- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

Powell’s swan song

There was a bittersweet mood among the handful of reporters on the plane with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell for his high-profile tour of tsunami-hit areas in South and Southeast Asia last week.

There was, of course, the sense of awe felt by everyone who got a first-hand look at the unparalleled destruction caused when giant tidal waves washed up on beaches around the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26.

But there was also a recognition that this was likely to be the last major trip with Mr. Powell before he turns over the job to Condoleezza Rice later this week. Unlike the president, who travels accompanied by a huge press corps, the secretary of state has room on his plane for only 10 reporters, creating an unusual sense of intimacy among the regular traveling group.

“The whole trip was kind of colored by the realization that this might be the last time together,” said David R. Sands, who represented The Washington Times on the tour.

“There was a lot of talk about how this was a good trip to finish with, bringing aid and signing a peace treaty. So many of the trips had involved fighting over Iraq or mending fences with angry allies. It was a good trip to be on — not historic, but memorable.”

Another big difference between traveling with the president and the secretary of state is that presidential travel usually is planned months in advance, while State Department trips are often organized on the fly.

Mr. Sands learned only on a Thursday evening that he would be leaving for the other side of the world on Sunday morning and even then was not sure where he would be going.

“Originally we were told only that we would be visiting Thailand and Indonesia,” Mr. Sands said, “but they told us to pack some extra clothes.”

It was just as well. As the trip proceeded, organizers added an eight-hour stop in Sri Lanka at the insistence of local officials there and an overnight stop in Nairobi, Kenya, to witness the signing ceremony ending a 21-year war in southern Sudan.

Death march’ guy

“Secretary Powell also hinted at one point that we might be stopping in Ukraine,” where Viktor Yushchenko is expected to be sworn in as president this week after protesters forced a rerun of a fraudulent election, Mr. Sands said.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t, because I hadn’t packed any winter clothes.”

Every secretary of state has his or her own style of travel and, during his four years in office, Mr. Powell earned a reputation for being, as Mr. Sands put it, “a death march kind of guy.”

“We flew directly to Bangkok with just two short refueling stops,” Mr. Sands said. Mr. Powell’s predecessor, Madeleine K. Albright, “probably would have found a reason for an overnight stop in Paris on the way.”

Well aware of the attention his presence attracts, Mr. Powell was at pains not to disrupt the urgent rescue work going on in the tsunami-hit areas. And that meant less time looking at devastated beachfront areas or visiting with victims than the reporters might have wished.

In Phuket, Thailand, the delegation met with relief officials on the resort island well out of sight of the affected shoreline, and in Aceh, Indonesia, reporters were limited to what they could see from their airplane and a short helicopter ride over the coast.

“We did see coffins stacked up, but at no point did we see dead bodies,” Mr. Sands said. Given that most of the victims had been dead for more than a week when Mr. Powell arrived, that was probably just as well.

Mr. Sands got his closest look at the damage when he accompanied the secretary on a drive through the streets of Galle, the hard-hit city on the west coast of Sri Lanka.

“You could see the facades knocked down, buses turned sideways, rubble everywhere,” he said. “For a reporter, this was in some ways the most impressive, to see the devastation up close on the ground.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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