Inside the Hillary bubble

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.)

While Witt and Mac kept Beyonce at a modest volume in the front of the Suburban, the motorcade came through the checkpoint into northern Ramallah. “Trailerpark,” Mac said mysteriously into the microphone on his lapel. “Hatbox, hatbox.” Secret service code words, apparently.

We pulled up at the Council of Ministers. The traveling press was shown into a room with a table 20 yards long. The reporters were told they’d have to wait a half hour and wouldn’t get a chance to see Clinton and the Palestinian prime minister, let alone ask a question.

It was the table around which the Palestinian cabinet meets. But no one seemed interested in finding out where they actually were. A network correspondent sat in the prime minister’s chair and played with the on-off button on his microphone. A few others asked me about the top-notch spread of baklava laid out for us. Yet it seems travel inside the bubble isolates you not only from the world outside, but also from the very place where you are. I’ve never seen a group of people whose fingers were so glued to the toggles of their BlackBerrys.

 The next stop was the kind of photo op journalists detest. A school funded by the State Department that provides English classes to underprivileged Palestinian kids mostly from refugee camps. The place is so praiseworthy journalists are guaranteed to hate it. Particularly after Hillary emerged to tell us that she’d confided in a few of the Palestinian kids inside that as a little girl she’d wanted to be an astronaut.

I was ready to shout “Hatbox,” but a Reuters correspondent gamely yelled a serious question about Israeli settlement construction on Palestinian land. Clinton twice told her she wouldn’t answer.

She did say that an independent Palestinian state with highly qualified graduates of the AMIDEAST school ready to confront the 21st century and live up to its international responsibilities was “absolutely—uh, probable.” Perhaps in the diplomatic world that qualifies as a big vote of confidence. Let’s hope.

There were occasional remarks among the more forgiving of the correspondents that Clinton’s predecessor Condoleezza Rice took some time to understand the needs of the traveling press, before she instituted “round tables” at which the reporters could grill her during the trip. Meanwhile one of the Secretary’s press aides cheerily promised that once they arrived at Clinton’s next stop, Brussels, “we’re all going to have chocolate-covered nuts. That’s going to be fun, isn’t it?”

It almost made me sorry I’d be breaking off to return to Jerusalem, when the rest of the group went to the airport.

But first there was the highlight of the day, the meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. We pulled into the Muqata, the office complex where Arafat was kept under siege during the intifada. It’s no longer bombed out and Arafat’s tomb is topped by an apparently computer-generated cube of the kind that seems popular with architects of museums and headquarters of big organizations these days. The Muqata, of course, is both.

The traveling press waited with local journalists for an hour while Hillary lunched with Abbas. The local journalists smoked cigarettes in the sun out in the courtyard. The traveling press maintained their bubble, tapping away on laptops in the seats assigned to them.

A correspondent for a leading daily in the nation’s capital boasted of the “flaming email” he’d sent to one of Hillary’s aides about the lack of access to the secretary of state. A pair of wire service reporters asked if there was time for a visit to the bathroom. The blue-blazered traveling reporters from the Washington bureaus popped the earpieces on their simultaneous translation modules into place. They sat there with them attached to their ears for 20 minutes, listening to the translator whispering to a colleague. Perhaps it made them feel like macho Witt and Mac with their lapel microphones and the curly wire leading from the back of their jackets up to their ears. Meanwhile, the local press, the reporters who live here, chatted mostly in Arabic and had no need of the translation, anyway.

By the time Clinton and Abbas arrived, I had counted the tiles on the ceiling of the massive press room twice and was admiring the banner behind the stage. It was a photo of Abbas, who appears to be scowling past the emblem of the Palestinian Authority at a grinning Arafat like a wife whose husband has come home from the bar with all his wages spent.

Within a minute of the end of the conference, the traveling press had been whisked into the motorcade. I sat next to a major network correspondent this time.

“How do you handle this day after day?” I asked.

She made a gesture as though to slit her throat.

“Are you traveling on to Brussels?” I said.

“I’m going to Baghdad,” she said. “I’d rather be in Iraq than have another day of this.”

The motorcade turned right at the Ofer Checkpoint, headed for Ben-Gurion International Airport. Our car cut left for Jerusalem. “Mouse, Duck, breaking off,” said Mac, his finger on his lapel microphone.

The traffic was backed up for three miles on the highway, waiting for the motorcade to pass. I hoped those drivers had asked to go to the bathroom before they hit the road.