In first trip, Clinton brings different style to diplomacy

BEIJING — She's talked about love. She's given recycling advice. She's ripped into conservatives on the Supreme Court. And she's held chatty town hall sessions.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is bringing a new style to the post of America's chief diplomat. In her first overseas trip, a weeklong tour through Asia, Clinton rewrote the rulebook, employing gravitas with foreign leaders but leading a free-wheeling, campaign-like effort to mend what she says is a tattered U.S. image, prod people into saving energy, and serve as empowerment coach for women around the globe.

Clinton wandered into crowds in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Indonesia's capital, gave numerous interviews each day, visited a women's college in South Korea and invited women's rights activists for a session in China.

On the last day of her four-nation trip Sunday, Clinton patiently responded to a question during a live webcast interview about what she and husband Bill do to save energy.

"We use compact fluorescent bulbs," she began, explaining their power-saving qualities. "We also recycle so that we are trying not to add to landfill waste more than absolutely necessary. ... We're constantly asking ourselves what more can we do."

Earlier in the day, Clinton attended a church service, then hosted two dozen women lawyers, domestic abuse experts, entrepreneurs and activists, many of whom she had met on previous trips to China.

"I have such vivid memories of our times together in the past," Clinton enthused, before launching into questions about the status of women's rights issues in the country. The meeting was held at the U.S. Embassy to avoid sensitivities of the Chinese government.

"In no society, certainly including my own, are women treated equally yet," she added.

As one of the most widely known politicians in the United States, Clinton brings star power to her post. Her run for the Democratic presidential nomination last year served as a familiar touchstone during her interactions with the public.

In the Sunday morning meeting, a rural women's rights activist, whom the embassy asked not to be named for her protection, recalled that she'd met Clinton in the United States in 2007 as she was mounting her campaign.

"I was trying to memorize, 'I hope you win,' the phrase that my daughter taught me," the activist said in Mandarin as Clinton listened to a translation through headphones. "And on March 4th, when we actually met, I couldn't say it. I couldn't get it out! And I felt so regretful.

"If I had said it, you probably would have won," she said to laughter.

So far, Clinton has hewed closely to the policies laid out by President Barack Obama, offering no hint of the ill will that sometimes surfaced during their rivalry for the 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination.

"I'm very proud that President Obama has made a total u-turn away from the policies of the past eight years," Clinton said last week during a town hall meeting in Seoul's Ewha University, an all-women's institution founded by U.S. Methodists in the 19th century.

Clinton made clear then that advancing women's rights would be a hallmark of her job.

"I view this not only as a moral issue, but as a security issue," she said.

Pacing the stage before some 2,000 women students, Clinton seemed to thrive on simple questions about her family life, tossing out advice about appreciating loved ones.

"I feel more like an advice columnist than secretary of state today," she said.

She recalled how an ill scientist acquaintance had summed up her own life.

"I've loved and been loved. And all the rest is background music," Clinton quoted the woman as saying.

After many questions, Clinton enthused: "Well, we could be here for hours."

The Clinton style is in marked contrast to her predecessor under President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, a lifelong Russian scholar who maintained a lower profile, partly due to a more reserved temperament. Before Rice, Colin Powell, a retired Army general, brought military precision to State. Clinton's weeklong trip underscored that her political fame would add clout to the position.

In Japan, the first stop on her trip, Clinton had tea with an old acquaintance, Empress Michiko, who almost never meets diplomats.

Clinton also demonstrated a populist touch, appearing at ease and eagerly shaking hands at the end of each appearance, much like on the campaign trail.

Clinton has gotten in a few digs at those she sees as stymieing her vision of a gender-equal society, making particular note on Sunday of a recent Supreme Court decision that she said did not uphold equal pay for equal work.

"Our Supreme Court right now is, you know, dominated by justices appointed by more conservative presidents," she said, in explaining a ruling she said held "such an illogical argument."

An entrepreneur present at the session, Hong Huang, who is chief executive of China Interactive Media Group, said Clinton moved her.

"I think she's fantastic," Hong said. "It's good to know she's got women's interests at heart."

Related stories from McClatchy DC