The Sunday talk shows, even after several days to organize their coverage, have failed once again to grasp the dimensions of a story they purport to be covering. In this case, the story is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s terse reply to a question put to her in a public setting in Kinshasa, Congo. According to The Guardian:
Usually polished in public, the US secretary of state’s calm demeanour momentarily cracked yesterday when a Congolese student asked her about Bill Clinton’s view on a foreign policy issue. "My husband is not secretary of state," Clinton snapped. "I am."
The encounter, in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, came during an 11-day whistle-stop tour of Africa. The male student had asked her what "Mr. Clinton" thought about a controversial $9bn deal between Congo and China, in which the African country has traded rights to develop its rich copper reserves for help in building roads, railways and schools.
"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" Clinton asked sharply. "If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channelling [sic] my husband."
The media have, predictably, picked up on the "Bill and Hillary Show" angle. In this edition of the show, Hillary Clinton has an emotional, womanly outburst, brought on by her frustrations at being the overshadowed wife of Bill–the Big Dog.
The media have also offered, as if in sympathy, that it has been a long road trip for her, and that she was likely tired. Women get so tired, traveling.
Generally speaking, the vast majority of coverage I’ve seen on this event has been filtered through a lens in which the gender and personal life of the US Secretary of State IS the story. The title of the article quoted above, for example, is "Bill Clinton’s shadow darkens Hillary’s mood in Congo". Interesting word-choice there, "mood". Women are, after all, so moody and emotional.
So the coverage of this story has been trivialized in two ways that are likely very familiar to Hillary supporters: via the personal life of the Clintons, and via Hillary’s gender.
But an angle of this story I have not seen covered, even as a passing thought, is one that might actually benefit the public. As Secretary of State, Clinton is absolutely obligated to defend the role of her agency. As I noted here earlier this year, Clinton has inherited a State Department that was acknowledged at her appointment to be under-staffed, under-resourced and demoralized by Bush-era policies and practices. If the Bush administration placed any significant store in the value of the State Department and its services, it did so only reluctantly, and too late.
With that backdrop, any Secretary of State–regardless of who that might be–should act quickly and aggressively to challenge any question or line of reasoning that diminishes the role and importance of a resurgent State Department or questions the independence of its leadership. I think most Americans feel that we need a stronger State Department, and a preeminent role for diplomacy in American foreign policy. We have tried it the other way–foreign relations via gunbarrel–with disastrous and ongoing consequences. Viewed in this light, Secretary Clinton’s strong response may have been right on the mark.