum bummmmm) the student might just believe it is out of her jurisdiction. My french is not so hot but let me watch the video and see what he was trying to say first.

          And I WISH more people knew that she went up to him after and apologized (without actually admitting she was in the wrong, but good enough for me). She knew she made a mistake and tried to rectify it… thats got to count for something. Except in the American press, where Hillary Clinton is the devil.

          • blackink12 August 13, 2009 at 10:40 pm Reply

            Thanks for the plug, Winslow.

            And yeah, she did apologize, which definitely counts for something to me. As far as I’m concerned, the focus should now turn to the reason she was actually in Congo. But it won’t because we, the media, draw more eyeballs with conflict.

            I mean, I understand HRC’s bristly response to the kid given the question. But to go the extra mile and pretty much embarrass him, I’m really not with that.

            Like winslow says, it pretty much is indefensible.

            • ladyfresh August 13, 2009 at 11:00 pm Reply

              embarrassed him?
              really?

              she’s the secretary of state to the united states she was just asked a extraordinarily rude question in a forum for gender inequality

              but…she embarrassed him

              i think he embarrassed himself

              • blackink12 August 13, 2009 at 11:04 pm Reply

                Sure, he embarrassed himself. I’ll allow for that, even though we’re not sure what his true intentions were with that question.

                But is it ok for our top diplomat to dress down a college kid because he asked a “rude” question?

                Really?

                I mean, what should we expect if the stakes get really high and people are openly hostile? A backhand?

                She didn’t even get that gully when homeboy yelled “Iron my shirt” from the crowd last year.

                • ladyfresh August 13, 2009 at 11:28 pm Reply

                  I think you are inflating her response.

                  She was clearly irate but i didn’t see a ‘dressing down’ I saw an irate clarification of her position and her role.

                  It seems that now that it has been established that the translator was right. You think there are other intentions (possibly better?) than how the question was framed. I’ll have to disagree with that. A person speaking at you but asking for another person’s opinion is not respectful of your presence and your opinion. It’s best to establish some clarification before further ‘intentions’ are revealed and there truly is a mis-communication.

                  Then I’m to gather that a temporarily irate secretary of state somehow leads you to the conclusion that during duress she would be prone to violence? Really? Even though previously you witnessed a more insulting attack which she apparently handled with aplomb. Which is it dude? She’s a potentially unpredictably violent secretary of state now because she had some firm words with a irascible demeanor? Or a SoS that ‘doesn’t get ‘that’ gully’ when faced sexism?

                  I’m admit i’m being glib but mainly i’m still not understanding what the actual concern is and what she did wrong.

                  • blackink12 August 13, 2009 at 11:49 pm Reply

                    I guess I’m being glib, too. I obviously don’t think she’d take a swing at anyone except Bill or Dick Morris.

                    And I’m co-signing with Winslow on this one. It’s not that she was wrong as a person, as a woman, as someone who was facing a sexist query.

                    But there was clearly a better way to handle that situation. Particularly as America’s top “diplomat.”

                    In a way, like I wrote, it sort of gets at the major difference I saw between her and Obama in the primaries.

                    • ladyfresh August 14, 2009 at 12:05 am

                      but i like her here doing what she does

                      same way i like rohm where he is doing what he does

                      i think she is fully capable of tact and bringing her A game

                      i agree obama makes a better president i also voted for him and made decisions at key turning points but
                      i do not doubt obama decision of putting her in a position where her particular approach and skill set would valuable to him

                      i guess there was a softer way to deal with that situation but… it’s hillary

          • ladyfresh August 13, 2009 at 10:56 pm Reply

            I hope we find in the translation the student was simply asking her opinion i’d be dissatisfied with anything less.(ok just read the same from the NY Times and it’s insulting)

            Frankly Winslowalrob I’m still not sure she made a mistake.

            • Winslowalrob August 13, 2009 at 11:31 pm Reply

              Lady,

              As a PERSON, she did the right thing.

              As the TOP-RANKING AMERICAN DIPLOMAT, not so much.

              They are not the same thing. You do not have bad days, weak moments, brain farts, etc. You cannot afford to, because it screws up your work. Not only did this make the news for all the wrong reasons, but it makes Obama look bad and the US. Hillary has been putting up with all sorts of crap all her life. She knows full well the press conspiracy against her and her husband. She knows full well what her job demands. And for whatever reason, she lost her cool. She dropped the ball, and she knew it the moment she said it. She apologized afterward because she knew she was in the wrong (or was at least playing the part). Hopefully we will not make this to be the major news story from her trip to the Congo…

              But it will be.

              • ladyfresh August 13, 2009 at 11:45 pm Reply

                I was with you and then the left turn at Albuquerque.

                ‘because she knew she was in the wrong’

                i’m still not really there. I guess i can understand the ‘person in her position’ and dude was ‘out of pocket’ and for her to correct him ‘looked wrong’ (yeah i’m seeing some seriously sexist views at play here) while not actually being wrong aspect because of social perception …kinda

                but saying ‘she knew she was in the wrong’ as if she actually did something wrong no…i’m not there yet and i’m not understanding why someone whould think ‘yeah she was wrong fo that’

                i can even understand ‘hillary clinton as top ranking american diplomat’ playing her hand incorrectly and allowing this sort of media opportunity to reflect on her and give more fodder to the press chess match type of wrong.

                no wait… i think i see it
                she stepped outside her role and ‘hillary the ego’ stepped forth and in that position it will be her as secretary of state/madam secretary until she retires the position…but then again…dude disrespected the role and she stepped to the plate and knocked it out of the box

                hrm i’m still not sure here

                • Winslowalrob August 14, 2009 at 12:48 am Reply

                  Why do I lose so many people at Albaquerque?

                  I am not of the school of thought that this was the best way to handle it. She gets salt thrown on her all the time, and any time she cracks she is going to get crucified, but when she got asked that question there were ways of handling that saved everyone’s face. Hell, with the right framing, she could have shown just how crucial women’s issues are, and how rape and treating women’s opinions like they do not matter are part of the same process. She was not wrong to correct the dude, she was wrong HOW she corrected him.

                  Froze as she gathered her thoughts
                  Then she lets out a zinger
                  Lets it sink in
                  Then goes for another
                  Voice drips sarcasm at the end
                  Drops in the chair with a ‘what the eff am I doing here look’ on her face

                  That might have been satisfying, but it just made her job that much more tougher in the future. Yeah she put the dude down, but at what cost?

                  Aight, we will agree to disagree.

                  • Leigh August 14, 2009 at 11:47 am Reply

                    “any time she cracks she is going to get crucified”

                    Isn’t this a bit like blaming the victim? Wasn’t there a lot of discussion when Obama was running that one reason he might always be so cool, beyond temperament, was because of stereotypes of black men. All women and men of color are held to higher standards than white men in these situations.

                    I don’t see the “dressing down”, I don’t see her “in the wrong”, I think she was rude, but I’m not sure it was unwarranted and I seriously question whether we would have noticed if this was any other SOS.

                    The other thing is, it’s really hard to separate out her womanhood/personhood from her status as diplomat.

                    I feel like Condoleezza Rice’s interactions w/pp got comparatively little coverage, but she strikes me as a relatively cool, even frosty personality. If she had spoken harshly to someone, would we have noticed? Or would we have chalked it up to her doing business under the Bush (an asshole who lowered the bar for behavior) regime?

  3. bitchphd August 14, 2009 at 5:42 pm Reply

    I think her response was acceptable, but I also agree absolutely that Obama is far more diplomatic (and hence professional in that sense). I wouldn’t mind if he had more of her backbone in the health care debate, though….

  4. -k- August 15, 2009 at 10:32 am Reply

    I’m behind her as far as words and sentiment, but there was a lot of extra venom in her delivery- which I *get*, but which isn’t, as others have already pointed out, appropriate for a diplomat. Nor would it fly in the corporate world- if somebody’s functioning as the public face of a company, it wouldn’t be acceptable to flip out on a client in that way.

    That said- even as I watched this, I wondered what the larger story was, because this isn’t just about the moment capture in the clip, and I suspect it’s not even (just) about her frustration with the what must be constant mentioning of her husband (and by extension, the failure or refusal to accept her as SoS on her on merits).

    • Leigh August 15, 2009 at 12:59 pm Reply

      Yes, it makes me wonder the same thing. Part of me wonders if she wasn’t just pretty beat down by the atrocities she was seeing and hearing about there. I haven’t paid much attn to her trip, so I don’t know how much she was meeting with rape survivors, etc., but I can imagine just feeling really despondent after a trip like that and then just snapping at someone who unintentionally triggers something. That aspect may not be appropriate for a diplomat, but it’s certainly human.

  5. The impasse « PostBourgie August 20, 2009 at 12:35 pm Reply

    […] […]

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