Saturday, September 29, 2012

UNGA Sept 24-28

So, another UNGA done. This one felt longer than most, but the basic outlines of the U.N. General Assembly week are the same: run, wait, wait, file, run, wait etc. And don't forget to go through security at every possible opportunity.

Clinton's schedule was heavier than usual this year, because Obama only came for one day, leaving her to meet with lots of the visiting presidents etc. These meetings are carefully staged, and almost never vary: the press is screened by security (with dogs), and then taken up in a service elevator at the Waldorf. Once we reach Clinton's floor, we wait in the holding bay of the service elevator -- often with large mounds of towels, push carts loaded with dirty dishes, whatever -- until they are ready. This can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, so you get to know that windowless holding bay pretty well.

Once the "go" signal comes thru, we are marched -- no, run -- through the hallway down to the room where Clinton and the visitor are. The cameras go first, set up quickly, and the print press follows. Clinton and the visitor stand (or sometimes sit) in front of their flags, exchange a few of the most banal comments imaginable, and then a State Department handler says "thank you folks" as a signal to the press to get pushed out the room. Head back to the service elevator, back downstairs, and you're done. Until the next one.

It's a questionable use of time for most of us, but that is what UNGA is about, at least when you are covering Clinton. Sometimes she will make a statement (she did, for instance, urge "cool heads" in the China Japan island spat) which will make for a story. But other times we just have to wait around until we get a "read out" from the State Department spokeswoman on what was discussed. Usually it is something along the lines of "wide ranging discussion of issues of common concern" which is kind of hard to get excited about.

That said, I feel like I had a lot of stories. Clinton meeting the leaders of the DRC and Rwanda to tell them to sort out out their border war, Clinton meeting the president of Libya after the Benghazi attack, Clinton meeting the new Islamist president of Egypt, Clinton hosting a meeting of the "Friends of Syria" contact group, etc. Incremental stuff, but it made the wire so it wasn't a total waste.

UNGA is also strange because you are rarely outside. We all stay in hotels as close to the Waldorf as possible, because the schedule can run late into the evening, and so your only glimpses of New York are a few blocks of Lexington Avenue and then a few more blocks down 46th Street to the U.N. Headquarters. The whole place is doubly surreal because of all the security, the motorcades, and the roadblocks...

But still you can manage to have some decent dinners (if very late), and feel that you are in the center of the diplomatic world, if only for a week. But I'm glad it is only one week a year!