Home The Washington Diplomat January 2013 Capricia Penavic Marshall: America’s Protocol Boss

Capricia Penavic Marshall: America’s Protocol Boss

Capricia Penavic Marshall: America’s Protocol Boss


Should you shake the hand of a visiting Arab monarch or bow to him? Where do you put that business card the new Japanese trade minister just gave you? And what does the president of the United States offer the Queen of England, who presumably can have anything her royal heart fancies?

These aren’t life-or-death issues, and the occasional faux pas isn’t likely to trigger World War III. But understanding the rules of protocol goes a long way toward greasing the wheels of diplomacy — which is why Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall’s job is so important.

Marshall, the U.S. chief of protocol at the State Department, is one of the nation’s most visible diplomats and among its most colorful. She is also a key liaison and friendly face for Washington’s local diplomatic community. And she certainly wins hands down for sheer enthusiasm on the job.

Since Marshall’s swearing-in by President Barack Obama on Aug. 3, 2009, she told us, “I have been on the greatest, most joyous ride that anyone can be on in a job. It’s been extraordinary to not only represent the president but also our government, and the cultures and traditions of the United States. I love it.”

Marshall, 47, is a first-generation American; her mother comes from Guadalajara, Mexico, and her father from the former Yugoslav republic of Croatia, now an independent nation. Her parents met on a blind date in Cleveland, where the future protocol chief grew up among relatives that also had roots in Italy, Germany and Russia.

“In my house, many languages were spoken — not only Spanish and Croatian — and the neighbors across the street were Lebanese,” she recalled during an interview in her first-floor State Department office. “Christmas at my grandmother’s house was like going to the United Nations. Celebrating the cultures of the world was a part of my own upbringing.”

So was an appreciation for American-style individualism and democracy.

“My father left Yugoslavia during the Tito regime, made his way to the United States, and became a U.S. citizen in his late 20s,” she said. “In our home, my father always talked about the responsibilities and benefits we have in this country that he certainly didn’t have back in his own.”

Photo: Lawrence Ruggeri
Capricia Penavic Marshall

One of Marshall’s most enduring memories on the job is going to the “Hillary” boutique in downtown Pristina, capital of newly independent Kosovo — right next to a giant gold statue of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s husband Bill, who’s revered as a hero by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians for initiating NATO air strikes in 1999 against neighboring Serbia.

In nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina, Marshall made a pilgrimage to her father’s village just outside Mostar. “Then when we went to Croatia, the secretary talked about my father,” she said. “It really brought tears to my eyes. Apparently, I’m the highest-ranking Croatian-American in our government.”

A 1986 graduate of Indiana’s Purdue University, Marshall studied at the University of Madrid for a year before attending law school at Case Western Reserve, where she was president of the student bar association. In 1992, after getting her law degree, she joined Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign as special assistant to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Five years later — at the age of 32 — Marshall was appointed deputy assistant to the president and White House social secretary — the youngest social secretary in modern times.

“During that time, I was always a bit envious of my friends here at the Office of Protocol. I had a wonderful job and managed the issues of the day with the president and the first lady, but my friends were talking to the world,” said Marshall, who continued working with the Clintons to advance their political and humanitarian agenda long after his second presidential term ended in January 2001 and Hillary Clinton won election to the U.S. Senate, representing New York.

And when Hillary eventually decided to run for president, it was only natural that Marshall would join that campaign, which came to a halt when Obama defeated her in the 2008 Democratic primaries. After his November presidential victory that year, Obama immediately offered his former rival the job of secretary of state, and Marshall landed her dream job.

As chief of protocol, Marshall is often the first hand that welcomes kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers to the United States. Her office oversees visiting dignitaries meeting with the president, vice president, secretary of state and other administration officials, and it also manages protocol arrangements for presidential travel abroad.

In addition, Marshall and her 81 staffers interact with the 189 foreign diplomatic missions here (though a handful of microstates, like Andorra, Nauru and the Solomon Islands, have their U.S. embassies in New York rather in Washington).

In late October, Marshall warmly introduced Bill Clinton — a man she deeply admires — before a delegation of 43 foreign ambassadors and their spouses in Little Rock, Ark., as part of the State Department’s innovative Experience America program. That prompted the Arkansas-born former president to joke that Marshall’s lavish introduction “reflected Clinton’s Third Law of Politics: Whenever possible, be introduced by someone you have given a good job to.”

A good job yes, but an exhausting one, too. Since her appointment as protocol chief, Marshall has traveled to 32 countries; she’s been to a few, such as South Korea and Indonesia, three times already.

She’s also led ambassadors on seven Experience America trips to states as diverse as California, New York and Wyoming. At last count, diplomats from 106 countries have joined Experience America visits since Marshall took over the program from her predecessor, Nancy Brinker (see related feature story).

In addition, 173 embassies and delegations have participated in the Diplomatic Partnership Division’s events, which include cultural presentations at Blair House as well as off-the-record “state of the administration” sessions between top administration officials and ambassadors.

“One thing we’ve learned is that the greatest bridge between cultures and people is food. So we launched a new initiative called the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership,” she explained. “We’ve asked U.S. chefs to talk about American cuisine. Often, these world leaders arrive to meetings hungry, so let’s make sure we’re giving them something that’s an expression of who we are.” (Also see “Hungry to Serve: State Department Dishes Up Smart Power on a Platter” in the November 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat.)

One of the Office of Protocol’s biggest divisions is Diplomatic Affairs, which registers and accredits every diplomat who comes to the United States. That involves mundane tasks such as issuing appropriate ID cards and coordinating with the Office of Foreign Missions as well as the United Nations so that nothing falls through the cracks.

Since August 2009, Marshall has also supervised 15 ceremonies at which exactly 146 ambassadors have formally presented their credentials to President Obama on the South Lawn of the White House.

“We make sure all the ambassadors feel respected and welcomed along with their families as they present their credentials to the president. So we’ll set up a ceremony with a whole military cordon that greets them,” she said.

“The objective is to get them credentialed as quickly as possible. Once they present the stated documents, then we try very hard to work with the White House to get a date with the president so they can begin their meetings. Otherwise, they’re operating with one hand. It’s not conducive for their daily business.”

Marshall pretty much knows everyone in the Washington diplomatic corps. The dean of that club is Ambassador Roble Olhaye of Djibouti, who’s been here since 1988, followed by Palau’s Hersey Kyota. Ambassador Faida Mitifu of the Democratic Republic of Congo and then Claudia Fritsche of Liechtenstein rank as the longest-serving female ambassadors, now that Chan Heng Chee — who served in Washington for 16 years — has returned to Singapore (see Chan’s cover profile in the July 2012 issue of The Diplomat).

“Part of my job is to welcome our foreign dignitaries, and make them feel respected and comfortable,” Marshall said, adding that no matter how big or small they might be, “you can’t treat two countries differently. There are rules so that each are treated in the most appropriate fashion. We’re laying a foundation for diplomacy.”

Marshall, who’s married to a cardiologist and has a son, usually starts her day at 4:30 a.m. with a “small shot of caffeine.” By 5:15, she’s doing P90X — an intensive commercial home exercise regimen — then makes her kid breakfast, gets ready for work, and is out the door by 8.

“I work out every day, and I derive most of my energy from the love and passion I have for my job,” she told us. “If you love what you do, you will go at it 1,000 percent.”

The morning we interviewed Marshall, her crammed schedule included back-to-back meetings followed by a 4 p.m. “Taste of Thanksgiving” event for 200 ambassadors and their families at Blair House, a 6 p.m. reception hosted by Saudi Ambassador Adel A. Al-Jubeir to inaugurate the “Roads of Arabia” exhibition at the Sackler Gallery, and finally a 7 p.m. dinner honoring billionaire philanthropist David Rubenstein that was hosted by Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.

“Understanding the customs and traditions of other countries is absolutely important,” she said. “For instance, the receiving of a business card in many countries is an important exchange of information. I advise everyone in our delegation to make sure you take it with two hands. But where do you put it? What do you do next? You should look at it, then wait and either put it in your front pocket or with your papers. You don’t want to put it in your back pocket.”

It’s also crucial not to misspell officials’ names, mess up their titles or confuse their countries’ flags. “I’m a stickler for that,” she said.

Marshall’s ease with foreign languages also comes in handy.

“There are many times where we’ll be waiting in the Roosevelt Room with various leaders before they’re received. During that time, I enjoy speaking with them on a variety of subject matters, in particular with those who speak Spanish. I also speak a bit of French and I’m working on Chinese, because my son has now started taking Chinese classes.”

Credentialing foreign ambassadors is one thing, but it’s quite another when the State Department declares an envoy persona non grata, as it did with Ecuador’s Luis Gallegos — who was booted out of the United States in April 2011 in retaliation for Quito’s expulsion of then-U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges over the WikiLeaks affair. There’s a protocol for handling those cases, too.

Photo: Larry Luxner
U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall, center, and Stephanie Streett, executive director at the William J. Clinton Foundation, right, enjoy a rousing welcome at the University of Arkansas.

Marshall shared the tricks of her trade in July at a Global Chiefs of Protocol conference that attracted 87 colleagues from 110 countries (also see “The Power of Protocol” in the Diplomatic Pouch online). “It was a wonderful gathering of ideas and new ways in which to do what we customarily do,” she said of the event.

However, things don’t always go as planned.

During a 2007 ribbon-cutting on the Caribbean island of Grenada for a $40 million stadium financed by China, the Royal Grenada Police Band mistakenly played the national anthem of Taiwan — a big no-no for Beijing. According to the Associated Press, the Chinese ambassador looked “visibly uncomfortable.” (The bandleader was immediately relieved of his duties.) Two years later, the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, publicly thanked Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich for agreeing to “enhance its presence” in Afghanistan — even though no such announcement had ever been made. The Polish government later said Feinstein had committed a “blunder,” while the U.S. Embassy, trying to save face in the midst of a post-gaffe media firestorm, blamed the translator. Obama too got into some hot water with the Poles earlier this year when he referred to a Nazi-run concentration camp in Poland as a “Polish death camp,” infuriating Poles at what should’ve been a proud moment: the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Polish World War II resistance hero Jan Karski.

But it’s the Jan. 8, 1992, state dinner in Tokyo that takes the cake for sheer embarrassment. That’s the infamous meal during which President George H.W. Bush — sick to his stomach — vomited into the lap of Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa.

“Protocol really is a bridge between the visiting delegation and the U.S. delegation,” Marshall explained. “We try to be incredibly well prepared by going through each and every moment. It’s literally minute by minute. We do our homework in advance and make sure there are no surprises. If there needs to be some tweaking, we collaborate. For example, we find out if there’s anything they don’t feel comfortable with — certain colors or food allergies. That will ensure the visit goes really well.”

Yet sometimes, even the chief of protocol slips up — literally.

On May 19, 2010, as Marshall was escorting President Obama and his wife Michelle down the steps of the North Portico of the White House to greet Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife Margarita, the protocol chief lost her balance and slipped — but quickly stood up again, never losing her composure. She later joked to the Washington Post’s Reliable Source: “As a proud Mexican-American, this historic day at the White House moved me in ways I never anticipated.”

At last count, the 90-second YouTube video of Marshall’s famous slip had been viewed 224,301 times. The incident very much epitomizes the essence protocol — it’s a job that works behind the scenes to make everything appear seamless. It’s invisible, until something goes wrong. Marshall — like so many protocol officers around the world — can get a million details right, but it’s that one-in-a-million snafu that gets noticed.

“When these snafus happen and if it’s you, just get up and continue, and make light of it,” the easy-going yet meticulous Marshall advised us. “Now the president constantly whispers in my ear when we’re getting near. Once, we were with [then-Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev, walking up the North Portico steps, and he told Medvedev the entire story.”

Outside of her famous fall, we asked Marshall what’s been her most memorable moment on the job.

“My celebrity moment with Her Majesty,” she answered without hesitation. “To be in her presence and work with protocol officials at Buckingham Palace was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

a5.marshall.protocol.refer.storyComing up with just the right gift for Queen Elizabeth II — a woman who already has everything — was “critical,” according to the protocol chief, who accompanied the Obamas on their state visit to England in May 2011. Two years earlier, Obama had given the queen a personalized iPod, raising eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic.

“We had to make sure we got everything just right, so we created a book of memories,” Marshall said of the 2011 visit. “We found one-of-a-kind memorabilia and photos from her father’s last visit to the United States [in 1939, the first visit of its kind by a reigning British monarch]. You could tell she was so pleased to receive it.

“For Prince Philip, we know he loved to raise carriage ponies, so we went to two American craftsmen. They created bits and shanks, and on the ends of the bits, we soldered in the presidential seal. And for Prince Charles, we know he’s into the environment, so we created a magnolia wood box made from a tree that had fallen on the White House lawn, and from plants, seeds and honey from the grounds of Mount Vernon, Monticello and the White House.”

Right before our time with Marshall was up, we squeezed in one more question. Of all the ambassadors she’s met in Washington, we politely inquired who was her favorite — though we already anticipated the answer to that one.

“I can’t pick a favorite,” she cheerfully replied. “Individually, I cherish my relationship with all of them.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.