A Surprising Silence
By Glenn Kessler
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, March 1--Something strange happened as we traveled to this resort town for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's first foray in Middle East diplomacy.
She didn't talk to reporters.
Of course, there had been some mild chitchat before the plane departed at 11 p.m. on Saturday night. But then she conducted no briefing about her trip, which left reporters nothing fresh for their stories when we landed here.
This is the first time in my seven years on the beat that a secretary of State failed to brief at the start of a trip; other reporters with even longer tenures could not recall it happening before either.
Why is this important? From a secretary's perspective, she or he can set the tone for the trip and maybe make a little news. From the reporters' perspective, we need something on the record from the secretary when we land. Otherwise there is nothing to write.
And yet, over 13 hours of traveling, there was not a peep, from either her or her staff.
It's not like the 15 reporters on the plane weren't shy about it. I sent an e-mail a few days before the trip to key members of her staff, noting a trip briefing was needed at some point. (I received polite replies back, thanking me.) When we refueled in Shannon, Ireland, after we all had had some sleep, we brought it up again--and again--with staff members on the plane. Everyone claimed to understand our needs. But nothing happened.
We got off the plane, wordless. This was a big deal for the press corps. The wire reporters made apologetic calls to their bosses. The newspaper reporters sent e-mails saying that they knew space was reserved in the paper, but they weren't sure what to write.
Clinton has been candid and open on her first trip, to Asia last month, so reporters began to speculate.
Was she pulling back from press access because she felt she had been too candid?
Were the stakes too high for the Middle East for a potential rookie misstep?
Why would such an experienced politician with some many years of dealing with the media suddenly not be assessable?
Finally, four hours after landing and after many staff meetings, her spokesman, Robert A. Wood, showed up in the press filing center with a morsel of news--the amount of aid Clinton will announce for Gaza at the conference. At least we could write something, but we were left with virtually no insight on how she plans to pursue diplomacy in the Middle East.
After we pressed him, Wood insisted that she will have many meetings with the press on the trip and was not trying to duck questions.
But the fact remains she did not make herself available at the start of the trip. It looked like she did not want to face the media on the eve of her first big Middle East trip. As any politician knows, image is reality.
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