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Supporting VIP Visits: The Drama Behind the Curtain

By Judith Baroody
Among the highlights of Public Diplomacy Officers’ careers are the times they are called on to provide support to a visit abroad by a USG VIP, such as the President, the Secretary of State or Defense, and Congressional representatives and their delegations.

These meteor-fast encounters with powerful officials can range from exhilarating to humiliating, with the entire embassy devoted to this one event from the day the pre-advance team touches down until the celebrations following “Wheels Up.” Careers can tank or soar as a result of these encounters with the mighty and famous, and the key to success can be as simple as maintaining a sense of courtesy and humor.

Think about how many Presidents and Secretaries of State you served during your career; in my case, seven presidents and eleven Secretaries. Depending on where you were posted, you may have worked on few VIP visits or several. Martin Quinn, for example, handled SecState visits from Baker to Pompeo. These visits were filled with surprises, such as the night Secretary Clinton’s plane broke down in Jeddah. He invited her to join the consulate staff to dine on huge platters of Middle Eastern cuisine and she happily accepted:

“The memorable aspect of the meal, aside from her obvious relish for Middle Eastern cuisine, was that — unlike many senior officials — she made absolutely no effort to hold forth during dinner while chatting informally with everyone around the table just making small talk. One soon forgot that our dinner-partner that February evening in Jeddah was the most famous woman in the world.” (Click here for Martin’s story)

Earlier, when Hillary Clinton was First Lady, she traveled with President Clinton, including on his first overseas trip as President to France in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. DCM Avis Bohlen was her control officer. She found the FLOTUS to be accommodating and gracious, advance team members less so. (Click here for Avis’s story; thanks to ADST.org for this and other excerpts.)

First Lady Hillary Clinton later accompanied the President to the APEC Summit in the Philippines in 1996. U.S. Embassy Manila IO Bruce Byers had the chance to meet with her and President Clinton, and to act as control officer for another VIP, USIA Director Joseph Duffy. (Click here for Bruce’s story.)

Another First Lady, Nancy Reagan, was blissfully unaware of the behind-the-scenes struggles Michael Boostein was going through in providing TDY assistance with the 1985 POTUS visit to the Embassy of the Holy See. She wanted to go to a distant castle. His arrangements to fulfill her wish almost led to career catastrophe when the helicopter which was to take her back to Rome took off without her. (Click here for Mike’s story)

That same year, Thomas Johnson, then Branch PAO in Frankfurt, had his own near-disaster with President Reagan. The President’s decision to lay a wreath at the cemetery in Bitburg became a Public Relations firestorm when the media learned that among those buried there were SS soldiers. The “Great Communicator” dealt with the challenge like a cool professional: “Reagan walked to the front of the cemetery, turned left toward the journalists with the monument to his right. His head slightly bowed. His hand toward the public was relaxed, while his hand toward the monument was white knuckled.” (Click here for Tom’s story)

Lloyd Neighbors faced another unexpected challenge as PAO in Shanghai when the White House decided to hold President George W. Bush’s news conference in the atrium of the Portman Hotel where he was lodging. The problem was that the hotel “didn’t look Chinese.” The solution?

“We called the Shanghai Film Studio and asked them to build a movie set at the Portman that would without a doubt say ‘China.’ So the studio builds this set that looks like a Chinese imperial palace. And they bring it in to the Portman at 4:00 in the morning, driving this huge truck with all the set materials into a highly secure area, through a cordon of guards and fences around the president’s hotel.

“Trying to get this shipment at 4:00 in the morning through security was just a filthy task. But we did it, and it looked like an imperial palace in the Land of Oz. It was an imposing structure, vermillion walls with gold trim. It did look like we were in China, a China of the Boxer Rebellion days, perhaps.” (Click here for Lloyd’s story)

These visits often pop up at the worst times for the officers who have to drop everything to work on them, as Philip Brown attests from a sojourn on his way to Moscow. Later, for the first Secretary of State visit to Africa, in Cameroon in 1970, Brown was assigned as control officer for the wife of Secretary William Rogers. It turned out to be a unexpectedly pleasant job. (Click here for Philip’s story about his way to Moscow; click here for his story about Cameroon.)

Also in Africa, Angier Peavy had very different challenges supporting the visit of Secretary Rice to an IDP camp in Darfur, Sudan. One was to keep people at a distance from the woman they affectionately called “Condoleeza”: “I had particular problems with some old ladies who were determined to get up close and personal to ululate and thus show their respect and gratitude.” (Click here for Angier’s story.)

Michael Korff worked on another harrowing visit of Secretary of Defense (and former FSO) Frank Carlucci to Bern. That visit included a pleasant carriage ride through the small village from which Carlucci’s ancestors had emigrated. The Soviet Embassy proved uncooperative. (Click here for Mike’s story.)

Prime Minister John Major and President George H.W. Bush in Bermuda

I think back gratefully on the many VIP visits I supported throughout my career. Few were as soggy as the March 1991 trip by President George H.W. Bush to Bermuda for a summit with UK Prime Minister John Major. There were numerous countdown meetings at the Hamilton Princess Hotel. The weather was windy, warm, and humid. The President arrived in the late afternoon on Thursday, March 14, and the traveling press arrived after midnight.
The weather turned dark and stormy, with high tides and driving rain, but that didn’t stop the President from fishing in the choppy waters and playing golf at the Mid-Ocean Golf Club in the rain, lashed sideways by the wind. My job was to escort the press around the course and on to the bus, all the while thinking, “Why can’t he just pop in a video and relax like a normal person?”

The President met with Prime Minister Major at Government House, planted a tree, and had a press conference. After all that downpour and gale-force squalls, his comment was, “It’s just as pleasant as I remembered it.”¤


Judith Baroody is a member of the PDAA Board of Director’s and serves as chair of the Awards Committee.

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