On the Plane

Hitting the Wrong Button

By Glenn Kessler
ANKARA, Turkey, March 7--Diplomacy often is about shades of gray. And symbols, as well as substance, are all part of the game.

So what happens when you throw a gimmick into the mix, a stunt more akin to a primary campaign? It's a bit daring and just might work. But careful attention to detail is important.

The Clinton team learned that lesson the hard way when, before a crucial meeting in Geneva Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a mock "reset button"--with the wrong Russian word emblazoned on the device. Instead of "reset," it said "overcharge" or "overload," as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quickly pointed out.

The concept was clever--it was intended to symbolize the U.S. desire to "reset" the relationship with Russia--but the execution was sloppy. The idea of the gift was a bit of a last-minute thing, which is unusual given that Clinton was headed into a high-stakes encounter. State Department officials back in Washington were simultaneously amused and appalled.

Clinton, to her credit, made the best of the situation. Lavrov's quick identification of the error earned a full-throated laugh from the secretary. Lavrov, who often wields a diplomatic stiletto, then made a mocking reference to the mistake in the post-meeting news conference.

At the news conference, a Russian reporter also questioned Clinton about the gaffe (in what may have been a planted question). But Clinton cleverly responded, "The minister corrected our word choice. But in a way, the word that was on the button turns out to be also true. We are resetting, and because we are resetting, the minister and I have an 'overload' of work."

The episode earned some derision in the Russian media, according to an account by Agence France Press:

"Daily newspaper Kommersant put a prominent picture of the fake red button on its front page and declared: 'Sergey Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pushed the wrong button.'

"A correspondent for NTV television called it a 'symbolic mistake,' pointing out that US-Russian ties had become overcharged in recent years due to discord over such issues as missile defense and last summer's war in Georgia.

" 'The friendly U.S. gesture was upturned by a small amusing incident,' the news website RBC.ru wrote in an article posted late Friday evening. 'Yet this curious episode did not stop Clinton and Lavrov from pushing the button in front of television cameras.' "

Reporters traveling with Clinton had to wrestle with the question about how much to make of the incident. An anxious Clinton aide sent a series of e-mails urging reporters to focus on the "substance." Three senior U.S. officials then trooped down to the filing center for an impromptu briefing on what they described as a very productive meeting.

But what had been accomplished beyond a noticeable change in atmospherics? (I have never seen the normally dour Lavrov so buoyant.) There were no real announcements, just talk about "work plans" and plans to have more meetings. That's in part because any possible announcements of substance are being reserved for when the presidents meet early next month. This was essentially a get-to-know-you meeting.

Of the five newspapers traveling on the plane, it was a split decision. The New York Times and The Washington Post led with the gaffe. (The Times headline: "Lost in Translation: A U.S. Gift to Russia.") The Washington Times led with the presentation of the gift, but did not mention the error until deep in the story. The Los Angeles Times did not mention either the gift or the linguistic miscue until the last few paragraphs. (The Wall Street Journal did a news analysis of Clinton's trip.)

To some extent, Clinton's staff may have achieved success. They faced the prospect of a somewhat newsless but high-profile encounter, and they needed a device that would capture the essence of the Obama administration approach. Even with the attention paid to the gaffe, the image of the "reset button" dominated much of the news coverage. Over time, that is the symbol that may linger, especially if the Obama outreach proves successful.

Next time, though, triple-check the spelling.

By Lexie Verdon |  March 7, 2009; 9:28 AM ET  | Trip:  Clinton in Mideast, March 2009
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I am amazed that with so many people engaged in diplomatic relations in the State Dept. and so many translators in the federal bureaucracy not one could translate the simple word "reset".

Posted by: Jay | March 7, 2009 10:05 AM

This "gift" with Lavrov's "erroneous" translation could have meant only one thing, "Russia accepts Clinton only as the messenger of neo con policies, not of a change!" Pitiful that Obama can't get rid of her now.

Posted by: aepelbaum | March 7, 2009 11:25 AM

The US State Department doesn't have the competence to correctly translate the word "reset" into Russian for a high level diplomatic meeting? This is not funny....Shouldn't you journalists try to dig up the name of the person who made the mistake (and/or those who didn't catch it) and get some accountability here?

Posted by: laparisienne | March 7, 2009 5:55 PM

wasn't an error at all.
Yes, it was not the correct translation for "rese;," it was slightly off. Clinton directed that apparent "error," and even had some "spontaneous" remarks ready to go when the error was pointed out.

This lady is shrewd. I like it.

Posted by: Brian | March 8, 2009 4:26 AM

Well, on the bright side, the world now has the happy photos of two world powers "resetting". Condi, who spoke Russian, might not have made the same error, but she never was able to deal with Lavrov. If the Obama administration can make diplomatic headway with Russia this "gaffe" will be seen as a smart, honest effort to connect with an adversary.

Posted by: Roseann | March 8, 2009 11:09 AM

Newsflash, Geneva - It was discovered today that not only was the Russian translation of the word "reset" printed the red plastic button Secretary of State Clinton presented to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov incorrect, but also was the translation of Secretary Clinton's name on the nametag she wore on the lapel of her jacket incorrect.

What was supposed to have read, "Secretary Clinton" actually had the wording, " Дрочила" which literally translates in Russian to "Female Wanker".

It is believed that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson was responsible for all translations given to this diplomatic envoy. While Bill Richardson was considered the top choice for the Secretary of State position before he became entangled in corruption charges in his home state and then dropped like a big fat hot potato by President Obama, there appears to have been no deliberate attempt at embarrassing Secretary Clinton. To quote Richardson today, "Me? Embarrass Secretary Clinton? Why would I do that? I'm happy for her! Besides, I LOVE my job as governor presiding over a bunch of friggin hicks in some backwards a$$ state such as New Mexico. Heck, to give up New Mexico for traveling around the world in luxury and prestige? Not for this sailor! I love my job!

Posted by: DriveByPoster | March 8, 2009 8:03 PM

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