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Issue Date: January 24, 2010

 
 

The Hillary Clinton I saw

Our contributing editor shares personal impressions of the woman behind the public figure, gathered while creating his latest PBS documentary.

By Tavis Smiley


Given Fox News' treatment of the Clintons, I was stunned to see her TV channel choice.

For a few days in early December, I shadowed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a documentary called "Tavis Smiley Reports: One on One With Hillary Clinton," which will air on PBS Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. The show looks at Clinton's first year as the United States' No. 1 diplomat and what's ahead for 2010. Five things struck me as I spent time with her:

Her job is even harder than I thought. I've interviewed five secretaries of state: Lawrence Eagleburger, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Gen. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, all of whom have tried to convey to me the sheer intensity inherent in this position.

It wasn't until I had the opportunity to spend some time with Clinton, however, that I came to better understand the long days and late nights, endless travel, contentious congressional hearings, international arm-twisting and domestic wrangling that come with the job. This kind of public service is unduly taxing, especially given that diplomacy is a game of inches and not yards, where there are rarely clear-cut wins or losses. It makes me wonder why Hillary Rodham Clinton, at age 62, and with a legacy that is already locked and loaded, would even want to be the U.S. secretary of state.

Little big things matter. In December, just days after President Barack Obama delivered his major address concerning Afghanistan, Clinton was on Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Preparing to be bombarded by the committee, Clinton saw Bertie Bowman, hearing coordinator for the Foreign Relations Committee. Amid the commotion, Clinton remembered that Bowman's wife had recently died, and without hesitation, she approached him and gently asked how he was holding up. Bowman said that he had received her written condolences, as well as a note from her husband. She told Bowman she also would have expressions of sympathy sent from the president and vice president. Never mind the political grilling Clin?ton was about to face -- she remembered Bertie Bowman and his grieving heart.

Fox News ... say, what? As we waited to board Clinton's plane to NATO headquarters in Brussels, I saw that the TV in the media holding area at Andrews Air Force Base was tuned to the Fox News Channel. Given the rancor between the Obama administration and Fox News, to say nothing of Fox News' treatment of the Clintons when they were in the White House, I was doubly stunned to find that the TVs on Clinton's plane also were tuned to Fox News. Talk about things that make you go hmm ...

Don't stop the press! Every public official has to wrestle with the media, but it's difficult to think of a woman in American politics who has been more demonized than Hillary Clinton. Yet she maintains an accessibility that is impressive. As we prepared for our departure to Brussels, Clinton made an impromptu trip to the press section of the plane to take questions. As we sat on the tarmac for our return, she showed up again, smiling, and with Belgian chocolates to share.

What you see is not always what you get. We live in the most multicultural, multiracial and multiethnic America ever. But I was the only African American in Clinton's press pool, and I was a visitor. How strange that with a black commander in chief (one making life and death decisions about an American military disproportionately black and brown), that there were no people of color in the press pool.

This is certainly not the fault of Clinton; it is the media entities themselves that determine who is sent to cover the news. I wondered, though, what she thought of the fact that her entire press pool was white, while all of the flight attendants (active-duty military personnel) were black. I wonder if she noticed.

USA WEEKEND Contributing Editor Tavis Smiley also is the host of "Tavis Smiley" on PBS and "The Tavis Smiley Show" from PRI.


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