Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make It Work for You by Capricia Penavic Marshall - review by Thomas Blaikie

Thomas Blaikie

Peace Maker & Flower Arranger

Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make It Work for You


Ecco 336pp £20

This is a big publication. Capricia Penavic Marshall was the chief of protocol at the White House during Barack Obama’s first term as president. She began her trajectory upwards as social secretary for the Clintons when they were in the White House. Already Pete Souza, Obama’s photographer, has hailed the arrival of this substantial etiquette and corporate manual to his 2.2 million followers on Instagram.

What is protocol and what does its chief at the White House do? Well, I can tell you, the job is absolutely devastating. Marshall was nanny, maître d’, event planner, principal greeter, i/c gifts, menus, flowers, laying the table… But the fates of nations rested on her shoulders. Think hostess anxiety times one million. What if Putin doesn’t like your choice of occasional table? What if the Chinese president is allergic to your floral arrangement? It was either months of planning or twenty minutes to find a side room at a summit because all of a sudden Obama had decided to meet with one of his fellow leaders separately. Usually the other countries had bagged the best rooms. Marshall had to make do with a broom cupboard, with only just enough time to plonk the flags in place. And speaking of flags, there are about ten thousand people working in the flag protocol department at the White House but still they get it wrong. That time the Philippine flag was hung upside down in New York!

As the subtitle suggests, this book is supposed mainly to provide etiquette guidance for the home and office, but the best bits are all the incidental gossip about the Clintons and Obamas. Marshall sees herself as the American Dream hurtling forward. She’s ‘on steroids’ for America. It’s all rather terrifying to the British reader. ‘How to work a Business Cocktail Party’, one chapter is titled. She’s never without her ‘protocol toolbox’ and when taking up a new job she must decide ‘which of my presets to retain or recalibrate’. Before her own wedding, she issued a thirty-page dossier, including potted biographies of all the guests and a family tree (‘I was my own wedding coordinator’). Then there’s her recipe for dealing with ‘overindulgence’ (drunkenness) among guests. First, remove them from the room and advise them to go home. If that fails, tell them they are disinvited on the spot. Finally, call security.

One good tip, though: everybody should have their own Oval Office (or rather ‘Oval’), which could be a small but exquisite room in your house where you invite only a few special people who would feel special by being invited there. It need not actually be oval, of course.

Despite all the six-person checking and ten million calligraphers doing name cards, things were always going wrong. This is where the books gets fun. It seems that even at the highest level, some random ‘staffer’ can interfere at the last minute and change the placement for a dinner, nearly causing a diplomatic catastrophe. On one such occasion, Marshall had the brainwave of collecting up all the wrongly placed name cards just before the guests appeared, tossing them in the air and pretending that they’d been blown away by the wind. Because she and her staff had memorised the table plan (can you believe it?) they were able to show everybody to the right place by hand, as it were. A big revelation is that the mix-up at the state dinner at Buckingham Palace where the band started playing ‘God Save the Queen’ in the middle of Obama’s speech was all her fault. Obama said, ‘…to Her Majesty the Queen…’ midway, which sounded like the toast. If only she’d read the speech beforehand. Another time at the palace, Marshall tried to get the Queen’s handbag off her. She thought she was being helpful, as the president was about to arrive. But a member of the Royal Household intervened and said, ‘We never touch the bag.’

You might ask, does any of this matter? Would it have made a difference if Marshall hadn’t realised that Benjamin Netanyahu needed hummus at a meeting with the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at the Waldorf Astoria and that President Abbas needed to have a portion that was exactly the same size? Probably not in the short term, but on the larger scale, yes. International diplomacy, when it is happening at all, rests on a foundation of hospitality and socialising in surprisingly intimate settings. From that springs the personal relationships between leaders on which so much depends. Do they like each other or not? Menachem Begin was about to abandon the Camp David summit in 1978 when President Carter just happened to sign some cards for his grandchildren. They’d all been having to put up with this hicksville American cabin existence for thirteen days and Begin was itching to leave. But he was moved by the gesture and decided to stay, and Israel and Egypt made peace. During a visit by Obama to China early in his presidency, the hosts asked if the president would participate in a noodle-stretching ritual before the banquet. It wasn’t on the schedule and word got back to Marshall that Barack was saying, ‘Do I have to?’ She managed to get to him and said, ‘Yes you do.’ It was about joining in. They stretch the noodle all around the room; it’s symbolic; the Chinese will be offended if you refuse. So he did it. Planet saved.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

Follow Literary Review on Twitter