With the demented face of Heath Ledger's splendidly wicked Joker flickering on the drop-down screens behind her, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood serenely in the aisle of the press cabin aboard her plane, beverage in hand, and spoke off the record for almost 30 minutes. She had just logged 20,000 miles on her first foreign trip as the nation's top diplomat, a weeklong tour of Asian capitals that had taken her, and some 20 journalists, to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China.
Animated and amused, completely at home bantering with the slightly stuffy media gang that likes to call itself "the diplomatic corps," Clinton sported around her neck one of the custom-made pendants she had given to her former campaign staff reading "18 Million Cracks." And while the content of Clinton's off-the-record session must remain undisclosed, the reporters present for it--including seasoned veterans of Washington journalism and overseas official travel--all agreed it was the most shockingly candid they had ever heard from the lips of a senior American official, on or off American soil.
It was Clinton's way of telegraphing that she is willing to take chances to ensure good relations. She has tried, during her first two months on the job, to send the same signal to America's allies and adversaries abroad.
It was a jam-packed trip. In a fashion more befitting Des Moines and Lancaster than Tokyo and Seoul, Clinton's staff stacked her days with a half dozen or more events, scheduled over 12 hours' time and often sandwiched between grueling seven-hour flights. Thus an early morning appearance on a bizarre Malaysian MTV-style program becomes a roundtable of foreign journalists, where the questions also prove a bit whacky and disarming ("How do you feel if you lost everything right now?"). It's followed, after a hair-raising motorcade zigzaging through crowded streets, by a tour of a sweltering Jakarta slum and its American-funded sewage projects. There's little time to spare before a news conference with the foreign minister, 90-minutes of closed-door talks with the minister and his aides, a "town hall" attended by 2,000 university students, another roundtable--this time with female Chinese activists, say, pioneers who defied the Communist overlords in Beijing by opening the first battered-women clinic in the country, and who remember the secretary from 12 years earlier, and--and . . .
It's all too much, as The Beatles would say. Speaking of whom, the secretary was also happy to discuss the Fab Four and their surprisingly significant impact on her weltanschauung, in detail and with only minimal prodding, in a way that would have been unthinkable for Madeleine Albright or James Baker. Toward the end of an interview focused on North Korea's nuclear threat and the anemic level of troop contributions to the Afghan war effort by America's NATO allies, I asked Clinton--in the wake of her declaration of love for the Beatles on Indonesia's MTV-style show--whether she is "more partial to the irrepressible melodies and hand-clapping of the 'Please Please Me' era or to the world-weary drug fueled existentialism of their later work." "Well," she replied, not skipping a beat, "like so many Beatles fans, it depends both on mood and stage of life. . . . [T]he hand-clapping mode was what I first was captured by. 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' was an anthem."
CLINTON: But then as I went through my angst period, and you know, struggled with the challenges of living in the real world, the more existential message struck home.
ROSEN: Do you have a favorite Beatles song?
CLINTON: Well, it sort of is on the more existential side. I have always loved "Hey Jude." Now, don't ask me why, because that's almost biblical in meaning, as you know. . . . I think Lennon and McCartney were geniuses, and I'm just glad I got to live through that period.
In short, a week of sustained exposure to Hillary Clinton, on and off the record, revealed her to be smarter, sharper, funnier, more energetic and sympathetic, more engaging--more human--than her time on the world stage had heretofore conveyed. She was undeniably a rock star in the town halls, where Asian students greeted her with something bordering on adulation ("It is glorious to meet you!"), and she parried even the most far-flung questions with ease ("How did you know you were in love with your husband?" "I feel more like an advice columnist than Secretary of State today."). And Clinton's longstanding interest in women's empowerment was manifest in the fact that she spent more time debriefing the female lawyers and doctors in China than she did in closed talks with the country's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi.