On the Plane

Rice's Packed Schedule Leaves Little Room for Cultural Visits

LUXOR, Egypt, Jan. 15 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice no longer has time to breathe in the local culture. When Rice took her Cabinet post two years ago, her aides actively thought of ways to demonstrate her interest in the countries she visited. On her maiden trip to Europe, she went to Conservatoire Hector Berlioz in Paris to watch youngsters learn to read music. On another trip, she took a detour from a busy day in New Delhi to see Humanyun's Tomb and then a few days later arranged to watch Chinese Olympic hopefuls practice ice skating in a Beijing ice rink.

Rice aides at the time said the detours from her official schedule had a real purpose in terms of public diplomacy, noting that the photographs and television footage were far more arresting than the standard shots of news conferences. For instance, she was trying to reach out to the French after the bitter divisions over the Iraq war, while China is very proud that it would host the 2008 Olympics. The photo of Rice wandering in front of the huge red and white mausoleum in New Delhi was reprinted in virtually every newspaper on the subcontinent.

When there wasn't enough time for a cultural visit, Rice's staff arranged for her to be greeted by a country's pop culture heroes, especially sports or music stars, guaranteeing extensive coverage by the local media. In Romania, she was met by Olympic legend Nadia Comaneci, young Romanian Olympic gymnasts and Special Olympians. In Belgium, the media widely covered her meeting with cyclist Eddy Merckx, who won the Tour de France five times. And in Tokyo, Rice was greeted at the airport by Konishiki, a sumo champion clad in a black kimono.

But as the months have passed, and the diplomatic headaches have grown, the cultural events have dropped off her schedule. Not since March, when she visited Australia and awarded medals at a sporting event, has Rice ventured forth beyond the blur of conference halls and hotel rooms that make up a diplomats schedule. But then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited Rice to meet him Monday at this ancient city on the Nile, the legendary Thebes and one of the prime tourist spots in the Middle East. For a brief moment, it looked as if Rice would actually take a brief tour of Luxor Temple, which was near the hotel where she would meet Mubarak.

Luxor is one of the largest and best preserved of Egypt's temples, dating from 1200 BC. And there was a legitimate business reason to visit: The U.S. Agency for International Development, an arm of the State Department, has contributed $78 million to a project that aims to save the temple and another site from the damaging effects of rising ground water.

Reporters traveling with Rice, who otherwise would be stuck in a hotel room waiting for Rice to emerge from her meetings, had planned to go to another, more famous temple complex -- Karnak. But then Rice decided to stop at Luxor, scratching those plans, since they would need to accompany Rice on her tour. Reporters began to bemoan their bad luck after a senior State Department official, briefing on condition of anonymity about Rice's talks, offered this opinion: Karnak was much better than Luxor.

But then things got complicated. Reporters were first told that they would sit in vans while Rice toured Luxor, and then could get their own tour. Then they were told there would be no video allowed of Rice visiting the temple complex, not even of her entering it. The reasons were obscure, but perhaps there was nervousness about her sightseeing while Saddam Hussein's co-defendants were hanged in Iraq. Rice also planned to announce she had arranged a meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders for peace talks, so perhaps State Department officials thought the images would overshadow her announcement.

In the end, it didn't matter. Rice's meetings in Israel ended late, and so she skipped the tour when she landed in Egypt. Her motorcade rushed by the towering rows of columns and a long alleyway of human-headed sphinxes. W. Raymond Johnson, field director of The Epigraphic Survey of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, has spent six months out of every year here since 1978, helping to catalog and conserve its riches. He had been assigned to give a brief tour to Rice. As he led reporters though the temple complex, he remarked, "I am sure, as she was driving by, she was crying because it is such a beautiful temple."

As reporters and some of Rice's staff wandered past 80-foot columns and giant statues of the god Amun-Re, through spectacular courtyards and into a room where the ancient Egyptians thought all life was created, the reporters began to feel rather foolish about carping about not seeing Karnak. This place was pretty impressive. One large obelisk is missing; it now sits in the Place de Concorde in Paris, an unfortunate 19th century gift from Egypt to France.

Johnson said a rapid growth in tourism had begun to threaten the site. Hundreds of buses arrive each day to visit Luxor. Egyptian officials have decided to tear down several kilometers of the old town in order to extend the row of sphinxes to its original four kilometer length, even though experts have warned that not much may be left, leaving open the possibility that the result will look more like Luxor Casino in Las Vegas than ancient Egypt. At one point, Johnson showed a wall carved with narrative of a ancient battle. He noted that the Egyptians had a "very fluid version of reality." So the king never was wounded and never lost a battle. "Reality was what you carved into the wall," Johnson said.

The reporters looked at each other: aha, an early version of spin.

Then it was off to the news conference (transcript).

-- Glenn Kessler

By washingtonpost.com Editors |  January 16, 2007; 9:48 AM ET  | Trip:  Rice in Middle East, January 2007
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