Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Travelling with First Lady Hillary Clinton to Romania: “She was Quite Incredible.”


As First Lady, Hillary Clinton traveled extensively to Central and Eastern Europe in order to foster ties with foreign governments and NGOs. She often selected a group of USAID staff to accompany her on these trips so they could give her advice about the different groups operating in the region. Barbara Turner accompanied the First Lady on many of her trips as the senior USAID officer. Turner recalls how the First Lady would often go to the rural regions of these countries to meet with women’s groups that even local governments were oblivious about. Clinton wanted to provide them with a platform and give them the opportunity to have dialogue with their regional governments. She used to go above and beyond the usual duties of First Lady.  She would also do radio and TV interviews in order to spread information about democracy and its many virtues. On a trip to Romania, Turner remembers the difficult situation faced by women and children and how Clinton encouraged changes in Romania’s legal structure to alleviate the problems. Turner had a very successful career in USAID between 1966 and 2005 serving in posts such as Egypt and Bosnia. The interview was conducted by Ann Van Dusen on September 26, 2017.

Read Barbara Turner’s full oral history HERE

Excerpts:
“In several cases I went as the senior USAID officer with the Firsts Lady . . . she was quite incredible to see.”

The First Lady’s interactions with local NGOs: “In several cases I went as the senior USAID officer with the First Lady on the trips. And she was quite incredible to see. The first thing she would do in every country is indicate she wanted to meet with women’s groups and I remember in some countries you would have the foreign minister or even the president of the country would go out with us to some rural area and meet with women’s groups. Often the local officials didn’t even know those groups existed or what they did. Often it was the first time the US Ambassador had met them. Her visit and attention to these groups made a huge difference; they got recognized and they got local press. She met also with other NGOs as well, but she did focus largely on groups that were focused on women and children.”

“In Romania, we were almost crying every day about . . . the way women and children were treated.”

Her attempts at giving the NGOs a platform in their countries: “She also focused on how they (the NGOs) interacted with their government officials, mostly at the local level. I don’t think she ever asked and she wasn’t pressing them if they had to go to the capital city and bang on the doors but she was asking how they were engaging with their government structures, leadership there, and that was one of the key things that she would ask about. They often would want to talk about their trials and tribulations. In Romania, we were almost crying every day about how women were treated there, the way women and children were treated, the orphanages and restrictions on family planning, things like that. She talked about what should be changed in the legal structure so this can’t happen? In front of the Ministers that was an important dialogue. So, even though it was certainly focused on women’s issues the discussions did a lot more”

“The First Lady was not supposed to talk about the high-level politics; she was really supposed to stay on women, children and NGO kind of issues. But, she finessed that very well.”

Revamping the role of the First Lady: “She also made speeches in almost every country. In many countries, including Romania, she was on the radio or TVa lot more radio back then than TV to reach the countryside. She talked very much about what democracy is. I think I was on one of her USAID trips when she that democracy was a messy business which is often quoted. . . .She had to really balance her role because back then the First Lady was not supposed to talk about the high-level politics; she was really supposed to stay on women, children and NGO kind of issues. But, she finessed that very well. I must say, she was brilliant to work with and really taxing for staff, literally. I mean, just working on the speeches, asking questions, wanting statistics, and then the next day she’d give the speech and she’d use everything you said and she’d use it so much better than the way you said it. It was just incredible. So, it was very rewarding but it was very taxing.”

 

Drafted by Neil Nabar

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