Is 'First Lady' a Foreign Policy Credential? Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton talks a lot about the importance of her experience as first lady. She says it's an important foreign policy credential, but her opponent Barack Obama takes issue with that.
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Is 'First Lady' a Foreign Policy Credential?

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Is 'First Lady' a Foreign Policy Credential?

Is 'First Lady' a Foreign Policy Credential?

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

With Barack Obama's win in the Mississippi primary yesterday, he and his rival Hillary Clinton now set their sights on Pennsylvania. That primary is still six weeks away. And while the pace of campaigning may slacken a bit, the back-and-forth between the candidates is continuing. Among the issues they are clashing over: what did Hillary Clinton accomplished as first lady and did she gain valuable foreign policy experience that makes her ready to be president? Here is what Clinton says.

(Soundbite of interview)

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): You know there is no doubt that I played a major role in many of the foreign policy decisions. I represented our government and our country in more than 80 countries and, you know, I know that people are nitpicking and raising questions, that's fair - that's in a campaign. But compare my experience, even after the nitpicking, with Senator Obama's. I mean, let's look at this subjectively here, and I think my experience, you know, is much more preparatory for the job that awaits.

BLOCK: That's Hillary Clinton speaking with NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview you can hear tomorrow on Morning Edition.

NPR's David Greene has been examining this question of Hillary Clinton's foreign policy experience. He joins us in the studio. And David, this has been one of the hot topics for both campaigns this week.

DAVID GREENE: Has it ever. I mean, I can't tell you the number of e-mails and conference calls we've gotten about this issue from the campaigns. And we really wanted to get beyond all that and see what Hillary Clinton did in Northern Ireland, what she did in Macedonia - these places where she talks about getting real experience and then let our listeners just decide on their own what they think and what they feel she learned as first lady.

BLOCK: And when she talks, as we heard just now, about playing a major role in many of the foreign policy decisions, what other things is she pointing to?

GREENE: No one is suggesting that she ordered troops anywhere or dealt with a huge crisis. But Hillary Clinton has said her travels were important and she has been highlighting a few specific moments from her time as first lady. One was this visit to Macedonia in 1999; the NATO bombing campaign was underway as in Kosovo, refugees were flowing across the border and Hillary Clinton stopped at a refugee camp. Here she is speaking to aid workers there.

Sen. CLINTON: Think about those trains. I don't know how many of you saw "Schindler's List" or saw "Sophie's Choice," let's think about what that means to be driving people from their homes, separating families, loading them into trains at the end of this violent century that we should've learned something from.

GREENE: She also held a meeting with Macedonia's president and prime minister, Ljubica Acevska, was Macedonia's ambassador to the U.S. at the time. She was in the meeting with Hillary Clinton. She compares it to a meeting she attended with Bill Clinton at a different time.

Ms. LJUBICA ACEVSKA (Former Macedonian Ambassador to the U.S.): I would say there was a little bit of a difference but still it was a meeting between leaders. I mean, it wasn't just niceties and polite issues that were discussed but it was a substantive meeting of commitment, of reassurances, so it was on that level, yes.

GREENE: Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign says Macedonia had an inconsistent policy toward refugees before the first lady arrived. Now, the ambassador says even if there were border crossings opening and closing at the time, her government always had a policy to allow refugees in. She says Clinton did deliver an important message that the U.S. would help Macedonia. I asked the ambassador if Clinton and Macedonian government leaders were actually negotiating refugee policy.

Ms. ACEVSKA: I would have to characterize that visit more as a visit where she was there to say that we support you. We will continue to provide the support, but the borders should be open and refugees should be able to come in.

GREENE: Hillary Clinton has also highlighted the time she spent as first lady, as she puts it, helping bring peace to Northern Ireland. Bill Clinton has spoken about his marathon negotiating sessions.

President BILL CLINTON: In some of the all night sessions I had making phone calls back-and-forth over here through the whole night, after about the third time I did that, to put it charitably, I thought I had lost my mind.

GREENE: Mark Devenport is Northern Ireland political editor for the BBC, he covered Bill Clinton's visits to Belfast and remembers Hillary Clinton being there as well.

Mr. MARK DEVENPORT (Northern Ireland Political Editor, BBC): She visited a fish-and-chips shop in South Belfast and met a group of working-class women who were trying to build bridges across the sectarian barriers that divide Protestant and Catholic areas.

GREENE: Devenport adds this about the event.

Mr. DEVENPORT: To some extent it was maybe a bit of an artificial occasion because both myself and other reporters were ushered in and said there was a barrage of cameras in the corner of the room. But nevertheless, I think it was at the time considered really quite something to have the American first lady here sitting down with ordinary women and it went down well with the public.

GREENE: Bruce Morrison says the first lady's efforts were more than well received. He was a Connecticut congressman who, for years, was involved in Northern Ireland affairs. And as a law school classmate of Bill and Hillary Clinton, he says he helped bring the issue to Pres. Clinton's attention. He says much of Hillary Clinton's work was meeting women in grassroots community groups whose support for a peace agreement was essential.

Mr. BRUCE MORRISON (Former Democratic Representative, Connecticut): Hillary's role was not being a negotiator. Her role was helping these women have a voice and give them advice and go over and be the keynoter to bring people together. Her role was really empowering the women.

GREENE: Being a high-profile resource for women around the world has been a priority of other American first ladies. Myra Gutin is a historian at Rider University in New Jersey. She has written a book called "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century." She has this to say about Hillary Clinton and her involvement in women's issues.

Ms. MYRA GUTIN (Historian, Rider University; Author, "The President's Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century"): I would say it's about part of the course for first ladies.

GREENE: What's that?

Ms. GUTIN: Meeting with women's groups and establishing liaisons with them around the around the world.

GREENE: And is that a positive role the first lady has been playing?

Ms. GUTIN: Oh, absolutely.

GREENE: Gutin says Clinton did set herself apart in some ways. She says her crafting of health care legislation was a rare effort by a first lady to be a policymaker. And she says Clinton's travels to more than 80 countries showed a greater commitment to making diplomatic connections than other first ladies had. But Gutin says there are limits to what even the most active first lady can do.

Ms. GUTIN: Well, the first lady is not the commander in chief; the president is. She is next to the power rather than wielding the power. It's the difference between power held and proximity to power.

GREENE: Proximity to power means a first lady is not dealing with the biggest crises. Lissa Muscatine was Hillary Clinton's speechwriter in the 1990s. She, of course, acknowledges the first lady was never confronted with a military decision or a terrorist attack.

Ms. LISSA MUSCATINE (Former Speechwriter of Hillary Clinton): I'm not sure that those are things that somebody in her role could've possibly done, you know, short of being president. I'm not sure who really does do that.

GREENE: But the first lady she says it can be tough. Muscatine points to when Clinton landed in Beijing in 1995 and during a U.N. conference on women challenged the Chinese government.

Sen. CLINTON: It is time to break the silence. It is time for us to say here in Beijing and for the world to hear that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights.

GREENE: Muscatine wrote that speech and she says it galvanized attention for women around the world.

Ms. MUSCATINE: I can tell you from going around the world with her that, you know, for years after that, you know, almost everywhere we went people, women, would run up to her with copies of this speech clutching it. It was as if it empowered a lot of people and gave voice to their aspirations.

BLOCK: We've been listening to a report from NPR's David Greene. And David, the theme here seems to be that many of the speeches that she made, the meetings she had were symbolic but also that they were more than that. That it went toward empowerment and bigger issues too.

GREENE: That's really true. And it seems to be a message that symbolism can be a real form of leadership. And then take it beyond that, one thing that has been so interesting in the whole debate, this campaign, is how Hillary Clinton has said that all Barack Obama would bring to the job of commander in chief is a speech. And she's talking about his speech in Chicago in 2002 laying out his opposition to the war in Iraq. And the Obama camp would say that for Barack Obama, that was a brave speech since it was not popular at the time to oppose the war. And Hillary Clinton, particularly when she talks about that memorable speech in Beijing, she seems to be making a pretty powerful argument that words can matter a lot when it comes to leadership.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's David Greene, thanks so much.

GREENE: Thanks, Melissa.

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