Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


The Art of Protocol

Understanding the rules of protocol is essential to conducting diplomacy, as any diplomat would attest. Everything from knowing how to properly greet a foreign leader, understanding foreign customs, or having suitable seating arrangements at a state dinner plays an important role in the diplomatic process. The White House Chief of Protocol is responsible for advising the president, vice-president and the secretary on matters of national and diplomatic protocol as well as arranging the itineraries of visiting foreign dignitaries. It is an exceptional demanding job as she is usually one of the most visible diplomats in the country. Former Ambassador Molly Raiser served as President Clinton’s Chief of Protocol from 1993 to 1997.

These excerpts from her oral history describe her many colorful experiences, including security issues, the occasional need for a sharp elbow, the need for diplomatic immunity, and dealing with an indignant (and punctual) German leader. She was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1998. Read about how the Nixon White House ignored the Chief of Protocol and caused

RAISER: All protocol officers from the chief down represent this country at the highest levels–a great honor and responsibility. I consider protocol to be the framework by which international relations are conducted. It is a set of rules. Instead of making it more complicated and more difficult, it makes it easier. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815 a formal international “Protocol on Protocol” was signed. Previously there had been many occasions when people were actually killed over whose coach goes first in a parade. 

Q: Oh sure, the French and the Scots.

RAISER: They were always fighting. Ambassadors were arrested and wars were threatened, so leaders realized they’d have to have an international treaty and they negotiated one. Then it came time for them to go into the room to sign it. This is an apocryphal, wonderful Pat Moynihan story. They couldn’t decide who would go first because they hadn’t signed the treaty yet, so they cut 25 doors into the room and they all came in at the same time.

That story is an exaggerated example of the kind of ludicrous measures which people used to take. Now there are rules and a head of state is treated the same way whether it’s the head of Ghana or the Queen of England when he or she comes to the United States. The President of the United States is treated the same way when he goes abroad. We don’t have to worry about this, in other words. We know exactly what’s going to happen along that line. It is very liberating. …

We did many other ceremonial and political events. We managed state luncheons when the Vice President would hold them. We helped with all the major meetings like the Gore-Chernomyrdin [for intergovernmental cooperation on Russia] and the Gore-Mbeki [on South Africa] conferences, which were held basically in the State Department when in the country.

We were all very involved with the Middle Eastern meetings, whether they were in Blair House or in the White House or in the State Department. We were key in the Miami Summit of Latin American heads of state and the Seattle APEC [Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation] meeting.

As new people came into the Administration we had to let them know that protocol is very important. It got to be so that people would actually like to have us there. They would invite us to the planning meetings and say, “Okay, this is what we want to do, how can we do this?” Otherwise, you get to an event and no one would know what to do. They would be standing around.

People in the State Department and the White House learned that it is really good to have protocol there, especially since leaders involved got to know us and trust us. King Hussein, Mubarak, Rabin, Peres, Yeltsin, Chirac and some of the other leaders got to know me and I them.

I also helped with the President’s visits abroad. I, as “Ambassador Raiser,” would lead the delegation of about ten or twelve on what we would call the site survey visit. I have to say these advance trips were one of the most interesting things for me as a quasi-historian. Further, the Protocol office has the lead in cases of diplomatic immunity; it also takes care of the accreditation of about 110,000 diplomats and/or consular corps men and women.

“I slammed my elbow right into his stomach”

Q: Security people and presidential aides often pose a problem. They can be very disruptive. They often have a lack of understanding that they are dealing with a foreign power. The only word to describe it is arrogance.

RAISER: We, of course, tried to avoid that. I like to think that we set a different tone. I don’t know how the previous Chiefs of Protocol or the advance people behaved, but we were extremely careful about that. There was one advance meeting in Naples, Italy, and I thought that the lead advance had been just obnoxious. Basically, he said to the Italians, “Look, this is what we want to do.” The Italians would say, “Well, you know, we have eight other heads of state.”

Our advance person tried to run rough shod. I took him aside afterwards, and I said, “I don’t like this. I had to apologize to the Italians for your behavior. If you want to continue to be a lead advance, perhaps you should be less pushy.” The fact that I am very rarely dead serious makes an impression on people. I made an impression upon him and also upon the Italians because I actually apologized to them for his behavior.

When we did the advance for Belgium, the Belgians said to us – and this was our first advance and the President’s first trip abroad – that our behavior was so unlike the other advance teams that have come in under different presidents. I said, “Better or worse?” She said, “Much better!” I said, “Thank you.” I feel very strongly, and I remember at one point Pamela Harriman gave a speech to the advance team, which I didn’t think was necessary, but I’m glad she did. She backed me up. She said, “Never forget, you are in a foreign country. You are in their country.” I was very aware of that. I think we did okay on that. I must say that, once you get there with the President, it’s such an absolute hectic time that it may be that some people will run over their counterparts. But we always tried to act in a seemly fashion.

The security people around the President were superb. The Secret Service, as far as I am concerned, was the best organization I came in contact with. Basically, what they say goes. When you are doing the planning in advance, if they would say, “No,” that was it. There was no arguing. They would also say, on the other hand, “We could do this.” When they were with the President, if they said, “Let’s get him out of here,” they would put him in the car. We were in Minsk, Belarus. We’d driven all the way in from the airport. He had gone in to visit the president or prime minister of Belarus.

On his way out, there was a huge crowd, and they were clapping and cheering, and the President, of course, waded right into it. Then, the crowd started to move in, not in a menacing manner, but the Secret Service agents got nervous and almost lifted him up and put him in the car. He said, “Wait a minute.” They said, “Sorry, we don’t like you surrounded by crowds like that.” What they say goes.

Another time we were in Seattle, and a president of a country which shall remain nameless was coming and the Secret Service came up to me and said, “Now, you know, his secret service is really not well known and has not traveled a lot, and they may be a bit rough.” I looked at this new Secret Service agent, and I said, “Well, you are going to protect me, right?” He smiled and said, “We’ll try, but it would be better if you could handle it yourself so that we don’t have it in the paper that the Secret Service was fighting this country’s secret service.”

So, the president of this country arrived with two or three guards, and we were up in the elevator. I was to walk the president in. He spoke some English, so I was talking with him.

All of a sudden as we got off the elevator, the lead guard lifted me up and literally almost threw me against the wall. I could see our Secret Service begin to stiffen, and I calmly went up to this guy and slammed my elbow right into his stomach. He grunted and stepped back, and I said, “Thank you,” and walked on with the president. Of course, for the whole trip, I was Molly “The Elbow” Raiser, given my Italian background. That’s the only time something like that happened. Interestingly enough, the president of the country did nothing. He didn’t look at the guard and say, “That’s unacceptable behavior.” He has since come back, and the guards are more professional.…

On Hats, Hugs, and Crying Ambassadors

Queen Elizabeth came to the White House under George Bush or Ronald Reagan. She is also very short. She is 5’1″ or 5’2,” and they were both rather tall. She got up to give her speech, and you couldn’t see her. All you could see was the top of her hat because the platform was so tall. What we did was get a dais with a step. From then on, almost every single time a foreign head of state would arrive and give a speech after the President, he would pull out the step with his toe.

Almost to a man they would stand on them even though not many people are 5’3.” Most of them are 5’7″ or 5’8″ or 5’9.” No matter how far down you lower the microphone, you are still behind the platform. We carried that dais around with us. It was like the cars that went on the big transport planes whenever we traveled.…

One of the silly things the President was concerned about was the form of greeting. As you know in the Middle East, the form of greeting, not necessarily intimacy, was to be kissed. Men kissed men on both cheeks. With us Italians, it’s family and very close friends. There was a rather humorous fear that Mr. Arafat might want to try and kiss the President on his cheeks, so they were practicing. Tony Lake and somebody else were showing the President the straight arm greeting where you shake hands with a straight arm and place the left hand on Mr. Arafat’s shoulder so that he cannot get close enough to give you a kiss. I always pictured them standing around the Oval Office practicing this.

Anyway, the day of the ceremony arrived. It was my first day of greeting, and we did it all correctly. We took them into the Blue Room. We had

with us President Bush, President Carter, President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Tony Lake, Vice President Gore and Tipper, and that’s about it. There were the foreign ministers of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. No one was talking to anybody. There was still so little trust that Rabin would not speak with Arafat. We had to arrange it so that President Jimmy Carter would go and speak to Mr. Rabin while President Bush would go and speak to Chairman Arafat, and vice versa.

I would go up and say, “Okay, change.” It wasn’t quite that obvious but it was like a square dance, trying to arrange it so that everybody was as relaxed as possible.…

Q: Anyway, the security people on both sides are essentially working on the same side of the street in this sort of thing.

RAISER: Sure. When you are in the White House, you go along with what the White House Secret Service says. They have very good rapport with their opposites. The only time we had a problem was when President Clinton went to Jordan. Hospitality is very important to the Arabs. It is one of the customs in the Arab countries that the king insist on coming to pick up the President in his Mercedes and drive him into town. The Secret Service said, “No.” “He has to travel in his armored car.”

I remember I was somewhere at the time, maybe on Nantucket vacationing. I got a phone call from the chief of protocol of Jordan, saying, “Hey, we may have to call this trip off because they are insisting that the King cannot pick up the President in his own car.” So there was a lot of brouhaha back and forth, and we arrived at a solution. I think it involved changing license plates so that the Jordanian license plate went on the President’s car or some such thing so that everyone could save face. Then, the king could drive in some car that was okayed by the Secret Service. That’s what we might call a silly little thing but it was an insult to the king if they didn’t let him drive. Given the sensibilities of the players in the Middle East, insulting the King of Jordan would not have been in anyone’s self-interest.…

We never had much trouble with anyone except the Japanese, because of their extreme caution with the Emperor. I think last time we may have talked about the Japanese emperor coming and how conscious the advance people were….They started this trip a year ahead of time. It was our first state visit. They were concerned, for instance, with white tie and medals. I said, “Fine, but the President doesn’t have any medals.” Well, the emperor had a lot of medals.

I said, “Fine, then the emperor should wear his medals.” “Oh, no, that will not look good. The emperor would not want to be wearing medals if the President doesn’t wear medals but the emperor always wears medals,” they said.

I said, “I have no solution for this. Either he wears his medals and looks different from the President, or he doesn’t wear his medals.” He wore his medals, of course. This must have been an hour’s discussion, and they kept coming back to it and back to it. The same with how far it was and how far the emperor had to walk and how many steps. They would actually walk the distances. I thought this emperor must be — I didn’t know what to think.

He arrived and couldn’t have been more pleasant. He never thought about “how many steps am I taking?” His wife was gently amusing. It’s often the people who are planning the visits who are more concerned than the people who finally get here.…

Q: Let’s move to the other side away from the state visits to the care and feeding of our embassies and consulates and ambassadors.

RAISER: We are their first line of offense or defense. If there was a problem, we were the ones that they would call.…A lot of them do not speak English, which was always a problem. I never realized how big the French African empire was until I got this job because a lot of the African ambassadors speak only French. I have some school-girl French, so we could get by with that. One of the protocol staff would greet them when they first arrived. They would then come and pay a visit on me.

I wish all the ambassadors didn’t have to come and pay a visit to me when they arrive in the United States, but it’s “protocol-y necessary” – poor things! We would arrange for their credentialing with the President and then, whenever they had a problem, they would call up. Some of the problems we could help with and some we could not.

I remember being told that I had to call in the ambassador from Rwanda or Burundi, one African nation. There was a civil war going on, and the powers that be had decided that we no longer recognized this man’s government. I was to call him in and give him this sheet of paper that says we no longer regard you as the ambassador. I assumed that this was a matter that had been explained to him and this was just a ceremony that we had to go through. So, he comes in and sits down. He doesn’t speak English very well, so I said, “Ça va? [How are you?]”

He, of course, has no idea why he is here. I suddenly realized that he had no idea why he was there. So, I read this pronouncement to him in French and looked and him. I read it again, and I looked at him. He said in English, “What are you talking about?” I said, “We no longer recognize you as the ambassador.” It was terrible. I thought he was going to cry. He said, “What do you mean?”

I said, “A policy has been made and it is my solemn and horrible duty to have to tell you.” I said, “You have thirty days to leave the country.” If he had children in school, he would have to leave the children who could stay until the end of the school year.

He said, “But, I can’t go back. I’ll be killed.” I said, “Maybe you should get an attorney and see if you can seek asylum.” He may have done that. I don’t know. I said to staff after that, “Don’t you ever put me in a position like that again.” These people should know why they are being brought in. I mean, it was just horrible…. 

I’d like to make one comment about diplomatic immunity. I feel very strongly that we should enforce it. There was an incident two summers ago where a Georgian drunk driver killed a girl. The State Department brought enormous pressure to bear.…

I wrote a letter and said it is very important that we maintain this concept of diplomatic immunity in foreign policy. The White House got involved and said, “No, there’s a lot of brouhaha; you had another diplomat getting away with murder,” as if it happens all the time.” They put enormous pressure on [Georgian President] Shevardnadze not to withdraw him.

Generally what happens is they will withdraw him within 24 hours. The White House said, and I guess the State Department went along with it, “No, we want him to stand trial. Do not withdraw him. Do not withdraw him.” They went along with it. He has since been tried for something but I have lost track now that I am no longer chief of protocol. There is a reason that we have immunity, which is reciprocity, so I felt very strongly that even though he was wretched and he was a drunk, etc., we should have let him go.

I keep wondering, what if he had been a Frenchman or a Brit? Would we have brought pressure to bear on those powers that be? I’m not sure we would have….

A King in the People Mover, Clinton Time and the Need for Order

I got the most wonderful call one day. I won’t tell you from what country except it was a small European country. This ambassador said, “Molly, I have a problem. I am supposed to go to the opera ball tonight and it’s white tie. Where do I go to rent a white tie?” I came up with several places in the Yellow Pages. I said, “Where do you live?” He told me, and I said, “This one is the closest.” It was so cute the way he said, “Don’t tell anybody I’m making this phone call.” We get that, too, when heads of state come. The ambassadors really get up tight, and we are dealing with ambassadors who are on the line here.

I remember one time when [Jordan’s King] Hussein was arriving. There was a terrible ice storm, and we were out at Dulles. It was suggested that he not come in but he was flying his own plane and he landed at Dulles on a piece of glass called a runway. It was all right but we could not get out to greet him.

The only way we could get out to greet him was in one of those people movers, those cattle cars. The ambassador saw this because usually there are flags and limousines. He said, “I can’t go to greet the king in this.” I said, “Then you are not going to greet the king. He is going to be sitting on that airplane.” The ambassador was frantic.

We get out there and the thing goes up to level, and I step out, and I said, “This is only way we could get you back,” and he and [Queen] Noor came and got on the people mover, and we were struggling to get back across the ice. He said, “You know, I have never been on one of these things.”

I said, “Well, we always like to have new experiences.” I thought, he has probably never been on a bus, never been on a metro, never been in a cab. The ambassador thanked me later for this whole thing. I find that humor kind of settles everybody down.…

I will just tell you a wonderful story. I do not think it reflects poorly on him when I see it in writing, or maybe you can tell me. The first time [German Chancellor Helmut Kohl] arrived, he does not speak English. When people say that, we always have to be careful because he probably understands English. But he and Boris Yeltsin, I think, are really the two that literally do not speak or understand English.

He is very big, he must be 6’5″. He is bigger than Clinton, and he arrived and I was chatting with him through an interpreter. We thought the President was late and the President was always 15 minutes late. All of a sudden, I noticed that the chancellor was getting very red in the face. I thought, “He is having a heart attack.” I was standing in front of him, and I did not want him to fall on me, if he was going to have a heart attack. So I stepped to the side and kept talking, and he was still getting redder and redder. I kept waiting for him to fall because I figured I would have to mop him up and do resuscitation on him. I was trying to remember how to do it but he never fell.

Suddenly, I realized that, looking over my shoulder, he had seen the grandfather clock in the Roosevelt Room. He had seen that it was 10 or 15 minutes late, and I realized that he was furious. He was simply furious that he was being treated that way, so I stepped back in front of him and said, “You know, we have something in the United States called Clinton time, and I know that we are a few minutes late but most people don’t take this as a personal insult. If the President has a meeting and he is 15 minutes late starting in the morning, he is late the entire day. I could just see him deflate. Basically, I didn’t deal very much with him because he only came a couple of times….

There was a Sunday meeting in February of 1995, a Sunday morning at Blair House [where visiting heads of state stay during state visits], and we hadn’t been told about it until the night before. It was foreign ministers and ambassadors in the Mid-East peace process and [Secretary of State Warren] Christopher, and then the President and the Vice President and Tony Lake were going to arrive and it would be a round table, so I just showed up. It was my house after all, Blair House, and Mel French, who was a deputy, came and one of my assistants also.

There were all Christopher’s people standing around, and I came up and I said, “Okay, here comes [Israeli Prime Minister] Shimon Peres,” whom I knew. “What are you going to do with him, where are you going to put him?” Silence. I said, “And here comes the ambassador, where are we going to put him?” Silence. No one had thought there has to be some organization here. So, I said, “Okay, we’ll put the foreign ministers in this room, the ambassadors in this room, and then the strap hangers we’ll put here, and I’ll take care of the foreign ministers, and Mel will take care of the ambassadors. Then, if they want to get together and talk, they can but at least let’s put them in these rooms and provide coffee, etc.”

Blair House | GSA, Library of Congress
Blair House | GSA, Library of Congress

Then, Christopher was having some private conversations, and I said, “The President is coming. We have to break it up now,” and no one dared go in. I finally knocked on the door and stuck my head in and said, “Mr. Secretary, the President is on his way, and you may want to go upstairs to greet him.”

So, in that case, unless we’d been there, I feel very strongly it would have been just a maelstrom of no organization whatsoever. I think it became accepted that protocol should be there at any and all meetings because I could say to the foreign ministers, “Okay, we are going to line up and this is what we are going to do, and you could explain it all. This is the way the seating is going to be, this is what the table looks like, the President is going to speak first, and then you are all expected to say something.”

No one ever told them that, and I think you have to tell people what’s going on. It never occurs, I think, to people who think and make policy that you have to provide a certain comfort and a certain sense of ease and security. Even with foreign ministers, you have to provide a certain sense of security so that they know what’s going on.