By Jill Dougherty and Elise Labott
We have one confession to make right off the top: we have never seen Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sleeping. Informed sources say she does sleep and in her visits to 112 countries, logging nearly one million miles in the air during her four years in office, presumably she did catch a wink or two.
But travel with Clinton is a time warp where clocks and watches showing 24 hours seem inadequate to capture a full day with America’s top diplomat.
You’re simply on “Clinton time” and if you want to survive, you must forget Eastern Standard Time, local time or any other time. Just stick with eternal present time and you’ll survive. But bring your vitamins along.
When we interviewed Secretary Clinton in her last week in office, she described it as a “flying circus” and that’s a good a description as we’ve heard. When you are “in the bubble,” as it is called, it’s a maelstrom of diplomatic security officers with earpieces, dogs sniffing for explosives, handlers and motorcades. You will be jet lagged and sleep deprived but so is she.
We always have a bag packed to leave at a moment’s notice, complete with travel adapters for every country under the sun. Often, there were those unexpected stops, the “shuttle diplomacy” that zigzagged across the Middle East or parts of Asia. The joke among journalists: always pack a few extra pairs of underwear.
Our home away from home is a 757 from a fleet of planes that the secretary shares with the vice president and first lady. It’s not fancy like Air Force One. The dozen or so journalists in the back cabin are separated from the front of the plane, where the staff sits, by a bathroom and a cubby hole with a fax machine.
It’s an invisible “line of death” for nosey journalists; beyond it sit senior officials poring over classified documents. The secretary has a small modest private cabin with fold-out couch, a few seats, a desk and a bathroom with no shower.
We board the plane at Andrew’s Air Force base before Clinton arrives. When we hear her booming laugh coming from the front of the plane, we know it’s time for “wheels up.”
Clinton always walks back before we take off to chat informally with the journalists accompanying her. Then she returns to her cabin for the remainder of the flight. Since we often spend the night in the air, Clinton sleeps in her cabin, the staff get business-class seats, and we are crammed in the economy seats in the back. It’s a government plane but our companies pay for our tickets.
Wherever Clinton travels, people line the streets to wave to her motorcade and crowds wait for her at every event to catch a glimpse. During one of our first trips to Mexico in 2009, Clinton toured the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and almost 1,000 people thronged the site to greet her.
Most world leaders, according to protocol, will not meet with a foreign minister, but Clinton is not your run of the mill minister. Many leaders know her from her days as first lady. Even presidents seem in awe. The only time we saw Clinton smitten by someone else’s star power was when she met Ann San Suu Kyi at the home where the human rights fighter had lived under house arrest in Myanmar.
Clinton likes to pack in a lot of countries on every trip. On a typical day, you can wake up in Tunis, fly to Algeria for dinner, and end up at midnight in Morocco. At every stop, there’s a parade of presidential palaces, news conferences, town halls and motorcades back to the plane to fly to another continent and do it all again. A “night” at a hotel can be a two-hour pit stop.
When we do arrive in a hotel, it’s like an invasion from another planet. A “secure floor” is set up in every hotel on the tour where the secretary and her staff stay. It’s like a mobile State Department complete with guards, cameras and offices.
On the road, Clinton does more events before lunch than most people do in a week. It’s not uncommon for her to have 10 or more in one day. There is always another cause to advance, another group to meet, another hand to shake in every country. One journalist once joked on a trip to the Middle East that Clinton was going to lift the carpet to see if there was someone under there whose hand she just had to shake.
Clinton doesn’t waste a minute. As we strapped ourselves into seats at the back of a military transport plane, she was sitting in front, alone, wearing glasses, not contacts, poring over a stack of thick briefing books piled on her lap.
She has become known around the world for her town-hall-style interviews on the road, affectionately called “townterviews” by her staff. The audience usually includes a cross section of society, from students and civil society groups. Any questions are fair game, including personal ones. Sometimes, Clinton seems to enjoy them more than the diplomacy.
In every city, Clinton meets with U.S. Embassy and consulate staff to thank them for their service. It's always a big thrill for the diplomats and local staff to meet her and often the employees bring their families to these “meet and greets.”
Clinton often joins the traveling press for an off-the-record dinner or drink. Once we put away our notebooks and our tape recorders, we really get to see Clinton’s lighter side. Last year in Greece, for example, we watched the women’s World Cup final with her in her suite, as she was screamed at the TV for the U.S. team as loudly as anyone.
While the “bubble” is well-guarded by a combination of diplomatic security agents and government police, there have been some scary moments. When we visited Libya in October 2011, shortly after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, a band of militia followed our motorcade to the airport, shooting guns in the air and chanting Clinton’s name in support.
Last July in Egypt, demonstrators upset with U.S. support for the President Mohamed Morsy threw tomatoes at us and chanted “Monica, Monica,” a cruel reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
On the flight home, battered and bleary-eyed, we often stop at the airport at Shannon, Ireland, for refueling. After we all stock up on the requisite duty-free items, Clinton can usually be persuaded to join us for a ceremonial Irish coffee. U.S. troops often transit through Shannon and Clinton almost always comes out to talk with them.
Some people ask why Clinton travels so much. She says it's simple: relationship-building is key. Even in the digital age, there are no substitutes for showing up in person and looking someone in the eye.
With more travel, comes more respect and understanding. And that, she says, is good for America.