Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Visit to France for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion


In 1994 Avis Bohlen, the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, was made Hillary Clinton’s Control Officer when she and President Bill Clinton visited France for the 50 year anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. As with many such high-level visits, it was a diplomatic success but a strenuous challenge for the Embassy personnel who brought it together. Avis Bohlen’s oral history recalls the Clintons’ visit and other colorful moments from a long and distinguished career. The daughter of Charles “Chip” Bohlen, famed ambassador to the Soviet Union 1953-57, Avis Bohlen was later appointed by President Clinton as ambassador to Bulgaria, She served in Sofia 1996 to 1999. She retired in 2002. This interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy in February 2003.

Read Avis Bohlen’s full oral history HERE.

Excerpts:
“I have to say that dealing with their advance people, which is always a tricky situation, was just horrible.”

Serving as Control Officer for Hillary Clinton in France: “We also in 1994 had the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Chirac made this an all-out thing, and Clinton came, and that was a very warm occasion. I was Mrs. Clinton’s Control Officer, so I took her around. I should preface by saying I have enormous admiration for her [Clinton] and for what she’s doing at present. I have to say that dealing with their advance people, which is always a tricky situation, was just horrible. This was the first foreign trip that Clinton had made, and we forget what the first years of Clinton were like on foreign policy, these horror stories of foreign leaders being denied access to the White House and so on. Politics was the only thing they knew. They knew nothing about foreign policy. They had no sense that one might need to tread carefully. So we spent hours looking for good settings for events for Mrs. Clinton and things that would play well on the evening news. One of the things we came up was a visit to the Rodin Museum in Paris, which is lovely old 18th century house and a garden which houses most of Rodin’s sculpture in Paris.

They thought this was a nifty place for Mrs. Clinton to meet with a bunch of school children who were to be taken out of school and brought to meet her. This was before the Chirac election. It was Mitterrand who did this. This event was organized. Now the garden of the house is a maze of hedges. The staffers were positioned at various strategic points so that nobody could walk down these paths while Mrs. Clinton was being photographed with these children. Madame Chirac who was the wife of the Mayor of Paris—she obviously wasn’t the President’s wife at that point or this wouldn’t have arisen—but she came and because Mrs. Clinton said there’s not time for a separate meeting with her, the scheduling was always very tight, and so she had come separately. She tried to go down one of these paths, and this little twit said, “No! You can’t go there!” I said, “This is the wife of the Mayor of Paris.” Actually, I was looking after Madam Chirac and engaging her in small talk and trying to soothe ruffled feathers.

“In fairness to Mrs. Clinton she was quite consternated at what people were doing in her name.”

“Afterwards, I got in the car with [Mrs. Clinton] and her wonderful Chief of Staff who I think subsequently said, “I’m very grateful to you for having flagged all these problems.” I said, “You should know Madame Chirac was there, and she was hoping for a chance to meet you but because of various things, it wasn’t possible. I think she might have been a little…her nose out of joint.” They asked “Oh, what should we do? What should we do?” I said, “Why don’t you write her a little note.” That suggestion was gratefully received, and a note was written. In fairness to Mrs. Clinton she was quite consternated at what people were doing in her name. Then there was a scene at the Paris Opera where she saw a rehearsal for some event, and they tried to keep everybody out of the theater while this was going on. Since [U.S. Ambassador to France Pamela Harriman] had said to me, “You look after Hillary. I’m not going to have time.” This little staffer tried to stop me going in, and I said, “Excuse me, I’m here. I’m the Number 2 at the embassy. I’m representing the Ambassador, and we’re not going to make a huge noise. It’s not up to you tell me whether I can come in or out.” I was really furious. Anyway, we’ve all been through these things with advanced people, but they were really the worst and only concerned for the picture, and foreigners’ feelings didn’t matter. This is a continuing problem.”

Drafted by Tyler Ventura

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