This is the first in a series of posts byNancy Brinker, Chief of Protocol. Ambassador Brinker introduces herself and provides a behind the scenes look into the U.S. visit by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
After being appointed by President Bush and confirmed in October, I am now almost fully engaged in the role as Chief of Protocol. I report to Secretary Rice and I am delighted to be a part of her team, dedicated to transformational diplomacy.
This is a VERY different sort of role for me, (I spent all of my adult years on breast cancer and cancer advocacy, policy, fundraising and building a large organization). I was always the person giving the speech...directing, etc... Now I have extreme sympathy for those who supported me over the years as now I am in a support function. This new role still allows me to practice policy – albeit in different ways.
I recently added a new part of our mission, simply called “Outreach.” In addition to ceremonial functions, Diplomatic affairs, oversight of the Blair House, visits section and gifts that we take to leaders, we are also very busy arranging meetings, briefings and some "field trips" for our D.C. Diplomatic Community. This community consists of 184 Missions with over 150,000 diplomats serving in America and over 3,000 offices throughout the world dealing with Consulates, Embassies and Honorary Consulates. Together with the Office of Foreign Missions who deals with the actual buildings, we deal with the people side of the protocol equation.
So how in the world did I get here? A circuitous route. I was born in Peoria, Illinois and have lived in Texas and Florida the last 30 years! I was the founder of “Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” named after Susan Komen, my sister, who died in 1980. In 2001, President Bush asked me to serve as Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary. I loved serving though the times were difficult (I was to leave for duty on September 11, 2001). My first year there, I missed my family a lot and people were not traveling to visit. Fortunately, the Officers on Embassy staff saved the day! They were warm, welcoming, and delighted that I was trying to offer leadership to the mission. They helped create a family away from home for me and I cherished the State Department family for this! Although I struggled a bit with the Hungarian language, I fell in love with the beauty of the country. The magnificence of the glorious culture BECAME the Hungarian language for me, along with the opportunity to work with their government on cancer and health care issues. It afforded me the opportunity to see America in a different light, through a different lens. As a political appointee, I learned to have great regard for my colleagues who are and were career foreign service officers. They have always been a source of much information, education for me and approached issues with a focused effort. I was honored then and am honored now to work side by side with these officers. I still stay very close to my friends in Hungary. Whenever possible, I welcome their diplomats and try to be available to help when I can.
This new assignment presented me with many learning experiences. My first task was the assessment of the Department. Given that my mother told me to always leave things better than I found them, I sought ways that the Office of Protocol could become more relevant to the times. Secondly, Secretary Rice expects Protocol to engage in transformational ideas and actions. The first thing we did was survey the Diplomatic community. We wanted to see what they wanted to hear, who they wanted to meet and see, what experiences they wanted to know, which issues were of most concern to them and who they wanted to engage within our business, NGO, cultural and medical/healthcare leaders. Medical diplomacy is an area that I have experience so I am always happy to share resources and experiences. In addition, we want to invite foreign Diplomats to regions of the U.S. where they have an interest in seeing and learning more about. What could we do besides greet them and facilitate their entry into the U.S. to make them feel appreciated and to engage them so they can understand us even better? These Diplomats are important to us as friends and can translate and articulate us, our culture, our values and our practices as Americans. Sometimes, they can even articulate our culture and values better than we do!
I have been able to spend time with many leaders like Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Ugandan President Museveni and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I was honored to meet French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a fierce French patriot. As the daughter of 2nd generation immigrants, I share a similar passion for America and the freedom it gave our family since the turn of the century. I was honored to be asked to serve again for the President. My father passed away last June and he was very insistent that I serve again even though I did not want to leave his side. My son Eric wore his grandfather’s watch to my swearing in so he would be with us. This term for me is for Dad and the love of our country he gave to us.
So, if you are reading this, you can imagine how full my heart was to be greeting the French President who so unabashedly admires America. Out office staff planned for days with detailed charts of events that entailed meticulous planning of events and movements. Our plans included all possible event scenarios and tried to imagine everything that could go wrong so that we could have backup plans in place. As there were a lot of movements to President Sarkozy’s visit, we had to be concerned everyone in both delegations were in synch with the White House, the French Embassy and delegation, etc... The day finally arrived and I was able to greet President Sarkozy at the door of his airplane at Andrews AFB. It was just as I imagined. He has boundless with energy and he came through the door and through the crowd ready to work! He is very engaging and direct. The French Ambassador, Pierre Vimont, himself newly arrived in DC, was with me and I could imagine the thrill he felt as he too was a welcoming Ambassador.
Later, I attended the White House dinner as a guest, a working guest!! Again, Protocol rehearsed and rehearsed our roles, yet still the entrance and exits can change in seconds and we had to be prepared for all of it. I must say I was nervous as again. I failed dance class and all things graceful, so a constant worry for me is stumbling, slipping or anything else that can happen if you are not exceedingly graceful!!! But the real importance lies in preparing to engage personally with leaders, just like any other relationship! I asked our staff to prepare as much information as possible from public records of the likes and dislikes of the leader, their family, sports interests, education, languages and their general history. It all helps to engage right away to establish a personal connection.
Back to the Sarkozy visit... He and the President toasted one another at the dinner. I must admit my eyes filled with tears because our country is filled with good people and good will. The President gave a beautiful toast and tribute. President Sarkozy followed with a tribute to our relationship and expressing his earnestness. Later after an executed planned dinner prepared by the talented White House Chef Cris Comerford (the French were very complimentary by the way!!!), Mrs. Bush organized a very touching performance by two actors who actually looked liked Lafayette and Washington. The two toasted each other as they did 230 years ago and celebrated their famous meeting at Yorktown.
The next day we hosted the Diplomatic Corps to a joint session of Congress. The electricity in the chamber was palpable. This French President spoke to us in a passionate manner about all that was right about America and our relationship as well as all that he saw as concerns. He then expressed gratitude in the most personal and grateful manner to America for saving France during WW ll. President Sarkozy said France was "...a nation exhausted from war." He talked about the 20 year old American boys who died defending France with bloodshed and death, thanking us and the families who sacrificed their sons and fathers for them. Again, others and myself were overcome with emotion as my relatives had fought in WW I and WW ll. It was a moment I shall never forget. Then he thanked us for the Marshall Plan of which we Americans have so much pride in. Both sides of the House and Senate were united in applause and an outpouring of admiration for this speech. Like he said, the French were tired and exhausted from their war ...maybe many in the room were also feeling tense and sad for our troops. But this charismatic French President articulated our need to go forward as a country with pride in our brave soldiers, remembering what we meant to his nation and highlighting the good that the U.S. has done for the world since the days of Lafayette and Washington. One of the most important messages was that we have heroes like Martin Luther King who made us deal with our past...I encourage every American to read the speech. President Sarkozy also expressed that he wanted a better, stronger Europe.
Later we assembled at Mt. Vernon for the meeting between these two energetic Presidents. Their style of how they move through their work is very similar, especially to those of us who try to anticipate it!! They can at any minute decide to go out one door or in another or leave early or stay late, pull others into a room that wasn't planned for, etc. ...So we have to VERY ready. Their dynamism is catching and it is a pleasure to work near leaders who work fast and hard and are determined to get down to work!
At the end of their meetings, after they ate lunch and a hosted a press conference, President Bush left on his helicopter back to his office and President Sarkozy took one last look at the sights. He also took a moment to shake hands with members of the press. Then he was off as fast and efficiently as he had arrived, on time ...dynamic and ready to lead in France and Europe!
There will be more to come tomorrow. I am greeting Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to President and Mrs. Bush's ranch in Crawford, TX. I really look forward to meeting her. It is always interesting to meet personally rather than through a third party, media or others accounts. More later!