Telling Tales About Her First Lady Travels: Where and Why Did Hillary Exaggerate?

Hillary Clinton's calendars from her years as First Lady are a window opening onto a detailed landscape of her many trips abroad and suggest several possible reasons for her consistently overstating her role, which was essentially that of First Wife, when she traveled with her husband, and Goodwill Ambassador, when she traveled without him. But Hillary Clinton, as we now know, has been mentally rewriting her official visits--rigid constructions of protocol and set-pieces carefully crafted as any dioramas--injecting them with elements of surprise, adventure, chance human interaction and meaning. Trips to more than eighty countries that are completely lacking in spontaneity and other possibility would quickly drive most people crazy. Hillary Clinton survived by telling herself more involving stories than what actually happened. And now her Bosnia tale, with added hardship and danger, has embarrassed her campaign. In this light, the most interesting sentence in Clinton's 2003 autobiography Living History is this: "During this trip I also met with a group of prominent Japanese women--the first of dozens of such meetings that I held around the world--to learn about the issues women were facing everywhere."

I held. Hillary Clinton did not hold the meeting in Japan or anywhere else. These meetings, as her foreign itineraries make clear, were arranged for her. Aware of her interest in women's issues, embassies and liaison officers with foreign governments tried to accommodate the First Lady by setting up meets-and-greets and hour-long translator-facilitated discussions with local women. She was the First Lady of the United States, the most powerful nation in the world; of course, other countries tried to please by filling Hillary's days with what they thought would interest her. The realpolitik of American might "held" the meetings. That's why women came. Over time, Hillary Clinton has succumbed to a strain of Napoleon complex. Her me-centrism has grown from the amorphousness of her position in the White House--the fact that she had no formally-vested powers--just as surely as if she had been the President herself.

Here is the July 7, 1993 schedule for that meeting with a group of Japanese women:

Ambassador's Residence
Hosted by Mrs. Armacost

FORMAT: 10 prominent Japanese women in attendance.
Mrs. Clinton will be greeted by Mrs. Armacost and escorted to the salon
for drinks and meet and greet.
Guests will be escorted to Dining Room for lunch.
MENU: lightly prepared lobster, veal piccata, salad, asparagus,
puff pastry and fruit.
Guests return to salon for coffee and official photo.

2:10 PM DEPART VIA FOOT Ambassador's Residence

Therefore, Ambassador Armacost's wife held the "meeting," which was really the kind of luncheon program that generations of American women have been familiar with since the advent of women's clubs in the post-Civil War era. While Mrs. Clinton was entertained, the President was talking with President Suharto of Indonesia and other leaders, for this was the G-7 Summit. The question now is whether Hillary Clinton's tendency to self-aggrandizement is a worrisome trait for a potential world leader. By raising it, I am suggesting, of course, the affirmative. A further look at Clinton's First Lady travels illuminates the issue.

If either Hillary's White House staff or later the Clinton Library had grasped the revealing level of detail in the foreign itineraries attached to the First Lady calendars, likely these insertions would have been held back as long as Senator Clinton's foreign policy experience is an issue. The "away" days on the calendars, partly because they include daily schedules arranged with time intervals as small as ten minutes, offer much more than the cautious entries for White House days. Two different mindsets are at work here: HRC's mum loyalists, with their typical notations of "closed meeting" and "no public schedule," and the loquacious itineraries, coming from outside planners, which Patti Solis Doyle without much thought to future consequence allowed to be filed away among the daily records.

What kinds of experience did Hillary Clinton gain from all those trips abroad? She grew accustomed to admiring rose gardens (every wife of every world leader seems to have one) and accepting gifts from children through interpreters. She practiced "the wave," the dressy formal photo-op and the "arrive and hold." She learned how to walk the cordons of different militaries. She perfected the proper facial expression for watching one's husband place wreaths on the graves of fallen soldiers. She grew in patience and fortitude for yet one more staged hospital tour and pass-through observation of women making crafts. She grew familiar with the quick introduction and the brief intimacy and learned how to make the most of surface human interaction. As the timelines of her itineraries reveal, she seldom had the opportunity to meet with foreign women for any meaningful length of time. Indeed the protocol of these trips was stultifying. Hillary Clinton might as well have been Lady Curzon visiting the Raj or Queen Elizabeth on annual progress.

Here is a typical afternoon hour, from the HRC trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, July 6, 1996:

HRC proceeds to the Primate Square.
A children's dance folk ensemble will perform.
A young girl will present HRC with a traditional doll in folk costume.
HRC stops at the Statue of Roland, a symbolic patron of the City, as well
as a symbol of pride and citizenship.
HRC bids farewell and departs.
NOTE: HRC will have the option to shake some hands upon her departure.
Peace Corp [sic] volunteers will be at the end of the ropeline on departure.
5:00 PM DEPART Old Town
EN ROUTE Bratislava Airport

This touch-down in Slovakia was part of a longer trip Hillary Clinton took in summer 1996 to Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia and Finland. Briefly, Mrs. Clinton traveled with fellow Wellesley grad Madeleine Albright (then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.), and perhaps for this reason Clinton sees this trip, particularly, through the lens of American foreign policy and gives herself a central place in it. In her autobiography, Clinton says, "I was asked to represent Bill in a region he thought needed U.S. encouragement and a show of solidarity." Since this sentence closes a paragraph about the expansion of NATO, the reader is left to assume that pact membership was the agenda of Hillary's trip. However, if she spoke to leaders of former Warsaw Pact countries about NATO expansion, a centerpiece of her husband's foreign policy that was questioned by many in both Congress and the press--not to mention Russia--and was therefore a difficult and fraught venture requiring caution and nuance, she had precious little time in each country for such conversation.

In Romania, Hillary Clinton had a 15-minute private meeting with President Iliescu and eight other people, including the wife of the Foreign Minister. In Poland, she met with President Kwasniewski for 15 minutes. She paid courtesy calls on the presidents of Estonia and Hungary. In Hungary, she met with Prime Minister Horn for 30 minutes. In the Czech Republic, she, along with eight others, met with Prime Minister Klaus for half an hour; then Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Klaus retired for tea while "Ambassador Albright remains with Prime Minister Klaus." In Slovakia, Mrs. Clinton's meeting with President Kovac lasted 25 minutes. Her itinerary reveals that Madeleine Albright did the heavy lifting. "The President will return to continue meeting with Ambassador Albright" (July 6, 11:55 AM). "The President will then resume a meeting with Ambassador Albright."

Clinton's autobiography presents her meeting with Slovakian Prime Minister Meciar as a dramatic and menacing encounter: "A former boxer, he sat on one end of a small couch; I sat on the other. . . . By the end of our meeting, I was wedged tightly into the corner of the couch, appalled at his bullying attitude and barely controlled rage." Clinton fails to account for the eleven other people present at "our meeting," including her own Melanne Verveer and Madeleine Albright. It's Ambassador Albright who has to put up with Meciar at length. "Ambassador Albright will meet with the Prime Minister for an additional 30 minutes after HRC departs" (3:50 PM).

Did Hillary Clinton learn anything from her First Lady experiences abroad about the making of foreign policy? Yes indeed she did. She learned that there is only one Commander-in-Chief. As Carl Bernstein amply documents in his biography of her, Hillary Clinton entered the White House thinking that her husband and she were embarking on a co-presidency. Travels abroad with the President disabused her of that delusion. President Clinton received the dinner toasts and the gun salutes; he adjusted the ribbons on wreaths at memorials and cemeteries; sometimes only he signed a book of remembrance. Mrs. Clinton's itineraries are punctuated with instructions for her to "walk behind her husband," to "follow the President," to "stand behind," to "remain behind." Although her official visits garnered her little tangible foreign policy experience, the tenor of these travels prepared Hillary Clinton very well for her Senate race. The last few months of her White House calendars are suddenly full of events in New York State--just the kind of meets-and-greets, polite discussions, luncheons, teas and walk-abouts that she had eschewed in Arkansas, partly out of necessity as a law firm partner, and then tried to avoid in Washington, but in which over the course of her First Lady travels she became well-versed.