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Ker-plunk: why Clinton’s big speech didn’t make a big splash

Front page of the Wall Street Journal? Nope. Washington Post? Nope. FT? Nope. Politico? Nope. New York Times? Yes, but the story was precisely the opposite of the one the administration wanted -- it actually focused on the real reasons the speech was being given in the first place.

Face it friends, Hillary Clinton's well-delivered, well-written speech yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations did not make the splash its authors intended. 

Oh, it was well-choreographed and all the State Department big-shots were rolled out to validate their boss. Even Denis McDonough, not-so-secret senior lieutenant poobah of the real inside foreign policy high command in the administration, had a few nice words saying how valuable the secretary of state is. But then again, if you have to say it, it means you have got a problem.

Part of the problem is, of course, that the speech contained no news. It was well-done, solid, and utterly forgettable.(One listener called it "a beautifully strung together necklace of ideas we've already heard from the president.") In fact, it was kind of a perfect metaphor for the situation in which Clinton currently finds herself. She demonstrated she could do the job -- does anyone doubt that for a second? -- but she also inevitably reminded the world that she is not being given the latitude to be out in front on anything. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu (in China right now with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke though you would hardly know it from the newspapers), has broken more new ground on key issues this week.

Interestingly, both the NY Times and Politico seemed to get the memo from State to describe the speech as "muscular." Clearly, by using manly terminology they meant to say she was up to the job. Or that she was being tough. Rattle them sabers if you want to be taken seriously. (It could be that the secret formula for this administration is that Barack Obama is man enough to be sensitive on foreign policy and she is woman enough to be "muscular.") But despite all the sound things contained in the speech what it really delivered were things we already knew and her affirmation of the president's great leadership. 

Now, off she goes to India and Thailand. Thailand is a mess, worthy of a trip and tertiary on a good day. India is vitally important but well outside the media's top 10 list for high-profile news items unless and until someone blows up a hotel there. Clinton will be doing what a secretary of state should do. Soon after she will go to China to help prep the president's trip there, also worthy and important. She has a good strategy, to focus on the great powers, which gives her a clear and critical mandate outside the realm of all those special envoys and White House emissaries over which her control is, at times and in certain key cases, quite limited.

But before people really believe she's shrugged off Tina Brown's burqa, we're going to need to see her leading the negotiations in key regions, being at the pointy end of the foreign-policy spear. We need to see her as the principal spokesperson for the United States on foreign-policy issues (after the president of course, but before all the others who these days are seen more frequently ... which is the job of the secretary of state but also lets us know that president has confidence in her to take the lead.

(I thought it was interesting that the NY Times quoted a Henry Kissinger comment to her that he felt there has not been a time in recent history in which they were less tension between the State Department and the White House. Aside from the fact this is clearly not true, talk about a reach
in the search for "all's well" comments...)

As is well known to anyone who reads this site, I am a big Hillary fan. I was a Hillary supporter. I remain a Hillary supporter. I think she was a spectacularly good choice to be secretary of state. Yesterday she demonstrated her great intelligence, political gifts, mastery of the Q&A, and in the end, why it's time for her to have a higher-profile role than she has had recently (and admittedly, the elbow thing was literally and figuratively a bad break). The more latitude she and the professionals at the State Department are given, the better the foreign policy of this administration will work. It's early. Moving out of campaign mode, the president is likely to delegate more and she is probably the best member of his team ... no, she is by far the best member of his team ... to assume ever greater responsibility and visibility.

But yesterday itself was not a watershed. It was a cry for help dressed in a press stunt shrouded in serious spin. Nothing calls into question your relevance like having to assert how relevant you are.

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

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