The enduring question regarding Hillary Clinton’s four years as secretary for state is how she managed to fly a million miles in four years and accomplish a certain amount of diplomacy at the same time. A new account by one of her traveling press corps fills in some of the blanks.
Kim Ghattas knows the kind of detail we want from her book, The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of Power. After all, she travelled in Clinton’s press corps on many of her notorious leg-after-leg journeys. Ghattas tells us how uncomfortable it all was, writing that the sleep deprivation and jet lag could make people either “comatose” or “delirious” with exhaustion. She describes the food panic on the plane when endless unplanned stops were added to trips with no time to bring additional meals on board. (Hillary kindly brought the chocolates from her hotel room and passed them to a ravenous press corps.)
Ghattas, a BBC reporter, has a good eye for the visual:
Once in Thailand for an Asian regional meeting, we’d had to traipse across a sandy beach in our heels and suits, carrying laptop bags, to reach our rooms in 90-degree heat and 80 per cent humidity.
Not all accommodation was resort-based. Last minute changes to the schedule were the norm and often resulted in an absence of hotel rooms. There were times when the press had to sleep on the secretary of state’s plane – an old, uncomfortable, lumbering bus of a machine that was prone to breaking down. Journalists drew lots for seats at the beginning of a trip. The lucky few got into business class; the rest were crowded into economy for flights that lasted up to 16 hours.
It truly sounds like hell. If you leave this book with one desire for change, it’s that Congress will finally free up some money to upgrade the executive branch’s air-fleet.
Ghattas is equally as sharp-eyed on the secretary herself. The Clinton she sees is indefatigable – physically, emotionally and intellectually. She reads everything. Fans of Bill Clinton who have noticed his uncanny ability to memorize the smallest detail about people and places should know that his wife is equally as good. Hillary spent her many hours on the plane (which she thought of as a travelling caravan) with enormous briefing books and a very tight circle of advisors. You don’t get a sense that there was much down time on these trips.
‘From Afghanistan and Pakistan to South Korea,
we’re now moving onto Vietnam’
The way Ghattas describes it, Clinton survived the four years high on the adrenaline that comes from high-stakes meetings. During a trip to Pakistan she had a day of tense and combative interviews, press conferences and meetings that went on till long after sunset. Dinner that night was to be with both the president and the prime minister. Clinton insisted that her press corps be invited. The meal was due to start at 8.30pm. Ghattas writes:
Around ten o’clock, Hillary finally emerged, looking remarkably fresh in her white blazer… we all walked into the dining room on the other side of the foyer. In between four pistachio-green walls, twenty-one round tables were set for dinner for two hundred people… we sat down for a fifteen-course curry meal.
When they finally returned to the embassy after dinner, a day that had begun in Washington DC had lasted for 32 hours.
The Clinton who travels with the press is friendly and funny but not cuddly. This is a woman who understands the power of manipulative charm and uses it to her advantage. She appreciates the importance in diplomacy of social engagement, particularly in some of the countries she travels to. She is in no rush. As Ghattas writes:
She had a knack for becoming friends with everyone from the boorish Boris Yeltsin to the quiet president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak. She often ended up liking people she never expected to like because she had come to understand and empathize with their history and background.
Clinton’s agenda over the last four years – as presented in this book – seems to have been to reposition the US not so much as a dominant superpower but as a willing partner that people can do business with, whatever the nature of the business. As a senator, Clinton constantly looked for consensus; she did the same as secretary of state. Her constant travels accomplished two goals: they gave her a degree of autonomy in a job where policy was being crafted by the White House, not the state department, and they allowed her to sell the USA in person.
She could not have achieved any of this without a dedicated team of logistical wizards. It is telling that Ghattas describes Clinton’s closest aide, Huma Abedin, as still having political campaign reflexes: “She wanted the flexibility of switching gears or directions at the last minute.”
Abdein has long been Clinton’s right arm. She plans policy with her boss, helps prepare for events, even carries her bag. If Abedin saw international travel as a continuation of a political campaign, you can bet Clinton did too. So maybe that’s what the million miles of travel was all about – not just selling America to partners around the globe, but selling Hillary Clinton too.
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