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Posted by on Aug 11, 2009 in International, Media, Politics | 18 comments

Why DID Hillary Clinton Snap “My Husband Is Not The Secretary Of State”?

The new and old media like nothing better than a You Tube moment that seemingly reveals the “real” public figure — not the one who’s scripted or the one who’s answering policy questions, but shows you a bit how he or she really is “offstage” and what he or she may really think. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provided one that will be re-run for a long time to come.

A translator yesterday mistranslated a question in Africa asking her what her HUSBAND thought. She is clearly stunned and angry about being asked (though incorrectly) what her husband thinks on a policy that she now manages. Watch the moment yourself:


MSNBC’s First Read describes it this way:

It raised our eyebrows when we first read about Secretary of State Clinton’s reaction yesterday in Africa to a question she thought she was getting about her husband. But the video of it is definitely something to see. Here was the question: “We have all heard about Chinese contracts in this country, the interferences from the World Bank about this contract. What does Mr. Clinton think through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton…?” Hillary shot back: “You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the secretary of state, I am. You ask my opinion I will tell you my opinion, I’m not going to be channeling my husband.” (As it turns out, the translator apparently screwed up; the questioner meant President Obama, not President Clinton.) Was the reaction a product of jet lag or a sign of tension with some of the attention her husband is receiving of late? On TODAY, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported that it was probably both. Mitchell said it came during the halfway point of a 12-day trip through Africa. But: “She was doing serious stuff, and here she thought she was receiving a question about her husband.” Of course, only a Clinton gets psychoanalyzed the way she’s being analyzed this morning; it’s the burden of the last name.

To those who weren’t big Hillary fans to begin with, this was deja vu. Jules Crittenden writes in a post titled “She’s BAAAAAAACK!”:

It’s the Hill we all know and love from the campaign. Upstaged by Bill, with Obama and Biden out there on the road, doing her job, the last straw was in Kinshasha today when some hapless Congolese university student asked her, “What Mr. Clinton think, through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton …” …She looks around, a little stunned, then commences operations on Joe College, with big scary eyes.

But, at the risk of doing what MSNBC’s crew wanted to avoid doing, here is my own take on it — and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell’s comments confirm part of my own analysis:

1. It’s no secret that Hillary Clinton put her own ambitions on hold to help Bill Clinton in his career.

2. Her attempt to carve out a major policy makers’ role as first lady flopped due to the health care debacle, and when it became clear that she was a political liability due to successful GOP attacks, Bill Clinton in effect deep sixed the “two for the price of one” idea and she resumed a more traditional first lady’s role.

3. She lived through the humiliation of the Monica Lewinsky affair and rose again, this time by not just being elected New York Senator but by most accounts being one highly responsive to her constituent’s needs when they contacted her office. She worked hard in the Senate and earned the respect of colleagues on both sides of the aisle (one of them is named John McCain).

4. Her husband became a major presence — and some believe in some ways a liability due to this heart-on-his-sleeve passion to get her in office and his festering, often showing, red-fraced resentment to that usurper Barack Obama who was blocking the restoration. Towards the end of the campaign, her side managed to shut Bill up enough without having to use duct tape so that the campaign again became about her and her ideas, rather than about Bill talking about her or dissing Obama or offending African American voters who originally balked at Obama.

5. She accepted the Secretary of State job and again published accounts suggest she is a hard-working, top notch cabinet member.

6. It’s true Biden and Bill Clinton got lots of publicity recently and some stories wondered whether Hillary Clinton was having her wings clipped. Later stories said that’s not true. But those stories claiming she was edging towards becoming a figurehead most assuredly irked her.

7. So when she was asked the mistranslated question it WAS an insult to her: here she had put her own hopes on hold to work for Bill, Bill became a presence during the campaign, she had worked so hard as Senator, candidate and Secretary of State, he got all the publicity for the release of the hostages from North Korea….and she thought someone was asking her to comment on what her husband thought.

The Bottom Line:
the days when Hillary Clinton is “just” Mrs. Bill Clinton or former First Lady Hillary Clinton are long gone. And that question suggested the questioner was more interested in her as the wife of Bill Clinton than as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who handles policies.

Seen in that light, coupled with jet lag 9if the “ego is soluble in alcohol” than it also is in jet lag) her answer and the way she answered it is not only logical but perfectly understandable, even if that is not as honestly as most politicians would answer a question like that.

UPDATE: ABC News’ Jake Trapper:

Regardless of the [translation] error, the notion of Secretary Clinton’s deference to her husband clearly touched a nerve with America’s top diplomat. Just a week ago the former President stole his wife’s thunder when he appeared in North Korea to rescue two American journalists detained there. His trip came just as Secretary Clinton embarked on a swing through Africa she hoped would shine light on the plight of the continent.

Still, imagine what the students thought when her response was translated back and they heard Clinton call President Obama her husband….

Also: Two reactions from bloggers who were high profile Hillary Clinton supporters during the campaign.

The Democratic Daily’s Pamela Levey:

The poor kid probably didn’t know what hit him. Political Punch reports that the young man, who asked the question says he was misquoted by the translator and he wanted to know what “Mr Obama” thought of the deal.

Oops… As a woman who blazes her own path, I think Hillary’s response was natural.

Taylor Marsh:

It’s the You talkin’ to me?, secretary of state edition….As you can see in the video, Clinton was ticked off at being asked what a male leader thought, especially when her purpose in this region is to draw a bull’s eye on the rape and torture of women in the Congo.

The United States Secretary of State obviously didn’t appreciate the misogyny, which is rampant in the Congo and other African nations, born out by the questioner expecting her to “channel” a male.

…..There can be no doubt that Clinton came off harsh in this setting. A little righteous indignation from the most powerful female persona on the planet was in order, especially considering women in the Congo are in danger most of the hours of their waking and sleeping lives.

CNN reports that after the event Clinton and the questioner “seemed to have reached an understanding,” according to Crowley.

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • CCinDC

    On the theory that Bill Clinton, and his foundation, are relevant to the world, it should not have been an insult. I think it stems from her own knowledge, that but for him, she’d be nothing. Remember, every job she ever held, as a teacher in AR, as an attorney at Rose Law firm, as Senator, all came from him.

    Besides, why blame something like that on a translator? It could have been a cultural thing. No way did that kid who asked the question have access to HRC to apologize afterwards. It just didn’t happen, no matter the spin.

    HRC has been so protected, so scripted for so long, really her entire adult life, I just don’t think she knows how to handle herself off script.

  • $199537

    Maybe this is what Milbank and Cilizza were referring to in their own unfunny way?

    Her reaction was a little odd though. Remember in the campaign when someone asked an awkward question she would smile and laugh it off. She should have stuck to that strategy.

  • Kudos Joe – your analysis is DEAD ON. That doesn’t excuse a testy reply by SOS Clinton, but absolutely it’s understandable. I’ve had the same happen to me and I respond with the same concept re: “Ask him yourself. Now what can I help you with?”

    People should get used to this – we don’t ask Boehner, Steele or Pawlenty what their wives think. We don’t ask Alan Greenspan what Andrea Mitchell thinks. And people shouldn’t ask Andrea what Alan thinks. (Correcting a mistake – I’d had Milton Friedman in there – apologies to Milton, Andrea AND Alan!)

    21st century folks.

    • AustinSobek

      But then again Jillmz, your not the Secretary of State. This reaction would have been okay, if not for the fact that she is the Secretary of State and is acting as a representative for the United States. I mean no wonder the rest of the world see’s us as arrogant and elitist. When asked this question, she should have responded: “I’m not sure, you would have to ask him”(as Bill Brandon said). Im not being sexist, or saying that Mrs. Clinton is incompetent, I just believe that she has made it quite evident that she should not be a representative or act in foreign relations for the U.S. Also, im not sure if im the only one, but if i were speaking in Congo and was asked what my wife thought about a certain situation, i would take no offense to that. And for those of you saying that she needed to have that attitude are unbelievably wrong. That kind of attitude works well in some fields, but diplomatic relations is not among said fields.

      • Hmm, interesting – well, Austin – what was your threshold for judging George Bush’s behavior as evident that he should be a representative of the US and act in foreign relations? There are more than 50 million voters who thought it wasn’t up to snuff, not to mention the plummeting of our country’s reputation around the world as a result of his actions.

        More power to SOS Clinton. It’s actually because of her position that she gets to set the tone and say, you know what, we’re not talking about ma’ spouse here.

        As I already wrote, could she have said it differently? You betcha. But I can live with her guard having been down enough that she let herself be real.

  • It was pretty unfortunate about the mis-translation. It doesn’t help our image overseas that the SoS severely and publicly tongue-lashed a student for asking a question. Even if the student’s question had been about what Bill Clinton thought, there was no reason for the horrible tone of her response. She could have said, “You’ll have to ask him. Next question, please.” Maybe this was a teachable moment for the SoS: Always consider that a really off-the-wall question could have been a mis-translation, and don’t take it personally. Is that hard to do, given her life and struggle? Of course. But that’s why she gets the big bucks.

  • I very much appreciate that you included Taylor Marsh’s comments in the update to this post. For emphasis — @Marsh: “A little righteous indignation from the most powerful female persona on the planet was in order, especially considering women in the Congo are in danger most of the hours of their waking and sleeping lives.”

    This, in my estimation, was NOT a mistake, was NOT an over reaction, but instead was an excellent bit of diplomacy. They’re still trying to figure out whether (yes, whether — even though it is posed here as a given) there was a mistranslation, but the question as posed to her was answered exactly like it should have been.

    @BB: “Maybe this was a teachable moment for the SoS”
    Or, conversely, maybe this was a teachable moment for the students there — it’s entirely inappropriate to defer politely to the husband when it’s the wife who is in charge. And the whole argument about “tone” is so typical of how women are expected to behave. Give deference to the male, always be polite even in the face of a frankly rude question, bat your eyes and smile. And they say feminism is no longer necessary here in the US.

    • johnv2

      Yes, such a teachable moment. Now all diplomats know that the best way to knock the US Sec. of State off balance is to suggest she isn’t as important as {fill in the blank, especially a male}. Mistranslated reset buttons (Ivan, push the red button!), possibly mistranslated questions, she’s really not cut out for diplomatic responses at 3 AM or any other time, is she?

      • On the contrary, johnv2, and particularly in this situation, in a country where the inability to see women as people has such dire, devastating consequences for not only women but the society as a whole, this sort of response is exactly what we need to see. She was not off balance at all.

        • johnv2

          Yes, and what better way to convince a society of error than to snap angrily at their attempts to communicate! That is clearly much better than explaining in a calm voice the fact that Mr. Clinton isn’t in office, and while he is to be respected, the current political power rests in Ms. Clinton’s hands.

          Diplomats are supposed to be unruffled under provocation, at least in public. And the US Sec. of State isn’t supposed to be arrogantly asserting that our society is better than others, right?

  • Father_Time

    Why? Who gives a flip?

  • Er…Father_Time? Who gives a flip about what? What our foreign policy leaders say over seas? What the Congolese think of us? What’s going on in the Congo? What Bill Clinton thinks? What Obama thinks? There’s a lot to care about here.

  • The reality is – not a single one of us has ever or will ever ACTUALLY be in the position Hillary Clinton was in – before, during or after this incident. She can stand the heat, and the audiences can handle the perceived misstep – which is not, as demonstrated by comments above, viewed by everyone as a misstep in fact.

  • kritt11

    For Hillary, no matter how smart she was or how hard she worked, Bill has always outshone her in public. He has the charm and the charisma and she’s the worker bee, diligent and conscientious. Maybe she feels the need to assert herself to counteract her husband’s superstar image. Overseas, he is even more popular than at home- while she is barely known.

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  • DLS

    I don’t believe Hillary Clinton’s reaction was necessarily bad. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a refreshing break from often-so-phony behavior by politicians (and that’s what diplomats are forced to be in public).

    The real problems are two.

    The first, prompt problem was introduced as soon as Bill Clinton went on the mission to visit North Korea, returning with the teary-eyed, sniffling little libby journalists (causing better members of the public to roll their eyes at the scene back in the USA and the media hype coverage of it). The serious question remains, why _exactly_ did Bill Clinton go there and what _serious_ things were addressed? And why him rather than Hillary Clinton? Ever since then, Hillary Clinton has been weakened by this. Even if there will be angry reaction from the childish, it’s easy and delightful humor forever afterward now to wonder aloud and even mention to Hillary Clinton that people might wonder what her husband thinks of this or that.

    “And no, Mrs. Clinton, we won’t ask you what your husband thinks …”

    The second, now-background, problem is just to what extent Obama is marginalizing Hillary Clinton, who is not above (or beneath) challenging him in 2012 for the Democratic Presidential nomination. (In fact, if the Dems had a long-term view on things and thought Obama could be re-elected even if the Dems have more problems related to current misconduct and overreach, a logical strategy would be for Hillary Clinton to be President in 2012, and then for Obama to return in 2016.)

  • DLS

    The unasked question was just why Hilllary (we’re forced to be specific, now) Clinton is visiting Congo and who-knows-elsewhere. Just what is the purpose of this, and how does it address or advance our interests?

    The already-asked question is, now, which Clinton will visit Iran and possibly return with the captured hikers, Mr. or Ms.?

  • DLS

    “what was your threshold for judging George Bush’s behavior as evident that he should be a representative of the US and act in foreign relations? ”

    Don’t you mean Condollezza Rice? (As opposed to Nanci Pelosi and other interloper-troublemakers then.)

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