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On Asia Trip, Clinton Shows How She'll Try to Repair the U.S. Image Around the World

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's maiden voyage to Asia includes stops in Japan, Indonesia, Korea and China. As a White House surrogate, Clinton said she hopes to restore the image of the United States in the Islamic world.

Still, there are few better ambassadors for a listening tour than Clinton. And not because she has already conducted one -- the famous trip through New York state a decade ago when she contemplated a run for the U.S. Senate -- but because the world stage fits her like an old shoe.

She may still be mastering the finer points of arcane foreign policy issues -- a question about U.S. base logistics in Japan stumped her -- but she has quickly demonstrated that her many years in the public glare have left her with a politician's touch and a BlackBerry full of contacts.

After landing in Tokyo, she went to see Hirofume Nakasone, whom she first met 18 years ago, when he was a parliamentarian, and who laughingly pulled out a photo of the two of them looking much younger. As it happens, Nakasone is now Japan's foreign minister.

And she had tea with her old friend Empress Michiko, who almost never meets mere diplomats at her residence nestled in a forest in the center of the city. Yet the empress rushed out to clasp Clinton's hand and chat animatedly when the motorcade arrived.

Clinton's operating style differs significantly from those of her immediate predecessors. Colin L. Powell, a former general, surrounded himself with former military aides and spoke like he was giving a PowerPoint briefing. Condoleezza Rice, a wonky former professor, gathered around her a mix of deep foreign policy thinkers and savvy press aides, and delivered her messages in a blizzard of modifiers, caveats and subordinate clauses. Both Powell and Rice were very-early-to-office types who kept their schedules timed to military precision.

Clinton's immediate staff members are political operatives drawn from her Senate and first lady years. Traveling with her on this trip are Huma Abedin, a longtime aide who silently will hand Clinton a glass of water when her voice rasps during a briefing, and Kiki McLean, who once worked as a press aide for then-Gov. Bill Clinton at the Democratic Leadership Council.

The new secretary arrives at 8 a.m. at the State Department, where her office is stocked with a steady supply of New York state apples. Her schedule, even on the road, has a loose feel, with events never quite starting on time.

She appears to be enjoying herself immensely on her trip, despite a punishing pace from early in the morning to late at night. During a 9 p.m. dinner with community leaders in Indonesia, her exhausted aides were surprised at the constant laughter that burst out from her table.

She doesn't always talk with diplomatic nuance at this point, acting more like a senator as she answers questions. She generated headlines in South Korea with remarks on the succession question in North Korea, a topic that Rice probably would have avoided.

But Clinton has a politician's knack for words and a well-honed human touch. She told one of Japan's female astronauts that she had always wanted to be an astronaut when she was a little girl. She declined an invitation to sing on the Indonesian youth show, joking that she would drive the audience from the room. She roars with laughter, her head tilted back, when she hears something funny. And she speaks in simple and direct sentences, creating perfect sound bites.

It helps that she is already a world-famous figure, someone who is instantly greeted with awe and respect.

"It is glorious to meet you," exclaimed a Japanese student.

An Indonesian journalist burst out, "We love you both," referring to Clinton and Obama.

And in a front-page article, the Jakarta Post reported that "journalists held their breath" when Clinton arrived for a news briefing with the foreign minister. "She looks more beautiful than on TV," declared a reporter quoted in the article.

In Indonesia, a young democracy, people seemed especially intrigued that she was so quickly able to bury the hatchet with her once-bitter rival, Obama. When you are in politics, Clinton joked, "you have to have a high threshold for pain."

She "was very surprised" when Obama offered her the job, Clinton told a small group of Indonesian journalists who had covered the U.S. election. "It was not anything I had reason to expect or thought about," she said, and it was a "hard decision," but "President Obama was very persuasive in our conversations."

"President Obama is so focused on our problems at home," Clinton added. "He's not going to be able to travel as much as he wants to." So, she said, it is important "that I get out and do as much travel as possible to send a message that he wants the world to hear."

In other words, she'll be listening everywhere.


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