Presidents past and present shadow Clinton’s tour

They followed her every step of the way. From Kenya to Cape Verde, the personalities and policies of the last three American presidents ? Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama ? dogged Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton through an 11-day tour of Africa.

At times during the grueling, seven-nation journey Clinton abandoned her legendary steeliness.

She simmered in anger in Congo’s capital at being asked about her husband’s thoughts on an international financial matter ? then brimmed over with empathy for Congolese victims of rape and malnutrition. She drew howls from Republicans back home for comparing a contested Nigerian campaign to Bush’s tight election victory in 2000. And she won over Liberian lawmakers by recounting how Obama lured her into his administration after her bruising loss to him in 2008.

The Africa tour was intended to showcase some of Clinton’s pet projects ? women’s rights and empowerment, food security and development ? as well as cement her return to center stage in the Obama administration’s foreign policy apparatus after a sidelining elbow injury and nagging questions about whether her diplomatic role had been eclipsed.

But her husband, Bush and Obama were often along for the ride.

Bill Clinton, whose private foundation is actively engaged in Africa, and Bush, who pumped hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. assistance into African health programs, are wildly popular in most of Africa. And Obama’s African heritage has made him a point of pride not only in Kenya, his father’s birthplace, but across the continent.

“I haven’t been with so many former presidents for quite some time,” Clinton joked during a round-table meeting with Nigerian political leaders in Abuja. She could just as well have been talking about her husband, Bush and Obama.

Clinton herself gave off mixed messages, alternating warm support for Africa’s leaders with stern reproaches against corruption, economic waste and conflict.

She acknowledged her full plate of concerns in Liberia on Friday.

“The most important part of this trip were the relationships we have built, the commitments that we have discussed, the problems that we have honestly explored,” she said. “We have not shied away from raising the difficult problems that exist and stand in the way of the people of Africa realizing their potential.”

But back home, the startling televised images of an angry, animated Clinton may linger as the most memorable from her trip.

“You want me to tell you what my husband thinks?” she replied incredulously when a Congolese student asked her for “Mr. Clinton’s” opinion about proposed Chinese loans to the Congo.

“My husband is not secretary of state; I am,” Clinton snapped. “If you want my opinion, I will tell you my opinion. I am not going to be channeling my husband.”

Hours later, Clinton made a hazardous flight against the wishes of her aides to the war-ravaged eastern Congolese city of Goma. There, she delivered an impassioned appeal against sexual atrocities and announced new U.S. assistance.

“It is almost impossible to describe the level of suffering,” a shaken Clinton said after meeting victims of gang rapes and other crimes. “The atrocities that these women have suffered … distill evil into its basest form.”

Responding instinctively in the ramshackle refugee camp, Clinton held her own in the Congo. But in other African stops, she was thwarted by timing, logistics and message stumbles.

In Kenya, she arrived already overshadowed by her husband’s successful mission to North Korea to rescue two American journalists, then was peppered with questions about his exploits. Her answers were terse, and most of the details had already been revealed by the White House.

South Africa, her next stop, provided more of a respite. She was greeted in Cape Town by joyous crowds at a housing project. Yet funding for the AIDS clinics that were the centerpieces of her stops in South Africa and Angola originated with Bush.

Republicans in the U.S. complained when Clinton compared a recent fraud-marred election in Nigeria to the 2000 U.S. election that ended with Bush’s victory over Democratic nominee Al Gore.

“Our democracy is still evolving,” she said. “In 2000 our presidential election came down to one state where the brother of one of the men running for president was governor of the state. So we have our problems, too.”

Still, by the end of the trip, Clinton had determined to herself, at least, that the journey was worth it.

She held aloft the front page of a local Liberian tabloid newspaper, The Analyst, with the headline “Hillary Arrives, Liberia Glees” over a photo of her smiling broadly.

“I opened this newspaper and I think she looks like she’s having great time,” Clinton said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.