About the Author: Douglas Silliman serves as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara.
As the Deputy Chief of Mission (number two) at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, I had the honor of coordinating President Obama’s April 6-7, 2009, visit to Ankara and Istanbul. We had several waves of advance and security teams arrive over two weeks. We negotiated with the Turks the minutest details of the visit. We worked on schedules, timing, press coverage, and substantive issues to cover. Over and over again until we had it all agreed.
Then came the morning of game day for Ankara, April 6. The White House trip director asked me to come with him for a few minutes. We walked through passages to a remote part of the hotel where the President’s motorcade was parked. “Get in the car,” he said motioning to a huge black vehicle. “You’re going to brief the president about his morning events.”
The Secret Service let me into the car, where I sat – alone except for the driver – for several minutes trying to collect my thoughts. What do I say to the President? How formal do I have to be? Can I remember all the details of his program?
After about five minutes, the President hopped in, saying “Good morning, Doug. I’m Barack Obama.” I shook his hand and introduced myself, then explained his first event of the day – laying a wreath at Anitkabir, the tomb of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. We then walked through his second event, a complicated arrival ceremony and series of meetings and press conference with Turkish President Abdullah Gul. At one point in the welcoming ceremony – after the national anthems, after the 21 gun salute, while reviewing the assembled troops – the President was supposed to stop at a microphone and say “merhaba, asker” (“hello, soldier”). He practiced it several times. He got the correct pronunciation very quickly.
He asked me about my family – was I married, did I have kids. I proudly told him about my wife and about my two sons and their prowess in wrestling and soccer. He then commented that Ankara seemed well put together – good infrastructure, industrious people – and asked several probing questions about Turkey’s desire to join the European Union and the process of social change in the country. Then we rode in front of a school where several dozen children pressed against the fence to get a glimpse of the motorcade. The President immediately perked up, put on a broad smile, and waved at the kids. We pulled into the parking lot of Anitkabir. The President thanked me, exited the car, and launched into his first event.
In the Foreign Service, I have met every U.S. president since Ronald Reagan. But I had never even dreamed of sharing 10 minutes one-on-one with a president. There are very few careers that offer you such opportunities. Today I was very glad that I had joined the Foreign Service.