Hillary Clinton has a message for the world: It’s not all about Bill.
The secretary of state bristled Monday when — as she heard it — a Congolese university student asked what her husband thought about an international financial matter.
She hadn’t traveled to Africa to talk about her husband the ex-president. But even there, she couldn’t escape his outsized shadow.
She abruptly reclaimed the stage for herself.
“My husband is not secretary of state, I am,” she snapped. “I am not going to be channeling my husband.”
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Clinton’s presence, so bold in her historic presidential candidacy against Barack Obama, has sometimes been hard to see in the months she’s served as the supposed face and voice of U.S. foreign policy.
The president’s ambitious travels have overshadowed her, heavyweight special envoys have been assigned to the world’s critical hotspots, Vice President Joe Biden has taken on assignments abroad — and then last week her husband succeeded in a North Korean mission to free two journalists even as she landed in Africa on a seven-nation trip.
“You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?” she asked incredulously when the student raised a question about a multibillion-dollar Chinese loan offer to Congo.
“If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion,” she said. “I am not going to be channeling my husband.”
The moderator quickly moved on.
State Department officials said the student approached Clinton afterward and told her he had meant to ask what Obama, not Bill Clinton, thought about the Chinese loan. A senior Clinton aide said that Mrs. Clinton assured the student not to worry about it.
The student’s question, according to the State Department translation, went like this: “Thank you. Mrs. Clinton, weve all heard about the Chinese contracts in this country. The interference is from the World Bank against this contract. What does Mr. Clinton think through the mouth of Mrs. Clinton and what does Mr. Mutombo think on this situation? Thank you very much.”
It was unclear whether the French-speaking student or translator had erred. Either way, she was not pleased at the mention of her husband’s name.
The Clintons have always been a complicated couple. An accomplished lawyer and politician in her own right, Hillary Rodham Clinton has struggled for decades to balance her interests and ambitions against his. She has supported his career while looking to blaze a trail of her own — at times proud of, and benefiting from, her husband’s accomplishments, and at other times frustrated by his failings and his habit of overshadowing her, friends say.
The biggest controversy of Bill Clinton’s career — an affair with a White House intern that led to impeachment proceedings — engendered rare sympathy for his wife and helped her win a Senate seat. One of his biggest political miscues — injecting race into her South Carolina primary with Obama — helped seal her defeat in the 2008 Democratic primary.
Since his presidency, Bill Clinton has spoken out about international financial and development aid to poor countries, one focus of his foundation’s Clinton Global Initiative, making his opinion of interest abroad. But the stage in Kinshasa was his wife’s, and she reacted instantly to a suggestion that he shared it.
She had been sidelined for weeks after she fell on her way to the White House in June and fractured her elbow, requiring surgery. Her aides acknowledged her frustrations stemming from the injury, which made her miss out on going to Russia with Obama and attending several European conferences.
But her aides and those in the White House have denied any rift or attempt to marginalize her.
After returning to action following her injury, Clinton made a round of TV appearances and a rousing speech — all in tune with Obama’s priorities, but in her own voice.
She then resumed her frenetic pace, traveling to India and Thailand and then to Africa.
Hours after she left Washington for Africa a week ago, news broke that Bill Clinton had gone on a humanitarian mission to North Korea to win the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two television journalists who had been arrested and sentenced to 12 years at hard labor.
She arrived in Kenya to find herself peppered with questions about his secret mission.
Clinton quickly recovered her cool Monday and moved on to other subjects. Just before the question that set off her anger, another student had asked if the U.S. and the West felt a need to apologize to the people of Congo for colonialism and postcolonial interference.
That brought a pointed rebuttal as well.
“I cannot excuse the past and I will not try,” she said. “We can either think about the past and be imprisoned by it or we can decide we’re going to have a better future and work to make it.”