MONROVIA, Liberia — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered strong support Thursday for embattled Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and held up herself and President Barack Obama as models of political fence-mending.
A ceremonial horn sounded inside the Liberian parliament to mark Clinton's address, in which she urged lawmakers there to overcome long-standing animosities.
"I've won elections and I've lost elections," Clinton said, referring to her Senate wins and her hard loss to Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination contest. "There is no guarantee you are going to win. I spent two years and a lot of money running against President Obama and he won.
"And then I went to work to elect him and then, to my amazement, he asked me to be his secretary of state."
She said audiences around the world have repeatedly asked why she accepted the post. "Because we both love our country," she said, prompting a standing ovation from the Liberian lawmakers.
Earlier, Clinton pointedly avoided commenting on her stinging response this week to a question about her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton had reacted angrily Tuesday when a Congolese student asked for her husband's opinion about an international economic issue, snapping: "I'm not going to channel my husband."
Asked about that during a news conference in Monrovia, Clinton ignored the question and referred instead to an approving headline in a Liberian newspaper. Holding up the front page of a local tabloid, The Analyst, Clinton pointed to a smiling photograph of herself and to the headline, "Hillary Arrives, Liberia Glees."
"I opened this newspaper and I think she looks like she's having great time," Clinton said.
Melanne Verveer, an ambassador-at-large for global women's issues and a longtime Clinton friend, said Thursday that the episode "was much ado about very little."
"I don't want psychobabble read into it," Verveer said during a conference call about State's efforts to combat gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The U.S. plans a $17 million commitment to tackle an epidemic of sexual violence there.
Clinton said that on her 10-day trip "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. I think that will stand the test of time and I am very proud of the trip that we have made together."
Earlier, Clinton offered U.S. support for Liberia's president, who is Africa's first democratically elected female leader. Sirleaf has been targeted along with others by a truth and reconciliation commission examining the aftermath of back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003.
At a joint news conference with Sirleaf, Clinton reeled off a list of Liberia's accomplishments from infrastructure development to financial policy and said the U.S. "officially supports what this government is doing."
"We have looked at the entire record that President Sirleaf brings to office, her performance in office, the accomplishments of the government she leads," Clinton said. "And we are supportive and will continue to be so because we think that Liberia is on the right track."
Afterward, Clinton was to deliver an address to the Liberian parliament, with a focus on good governance and accountability.
Sirleaf, a Harvard-trained economist and former finance minister, has been publicly sanctioned for her past financial support of one of the country's rebel groups.
Liberia's truth and reconciliation commission has also recommended barring Sirleaf and 50 other high-profile figures from public office for three decades for that support.
Sirleaf, 70, acknowledged before the commission in February that she gave up to $10,000 to a rebel group headed by Charles Taylor, viewed by many as the chief architect of Liberia's conflict. Taylor is now on trial for war crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Sirleaf, who was elected in 2005, has apologized and said the money she sent while an expatriate was meant for humanitarian services and that she was never a member of Taylor's group.
Liberia's wars killed an estimated 250,000 and displaced millions. Liberia's postwar government set up the truth commission, modeled on the one in post-apartheid South Africa, inviting both victims and perpetrators to retell their version of events.
If the legislature approves the commission's recommendations and they become law before the 2011 presidential poll, it would block the chance of a second term for Sirleaf.
Torrential rain met Clinton as she arrived in Monrovia, where hundreds of drenched people lined the streets to welcome her, waving American and Liberian flag and holding banners, some of which proclaimed that she was a "woman of substance for Liberia."
She said the U.S. would be providing $17.5 million in assistance to help ensure the election is free and fair. She also said the U.S. would expand its cooperation in training a professional Liberian police force.
Liberia has historically close ties with the United States. It was founded in 1847 by freed American slaves.
Clinton is here on the sixth leg of a seven-nation tour of Africa aimed at promoting democracy and development.
Associated Press Writer Barry Schweid contributed to this report from Washington.