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Meridian Spotlights Work of Embassy Social Secretaries

by Anna Gawel

A friendly game of one-upmanship erupted when U.S. Protocol Chief Capricia Penavic Marshall and White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard were introduced during a recent reception at the Meridian International Center.

Photo: Joyce Boghosian

U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall, left, joins White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard at a reception for embassy social secretaries hosted by the Meridian International Center and THIS for Diplomats. Marshall was social secretary in the Clinton White House and Bernard is the first man to hold the position.

James Blanchard, a former Michigan governor and Meridian chairman, mentioned that Marshall was the youngest social secretary in modern White House history (she served under the Clinton administration).

Blanchard then diplomatically turned to Bernard and promptly added: “He’s very young too, and extremely wise for his age.”

Bernard, 51, who was appointed special assistant to President Obama and White House social secretary in February 2011, had his own comeback ready. “I have something too,” he quipped. “I’m the first male privileged to take the position” — not to mention the first openly gay person to hold the job.

But, the affable Texas native added, “Capricia is still the youngest.”

It was some good-natured ribbing at a lively and unique gathering to honor the city’s embassy social secretaries hosted by the Meridian Center and THIS for Diplomats, an affiliated volunteer group that welcomes and assists diplomats and their families during their D.C. postings.

Photo: Joyce Boghosian

From left, Ambassador of Liechtenstein Claudia Fritsche, Kiyoyuki Sugahara of the Embassy of Japan, Tamara Büchel-Brunhart, assistant to the Liechtenstein ambassador, and Meridian Vice President for Arts and Cultural Programs Curtis Sandberg stand by a display from the “Style in Silk: Tradition and Innovation in Chinese Fashion” exhibition at the Meridian International Center.

Blanchard noted that representatives from more than 60 embassies were on hand for the Feb. 5 event, part of the “Insights at Meridian” series, including dozens of social secretaries and half a dozen ambassadors.

Many of those social secretaries jostled to get their photo taken with Bernard, the star attraction of the evening who joked that he relies on “my sorority sisters” — the social secretaries that came before him — as his support system.

But the light-hearted mood belied the serious devotion these women — and men — have for their jobs. Meridian President and CEO Stuart Holliday called embassy social secretaries the “people who make Washington work.”

Indeed, Washington’s elite roster of embassy social secretaries are more than party planners, though anyone who’s organized an event for hundreds of high-level guests knows how grueling just that one aspect of the job can be. They’re gatekeepers, protocol gurus, and reservoirs of knowledge — often understanding the ins and outs of the Beltway better than many ambassadors.

Photo: Thomas Coleman

From left, Meridian Chairman and former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, Ambassador of Austria Hans Peter Manz, and Meridian President and CEO Stuart Holliday attend a reception at the Meridian International Center in honor of embassy social secretaries.

Marshall called them “fellow soldiers in the event battlefield and the unsung heroes [of] diplomacy.” The bubbly protocol chief noted that she attends almost embassy event to which she’s invited, partly “out of intrigue for what you do, but also to copy you.”

“You are the experts [at] conveying the magical aspects of your national culture,” whether it’s showcasing cuisine, art, music or martial arts, she told the standing-room-only crowd.

A veteran aide to Hillary Clinton, Marshall has worked to do the same at the State Department, instituting programs such as the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, which uses food to build bridges.

Bernard said that’s what being a social secretary is all about — “simply bringing people together.”

Photo: Thomas Coleman

From left, Donatella Verrone of the Italian Embassy, Mónica Gross of the Ecuadorian Embassy, and Gail West of THIS for Diplomats attend a reception for embassy social secretaries held at the Meridian International Center and sponsored in part by Tiffany & Co.

“The heart of our work is to create an atmosphere that facilitates relationships,” he said. “We are at the forefront of public service, and we do not act alone, so it’s important to partner with organizations such as the Meridian Center.”

Bernard, an advocate for gay rights who previously served as senior advisor to the U.S. ambassador in Paris and White House liaison to the National Endowment for the Humanities, said nothing in his resume prepared him for his current job.

“There’s no guidebook for this work,” he said, echoing Marshall’s sentiment that he’s learned from others in the field. “The graciousness and thoughtfulness from this community of colleagues of social secretaries cannot be measured. The knowledge we share is invaluable.”

Photo: Joyce Boghosian

White House Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard, left, talks with newly appointed Ambassador of Japan Kenichiro Sasae at a reception for embassy social secretaries.

Social secretaries also share “a love for the country we serve,” Bernard added, noting that in the United States, the job has a long history — one that’s evolved over time.

Dolley Madison, wife of the fourth U.S. president, was the first to earn widespread recognition as a hostess. Martin Van Buren, a widower, had his daughter-in-law Angelica fulfill the hostess duties during his presidency in the mid-1800s. A century later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt employed the first official White House social secretary.

Today, Bernard seems to have learned the ropes, having overseen hundreds of events, from the annual White House Easter Egg Roll to intimate dinners for top political donors. (At the very least, he hasn’t made any serious mistakes, like when the Salahis crashed a state dinner, a media maelstrom that occurred under his predecessor’s watch.)

Though he sidestepped the issue of party-crashers, Bernard did say that, “State dinners are the pinnacle of our work, but they are also the source of endless worries” — including seemingly simple but consequential details like playing the wrong national anthem or a flag being displayed upside down.

But the biggest headache is often the weather. Bernard recalled organizing his first state dinner (for German Chancellor Angela Merkel) outside in the Rose Garden despite the risk of rain.

Photo: Thomas Coleman

From left, State Department Protocol Officer April Guice, British Embassy Social Secretary Amanda Downes, and French Embassy Social Secretary Francesca Craig attend a Meridian reception for embassy social secretaries.

“Common sense tells you when in doubt don’t,” he said, but he didn’t want to see all the work that had gone into the lavish outdoor dinner go to waste either. So the tented affair went ahead as planned.

“I’ve never sweat so much,” he said.

Later, when the evening went off smoothly, Bernard remembered that President Obama told the first lady he was surprised the weather had cooperated. She told him they had a plan B.

“We did?” Bernard revealed.

Photo: Joyce Boghosian

From left, Gwen Moore Holliday of DCI Group, Janet Blanchard, and Kiyomi M. Buker of the Japanese Embassy attend a reception for embassy social secretaries.

“It worked out but I always think that could’ve been my first and last state dinner,” he said, only half-jokingly.

Still, no matter how opulent or high-tech the events become, Bernard said nothing replaces old-fashioned gestures such as handwritten invitations and careful food selection. It’s in these details that social secretaries bridge cultural differences and build lasting relationships.

It was obvious that both Bernard and Marshall deeply love their jobs, which is good since they’ve each been asked to stay on for a second term. Both have accepted.

“We are flies on the wall,” Bernard said, “witnesses to history.”

About the Author

Anna Gawel is the managing editor for the Washington Diplomat and a contributing writer for the Diplomatic Pouch.



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