Martha Stewart may be the American icon of hospitality, but Capricia Penavic Marshall gives her a run for her money. As U.S. chief of protocol at the State Department since August 2009, a position that carries the rank of ambassador, she has been on the front lines and behind the scenes of America’s diplomatic engagement at home and abroad.
When presidents, prime ministers, ruling monarchs and other foreign dignitaries arrive in the United States, hers is often the first hand they shake. When ambassadors present their credentials to the White House, she leads the way. When the president travels abroad, her office manages the protocol arrangements. And when there’s an event, whether it’s a state dinner or intimate meeting between two heads of state, Marshall is called upon to make sure there’s no diplomatic incident.
As America’s internationally savvy über-hostess, Marshall has overseen six state and official visits and hundreds of meetings with President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. She has coordinated six international summits, including last year’s NATO summit in Chicago and G8 summit at Camp David, navigating traffic, crowds of protesters and a web of cultural do’s and don’ts to ensure every detail is perfectly executed.
How does she do it? “I’m a hands-on person,” she told The Diplomat. “If we need to put up pipe and drape, I’m there.” And if something does go wrong? “I’m the first person to pick up the phone and apologize.” Fortunately, though, she has plenty of help to make sure that doesn’t happen. “Everybody has everybody’s back,” she said of the “amazing team” in the Protocol Office.
When it comes to meeting the cultural expectations of a global guest list, Marshall consults her counterparts in protocol offices around the world and seeks input from embassies here in Washington, D.C. (also see “Meridian Spotlights Work of Embassy Social Secretaries” in the February 2013 edition of the Diplomatic Pouch online).
Last year, Marshall convened the first-ever Global Chiefs of Protocol Conference (also see “The Power of Protocol” in the August 2012 edition of Pouch). Almost 100 representatives of nations and organizations from five continents gathered at the State Department to discuss best practices and share ideas for strengthening the role of protocol in diplomacy.
“I make absolutely no assumptions that I know everything about a particular country or culture,” said Marshall, noting that for example, “We’re now in the season of Ramadan.” So one question she would ask is whether a dignitary visiting from a Muslim country is fasting.
But Marshall picked up many of the skills she uses on the job long before she entered the world of Foggy Bottom. “Appreciating others’ culture was a part of my upbringing,” said the Ohio native, a first-generation American whose mother is from Guadalajara, Mexico, and whose father is from the former Yugoslav republic of Croatia. “We had a mixture of Croatian, Mexican, Italian and Lebanese in our house. It was almost like the [United Nations] during Christmas at Grandma’s house.”
Her background helped her learn the language of diplomacy, but her family also inspired her foray into politics — only more as an act of rebellion.
Her decision to work for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 was “definitely due to my father,” a small business owner whom she describes as a “Reagan-Republican.” 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. But unlike most law school grads, Marshall wasn’t interested in working for a law firm.
One of her professors encouraged her to consider politics and gave her a video about then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the underdog candidate in the 1992 race. “This is the one we need to worry about,” she recalled her father saying after she showed him the video. And so she decided to join the campaign in her home state of Ohio.
She started out doing delegate selection during the primary, then managed issues for Hillary Clinton during the campaign. From 1993 to 1997, Marshall served as special assistant to the first lady in the Clinton White House. “[Hillary] has been an amazing mentor to me for over 20 years,” she said of the former New York senator and secretary of state. “I am in awe of her talent and ability.”
In 1997, at the age of 32, she became the youngest person in modern times to be appointed White House social secretary and deputy assistant to the president.
“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,” Marshall told The Diplomat for her cover profile in our January 2013 issue.
She continued working with the Clintons to help their political and humanitarian agenda after his second presidential term ended in January 2001 and Hillary Clinton took up a New York Senate seat.
And when Hillary eventually decided to run for president, Marshall joined that campaign, eventually teaming with her at the State Department after Barack Obama’s win.
As chief of protocol, Marshall has been an innovator. She founded the Diplomatic Partnerships Division to implement four programs aimed at encouraging cultural exchange and giving the local diplomatic corps more insight into American people, culture and institutions.
The State of the Administration Speaker Series provides an opportunity for off-the-record discussion between foreign ambassadors posted in D.C. and high-level U.S. officials, including cabinet secretaries and White House chief of staffs. The monthly gatherings have greatly expanded ambassadors’ access to top U.S. officials, as well as other high-profile figures from Washington.
“[Ambassador Marshall’s] role over the last four years has been a crucial one, especially at a time when the United States is relying less on the use of force and more on the force of argument,” said Sir Peter Westmacott, the British ambassador to the United States. “She grasped immediately and instinctively that, in order for diplomacy to work, ambassadors need access — and that they are more likely to counsel their governments in favor of America’s agenda if they understand what is going on, and feel welcome here in the U.S.”
Another initiative Marshall is especially proud of is the Experience America program, begun under her predecessor, Nancy Brinker. Since 2009, ambassadors from more than 100 countries have participated in trips to Alaska, Arkansas, Atlanta, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and Wyoming to meet with local government officials, business executives and normal American families. (The Diplomat chronicled one such trip in its January 2013 issue in “Arkansas Odyssey: Envoys Experience BBQ, Business and the Natural State.“)
“Through [Ambassador Marshall], we came to understand the inner workings of the U.S. administration and we met an incredible mix of people — from talk show hosts in Los Angeles to civil rights activists who had marched at the side of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Peter Ammon, ambassador of Germany. “Together, we listened to a jazz band on New Orleans’s Bourbon Street and respectfully stroked a longhorn in Texas.”
The trips are organized by the State Department in conjunction with local officials, but diplomats pay their own way. They provide the diplomatic corps with a chance to get outside the Beltway, experience the diversity of America, and forge business ties.
For example, in Chicago, ambassadors had breakfast with industry leaders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which runs the world’s largest futures exchange. A State Department blog entry about the visit says that, “During the question-and-answer session, Ambassador Avni Spahiu of Kosovo stood up and said his country does not have a McDonald’s. However, after an energetic back and forth … a McDonald’s may be arriving in Kosovo very soon.”
“They are going out with the mission of making a new connection,” Marshall told us. “The ambassador of Gabon [Michael Moussa-Adamo] went to Los Angeles with us. We had a wonderful afternoon at Warner Bros. Studios. The ambassador said, ‘How can I get you to come film in my country?’ and they said, ‘We’ll tell you exactly how to do that’ and gave him a sort-of to-do list.” While nothing has been confirmed just yet, Paul McGuire of Warner Bros. says, “Gabon is still in our future plans.”
But the trips aren’t all networking and beautiful vistas. Diplomatic ties have been deepened while exploring some of the more troubling chapters of American history. On a trip to Arkansas, ambassadors met members of the Little Rock Nine, the first group of African American students to enroll in an all-white public school in Little Rock, Ark., after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision ending segregation in public schools.
In Atlanta, ambassadors also met Georgia Democratic Congressman John Lewis during a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Library. Born in Alabama to sharecroppers, Rep. Lewis became a leader in the civil rights movement. He led the famed Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in the Bloody Sunday riots and was a keynote speaker at the 1963 March on Washington at age 23. Along the way, he endured brutal attacks and was arrested more than 40 times. His story resonated with Ebrahim Rasool, the South African ambassador who had been imprisoned himself during South Africa’s long struggle against apartheid.
Last year, Marshall brought diplomacy to the dinner table, establishing the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership program, which enlists America’s best chefs to prepare meals for foreign leaders and participate in public diplomacy programs designed to engage foreign audiences. Members of the American Chef Corps include prominent Washington-area restaurateurs such as José Andrés and Bryan Voltaggio (also see “State Department Mixes It Up With Culinary Outreach” in the April 2013 edition of the Diplomatic Pouch).
But one of the crowning achievements of Marshall’s tenure as protocol chief is the establishment of an endowment for the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, which she describes as “one of the prizes of our government that many people don’t know about.”
Inspired by 18th-century American architecture, the rooms were built in 1961 atop the State Department to create a space for U.S. diplomacy. “Besides being a place for people to gather and meet, it tells our American story,” Marshall said.
Visitors see three centuries of American history as they walk through rooms that hold treasures like silver made by Paul Revere — the silversmith who alerted colonists that “the British are coming!” — and the desk where the Treaty of Paris was signed, granting America freedom from colonial rule (also see “Patriotic Spaces: Reception Rooms at State Department House History” in the June 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
All told, the rooms hold the third-largest collection of 18th- and 19th-century American art in the world. The collection, worth more than $100 million, was built entirely on funds and donations from private American citizens.
Curators had been raising money sporadically to restore and acquire the precious artifacts one by one, until Secretary Clinton recognized the need to restore the rooms, which had grown stale and rundown.
Marshall stepped in, helping to raise $20 million in one year to revitalize this 28,000-square-foot haven of American art and to fund education efforts to teach students about diplomacy and U.S. history.
Her job has also taken her far away from the confines of the nation’s capital. Marshall said she’s enjoyed the ride, praising President Obama for being “so understanding and appreciative and curious and respectful of others’ culture and background.”
“When he can, the president likes to get off the beaten path, visiting cultural sites and restaurants that aren’t on the formal agenda. Everywhere we go he wants to experience a bit of the outside culture,” she said of their travels abroad.
But after visiting 42 countries in four years, and trekking more than a quarter million miles to oversee protocol arrangements abroad, Marshall said she is ready to spend some time at home. She announced a few months ago that she would step down at the end of the summer.
She looks forward to spending time with her husband and 13-year-old son, but the farewell is bittersweet. “I love my job,” she told us. “I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to the president and to Secretary Clinton for offering this wonderful opportunity to me, and for Secretary Kerry for allowing me to stay on.”
She added: “I’ve been just so honored to walk in the footsteps of President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Kerry. We are lucky as a nation … to have people as caring and as brilliant and as dedicated as they are…. They are just extraordinary, and they serve our country with their entire heart.”
Marshall admits to being a bit of a workaholic herself, so don’t expect to see her lounging by the pool. Though her main focus will be on her family, she also plans to do some writing and public speaking. In her free time, she also hopes to brush up on her foreign language skills. We suspect she’ll have no trouble finding a tutor if she needs one.
As for whether she would be by Hillary Clinton’s side if she makes a bid for the presidency in 2016, Marshall was diplomatically mum on the subject. “I just hope that she makes the right choice for her.”
In the meantime, Marshall will be sorely missed by the diplomatic community. “My colleagues and I all agree that Ambassador Marshall is truly one of the best protocol chiefs we’ve ever known,” said Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States. “Her professionalism and elegance have impressed all who have worked with her. Her absence will be felt not only by the U.S. government, but also by many of her friends in China.”
About the Author
Gail Sullivan is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.