At first the media said Hillary Clinton's visit to Africa was overshadowed by her husband's trip to North Korea. Now the work she's trying to do — including stopping rape in Congo — is overshadowed by coverage of that overshadowing.
Clinton is the first Secretary of State to enter the Congolese war zone, and she has an important mission: to urge an end to sexual violence in a country the United Nations calls "the rape capital of the world." Hundreds of thousands of women — and many boys and men — have been raped in the last 10 years alone, often by members of the Congolese military. Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who was kept in a hole and repeatedly raped over the course of five months, when she became pregnant, at which point her family disowned her. Such crimes are all too common in Congo, and Clinton urged President Joseph Kabila both to protect his people and to stem the unregulated mineral trade that gives rise to much of Congo's military activity.
But none of this is very fun or funny, and what the media really wants to talk about is Clinton supposedly getting huffy about her husband. In response to a question about Bill Clinton's opinion on a financial issue, Clinton reportedly "bristled," saying, "You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? 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 channeling my husband." Her intent was likely to redirect attention where it belongs — on Congo — but of course her remark had the opposite effect, generating analysis of Clinton's supposed frustration and her relationship with Bill.
Today, Maureen Dowd snipes that "looking unhinged about your marriage on an international stage hardly empowers women" and accuses Clinton of being "steamed about Bill celebrating his upcoming 63rd birthday in Las Vegas with his posse." But Tina Brown's take in The Daily Beast is perhaps the most annoying. She generously allows that, "contrary to received opinion, I am told Bill's wife was not a bit miffed at her husband's bounding back into the limelight with that glamorous Team America rescue of damsels in distress from evil North Korea." But then she backtracks with this fun little metaphorical quip: "it's just that-oh God, the trouble is that when Bill bounces back up, he bounces so high he always ends up landing on her." Poor Hillary! Brown continues,
Madam Secretary was doing so well at grabbing back the spotlight, delivering hard messages to devious, corrupt African strongmen, issuing warnings to Somali militants, busting a move on the dance floor at a gala dinner in Nairobi. In Congo she was particularly stressed. She had spent a day touring a refugee camp, hearing harrowing stories of rape, persecution, and female subjugation, issues she has long made hers. I suspect she'd just about had it with having to tiptoe around so many big-dog male egos-Obama, Bill, Africa's Messrs. Kibaki, Zuma, and Kabila. And p.s., was it necessary for Bill to be yukking it up on his birthday with the old adoring pals at such a fancy, high-priced restaurant as Craftsteak?
Instead of pointing out that Clinton's frustration might stem from an overlooking of the very issues she was campaigning against, and an unproductive focus on her husband, Brown just talks about how tiring those issues must be for Clinton. Way to miss the point in a new direction. But the real kicker is this:
And not only that, but (and I say this in solidarity, not belittlement) the African humidity had wreaked havoc on her hair. It had gone all flat and straight, which puts any woman in a bad humor. (Let's not forget: It was a sympathetic reference to the female-specific chore of keeping perfectly coiffed that made Hillary's eyes fill with tears back in New Hampshire.) Plus, the grueling State Department schedule means these days she can never get to the gym.
See, Hillary was just mad because she was having a bad hair day. Oh, and she might also have been feeling fat. This nasty little paragraph shows that sometimes women know how to use the tools of the patriarchy — belittlement (not solidarity) and looksism — better than anyone. It also shows how reducing Clinton's visit to Congo to a personal struggle for acceptance ignores the people there who actually need help.
In the Huffington Post, Georgianne Nienaber criticizes Jeffrey Gettleman's Times coverage of Clinton's visit ("It does not serve readership or the truth to paraphrase the Secretary of State, when direct quotes would do a much better job of conveying her tone and intent. Does the man not own a digital recorder?"), and quotes blogger Texas in Africa who mocks the cliched nature of most Western coverage of Congo ("It's the Heart of Darkness"). Texas in Africa also notes that American shock is played-out and worthless as a response to the crisis in Congo, that what Clinton really needs to do is push for more peacekeeping troops, better HIV/AIDS treatment, and other real-world solutions. But the bar isn't set very high for Clinton or journalists like Gettleman when the dominant media conversation seems to be about Clinton's hair.
Niether Nienaber nor Texas in Africa likes Gettleman much, but he does offer this illuminating anecdote in his Times piece:
A third woman, Christine Schuler-DeSchryver, a well-known anti-rape activist, vented about all the empty promises from the stream of high-ranking visitors who have recently come to eastern Congo, "one more important than the next."
"In the end, all we got was a pile of business cards," she said.
She pressed Mrs. Clinton to do more to end the criminally-controlled mineral trade.
"Madame Secretary," she said, "we want you to be our spokesperson, our voice."
It's Clinton's responsibility to be an effective voice for the Congolese people, not just a purveyor of empty American outrage. But the press could help her, by focusing on the actuall issues at hand. Brown writes, "as usual it's not the politics anyone is talking about now. The unchanging thing about the first lady/senator /presidential candidate-turned-secretary of State is the crackle of marital complications. Just as Hillary Clinton is a pol, she is also-just as intensely (and at times perplexingly)-Mrs. William Jefferson Clinton." But Tina Brown is an incredibly powerful media mogul — to some extent, she controls what people are talking about. She could help them talk about something real.
Why Hillary Lashed Out [Daily Beast]
Hillary Clinton In Congo: Tempers, Human Rights, And Media Cliché [Huffington Post]
Clinton Presents Plan To Fight Sexual Violence In Congo [New York Times]
Congo Rape Victims Caught In Political Crossfire [NPR]
Clinton: I'm Secretary Of State, Not Bill [AP]
Perhaps I've Gotten A Bit Cynical [Texas In Africa]
Toilet-Paper Barricades [NYT]