What happens when you ask Hillary what Bill thinks

Pity poor Hillary Clinton. She is in the midst of a gruelling trip to Africa, bringing a message of US commitment to the unhappiest corners of an unhappy continent. Yet it is now likely to be remembered, if at all, for a snappy answer to a question involving her husband – a question that almost certainly was mis-relayed to her in translation.

Yesterday she became the first Secretary of State to visit Goma, ground zero of the civil war that for a decade has ravaged eastern Congo. She toured a dust-choked refugee camp and pledged $17m of aid to fight the plague of sexual assault by roving militias, that has led the UN to describe the region as the "rape capital of the world".

Yet this venture into the battle zone, as well as Ms Clinton's earlier stops in Kenya, South Africa and Angola will probably be eclipsed by her brief reply at a town hall meeting on Monday with university students in the capital Kinshasa, at which she appeared with Dikembe Mutombo, local hero and former NBA basketball superstar.

Unfortunately the translator messed up the question, originally in French. What did President Obama think of concerns about massive Chinese aid to the country, he apparently meant to ask. Alas the President in question was identified not as Mr Obama, but her own spouse, Bill Clinton.

"You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?" she replied, visibly angry. "My husband is not Secretary of State, I am. If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channelling my husband."

Afterwards aides said that the student had apologised to Mrs Clinton, explaining that he had intended to enquire what President Obama thought about the China's loan offer, seen by many as a blatant attempt to secure access to Congo's abundant mineral resources. But the damage had been done.

Maybe the lady was tired (as she had good right to be), her mood not improved by the somewhat shambolic organisation of the meeting, and already short of patience by the time she was asked about Bill's views, not hers, on a major issue of the day in Africa. But none of that mattered.

When it comes to psychobabble about the Clintons, any pretext will do.

Perhaps, some speculated, she was fed up with playing second fiddle to her husband. After all, less than a week ago as she arrived on the continent, was she not utterly upstaged when Bill made his dramatic mission to Pyongyang to rescue two US journalists?

Unkinder souls argued that the outburst was merely confirmation of an uncomfortable truth – that whatever Mrs Clinton had achieved in public life – from her election to the Senate to her near-miss for the White House in 2008 – she ultimately owed to the fact that she was the wife of a former president.

Still others insisted that she had let slip her frustration at the supposedly diminished place she occupies in the Obama administration, a secretary of state who has to compete to be heard on foreign policy with the likes of Vice President Joe Biden, and special envoys of the clout of George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke.

In fact, by common consent, Ms Clinton is performing very well, despite having to cope with a painful elbow injury that has only recently cleared up. Her competence and lawyer's quick grasp of issues has never been in doubt. She has also proved an unexpectedly good team player, in what was initially billed as Mr Obama's "Team of Rivals" But what does this count against a single testy reply to a botched question on the other side of the world?

Katherine Butler: After all she's put up with, give her a break

Comment

It was the political equivalent of the waiter asking the only man at the table to taste the wine, or presuming that the credit card is the husband's, even if it's the wife who asked for the bill. Most women are used to being rendered invisible, or worse, seen but not heard. They venture an opinion, to a wall of silence, only to hear a male colleague utter the same opinion a few minutes later to a chorus of approving responses.

It's a long time since an exasperated Hillary Clinton rolled her eyes and told Americans she'd rather pursue her career than "stay home and bake cookies" while her husband ran the world. So it's hardly a surprise that 17 years on (and how much has she silently endured in the intervening years?) she exploded in Kinshasa.

She's the one with the big job, she has the stage and the audience wants to know what her husband thinks? She was affronted. With good reason. Give her a break.

For her sake, it was unfortunate that her outburst, while raw, spontaneous and refreshingly honest, came over so shrill. The misogynists who love to cast powerful women as hysterical and aggressive will never let her forget it.

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