In the days of colonialism, they called Africa the dark continent. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought her own version of darkness to her African tour. She was in Congo hosting a town meeting. One of the African questioners — through a translator — asked what “Mr. Clinton” thought of China’s forays into African investments.
“You want to know what my husband thinks? Bill Clinton is not the Secretary of State. I’ll tell you what I think. I won’t be channeling for my husband,” Hilllary snapped. It was a waspish performance. Her body English needed no translation. She was more than hostile. She was furious.
I’ve had a good deal of experience in diplomacy. The old joke is that a diplomat is one who can tell you to go to the devil — and almost make you look forward to the trip. Mrs. Clinton should have sized up the situation, recognized that it may have been a translator error that substituted “Mr.” for “Mrs.”
Or, the African questioner may have sincerely wanted to know what Bill Clinton thought about a matter involving Asia and Africa — since the former President has just returned from a highly publicized trip to North Korea. Presumably, the Secretary of State and her experienced husband share their thoughts over coffee and breakfast.
In either case, the question did not merit the cutting, even cruel public putdown. If you want to know why Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential primaries, you need look no farther than this public display of cruelty. People don’t like powerful people who use their power to make others feel small.
J.F.K. was a master of turning aside sharp questions with a twinkle in his eye and a well-timed witticism. When asked what he thought of a resolution by the Republican National Committee that called his economic and foreign policies abject failures, the President smiled and said: “I presume it passed unanimously.” The pressroom erupted in laughter. A soft answer turns away wrath.
Hillary may have felt harassed, tired, frustrated. She may have been suffering jet lag. She may even think that Barack Obama is making a hash of her signature issue — nationalized health care. She may be unhappy over many things. Still, shouldn’t a nation’s chief diplomat be, well, diplomatic?
Former President Harry Truman once delivered a stinging answer to an impertinent student who asked a barbed question at the Truman Library. Harry could see by the young man’s look as he sank back into his seat that he had wounded the student. He later sought the young man out and invited him in for a chat. He smoothed ruffled feathers and, in the process, made a friend and admirer of a bright young student.
It’s not too late. Hillary can still recover from this diplomatic insult to the Africans. She could seek out the young African questioner and mend broken fences. She could even invite him and his friends to visit her on her Air Force jet — and offer them a beer.