Hurricane Mitch: Tipper gets dirty to spread the word

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The Independent Online
"SHE'S GONNA be shovellin' mud. Then she'll wipe the sweat from her brow, like this. Make sure you get that shot, all right?"

Nathan Naylor, press spokesman for US Vice-President, Al Gore, was giving staff from the American television networks an advance briefing on yesterday's visit to Honduras by Mr Gore's wife, Tipper. He even did the gestures, pretending to shovel with an imaginary spade then running his right hand along his forehead to brush off imaginary sweat.

When Mrs Gore arrived, the choreography went perfectly. Well, almost. Residents did not really know who she was. Some thought she was Diana, Princess of Wales. News arrives slowly in these parts, even before the hurricane.

As she tramped down narrow street in the slums of this barrio near Tegucigalpa, badly hit by Hurricane Mitch, she spotted an old lady shovelling thick, dark mud from the front door of her simple stone home.

"Does she need some help. Is this where I'm supposed to shovel?" America's "Second Lady" asked Mr Naylor. "No, no, it's further down," he replied.

But he was too late. Several dozen photographers and cameramen had surrounded the old lady, An Rosa de Argueta, taking pictures and briefly ignoring Mrs Gore.

The VP's wife did the honourable thing. She waded into the mud, soiling her brand new cavalry twill trousers and Timberland boots, to hug Ms de Argueta, wish her well and, of course, get in the frame.

The old lady was overwhelmed by the moment, the cameras and the crowd following Mrs Gore. She stopped cleaning up and began posing, even forcing a smile. "Keep shovelling, don't smile!" shouted the cameramen.

Finally, Mrs Gore moved on, round the corner to where she was really supposed to stop. It was a kindergarten called Mundo Maraviloso (Marvellous World), where the yard was still knee-deep in mud. Outside, in the narrow street, was a 6ft pile of hardened mud.

It was a strange pile, squarish and flattened, and it seemed odd that it had been left to block the street and hamper rescue efforts. But to everything there is a purpose.

As Mrs Gore approached, Mr Naylor skilfully helped a television crew - the "pool" crew designated to have best access and then to share their film with their competitors - clamber up the pile for the perfect shot.

So far, so good. Until a young girl in a cotton frock got stuck up to her waist in the real, softer mud nearby, prompting an emergency rescue by the police officers and soldiers escorting the American visitor. A former professional photographer, Mrs Gore snapped away until the girl was freed, blushing profusely.

Back to the plan. The Second Lady, looking distinctly Sloanie in a crisp, new olive-green fisherman's vest and blue denim shirt, donned a pair of leather gloves, picked up a shovel and helped clear the schoolyard.

Perfect so far, until probably the most recognisable man on the delegation, star baseball pitcher Dennis Martinez of the Atlanta Braves, started shovelling right in front of Mrs Gore, blocking her from the view of the lensmen.

"Martinez, get outta the way!" yelled the press pack. The pitcher, a Nicaraguan who moved on to his home country yesterday with Mrs Gore to assess hurricane damage there, obliged and she resumed shovelling. I counted eight shovelfuls and, sure enough, up came the glove to flick away the sweat.

Mr Naylor spun round to look at the cameras. The stills were whirring, the videos' red lights were on. His face took on the look of a man by a peat fire sipping a cognac and smoking a pipe. Mission accomplished.

That night, Tuesday, Mrs Gore did what is known in Latin America as a "bano de pueblo", or "people bath", living in local conditions as a sign of solidarity. Mr Naylor had promised us she would rough it in a tent with hurricane victims. And, to her credit, she did.

The only trouble was the victims were not sleeping in tents but in a school building. Not to worry. Her aides had brought a tent along. They had, of course, also rented a room in a local luxury hotel so she nipped back there, her police escorts sirens blaring, to freshen up before returning to her tent to sleep.

How well she slept nobody knows. But she was up at 4.30am, long before the refugees. That enabled her to appear live on a US television breakfast show.

In short, it was all a bit of a show. But that is the way it works these days and it is not to say Mrs Gore did not do a fine job. She is known as a caring person, involved in many good causes.

No one here really cared who she was. But they did care about what she brought with her on a big military transport plane - badly-needed water, blankets, tarpaulins for the homeless, tons of food and a reminder that the people of this little Central American nation have not been forgotten.