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Madame Secretary, when will we have peace? And bathroom breaks?
RAMALLAH — The further back you are in a motorcade, the more bemused the expression on the faces of the pedestrians watching you speed by. When I passed them, the people of this Palestinian city stared with slack jaws, as though they wondered if the parade of shiny black Chevrolet Suburbans would go on forever.
I was in car 22. Of 24.
But the people on the sidewalk weren’t the only ones scratching their heads.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic caravan looped through the biggest Palestinian city in the West Bank on Wednesday. No doubt she’d maintain that she laid important diplomatic groundwork for the Obama Administration’s new path in the Middle East.
But the dozen Washington-based journalists who follow her wherever she goes complained that they’d been frozen out of the behind-the-scenes details just as abruptly as the stymied motorists forced to watch her drive by under the baleful stares of red-bereted Palestinian soldiers toting AK-47s.
Even before the journalists left Jerusalem’s King David Hotel in the morning, one correspondent for a prominent East Coast daily whined that he felt “like we’re the traveling Russian press.”
Throughout the day, correspondents griped to Hillary’s troop of press people that they didn’t know what she was telling the Palestinian prime minister and president in her closed-door meetings.
And these are people with lots of time to complain.
Because when you’re “inside the bubble” with the Secretary of State, there’s a lot of sitting around with nothing to do but whine about how little you have to do.
I jumped into my U.S. Embassy Chevy beside the King David at 8.45 a.m. Jerusalem time. I saw Hillary for six, maybe seven, minutes at 12.20 p.m. Eventually there was a 20-minute press conference which ended at 3 p.m.
Other than that, as Yasser Arafat used to say, “a big nothing.”
Of course, the State Department’s operation is impressive. Private security contractors with distinctly military demeanors and names like “Mac” and “Witt” run that 24-car motorcade with a precision not usually evident in the Middle East. Mac promised to throw himself on top of me if the convoy were attacked. Then an attractive, young USAID official jumped into the seat beside me. I saw Mac's attention to security shift focus. I was on my own.
Clearly, no one wanted to be late for the motorcade — Mac and Witt wouldn’t wait. With some minutes to go before departure, press people from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv were faced with the most important question of the day that the traveling press actually were allowed to pose: “Do I have time to go to the bathroom?”
(This was a major feature of the day and apparently one of the most significant considerations for people who must parse a few minutes of often anodyne diplospeak and manage to get an 800-word article out of it. You don’t want to be sighing at the urinal when Hillary’s ticking off the details of how she made a big peace breakthrough in the Middle East. Nor do you want to be wriggling with discomfort in the motorcade. I counted six occasions in five hours when Hillary’s press aides were asked to advise on bathroom breaks.)