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US officials pore over finer points of diplomacy in preparation for NATO summit

By Cynthia Dizikes, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — The spelling and pronunciation of some 65 international leaders have been checked and rehearsed. A circular table so massive a school bus could fit on it has been custom built. And dozens of doors have been examined — do they swing in or out — to ensure nothing trips up a foreign dignitary.

When it comes to welcoming hundreds of officials to Chicago’s NATO summit no detail, it would seem, is too trivial.

To avoid even the smallest misstep — lest a protocol glitch interrupt the weighty NATO negotiations — U.S. officials have spent months poring over all the finer points of diplomacy.

From airport salutations to motorcades and seating assignments, protocol specialists have tried to anticipate every step and turn that may be taken during the two-day affair set to begin Sunday.

If they can help it, nothing will be left to chance.

“We have close to 65 leaders and heads of delegations attending the NATO summit in Chicago, which presents a huge logistical challenge and requires that every movement be choreographed down to the minute,” said U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Penavic Marshall.

From the moment heads of delegations, foreign ministers and defense ministers touch down in Chicago, Marshall’s team will be there to accompany and assist.

As each plane lands, a protocol representative will rush from a control room at O’Hare International Airport to the tarmac or jetway to extend a well-practiced greeting.

They must know, for instance, whether it is Madame President or Mr. Prime Minister and if a handshake is appropriate, or a head nod is preferred. Small talk must also be readied. Has the official been to Illinois before? What about Chicago?

Cultural gulfs need to be bridged and visitors made to feel welcome. Above all, everyone must be in the right place at the right time, said John G. Weinmann, chief of protocol from 1992 to 1993 under President George H. W. Bush.

“Back in history, coachmen for ambassadors would actually come to blows over whose carriage would go first,” Weinmann said. “So protocol greases the skids, as it were. It helps avoid confrontation.”

For Mary Mel French — chief of protocol under President Bill Clinton in 1999 when NATO last met in the United States — the biggest challenge came down to coordinating transportation from airports to hotels and from hotels to summit meetings in Washington, D.C.

“It sounds ridiculous,” French said. “But if you don’t get that right, leaders can get very upset if they are standing there tapping their foot and a car is not pulling up.”

Arrivals to this year’s summit at McCormick Place will be organized in two- to three-minute intervals based on length of service. The most recently appointed head will arrive first, the longest-serving last, said Natalie Jones, U.S. Deputy Chief of Protocol.

“We need to get them into McCormick Place within the span of an hour,” Jones said. “So this is happening very fast.”

Flags will be key to decor.

Protocol officers have prepped at least 10 flags per country, dipping into inventory maintained by the U.S. government in Washington and NATO headquarters in Brussels. The swaths of fabric will be carefully steamed and, in most instances, hung alphabetically by the country’s English name.

Country leaders will also be organized alphabetically at most of the events. A round table, which measures 59 feet across (about the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate), or about 185 feet around, was specially built to seat them.

“Each leader will have an equal amount of work space and vantage point from which they can effectively engage with the other Leaders in Summit discussions,” said a White House spokeswoman, who declined to provide further details on materials and cost.

The table built for the 1999 summit cost about $70,000, The Washington Post reported at the time. It was pentagon-shaped, weighed about 3,000 pounds and measured 145 feet around, according to the report.

Table shape is no small point, said Eva Maddox, design principal at Perkins+Will in Chicago.

A rectangular shape, for instance, would present head positions, suggesting a hierarchy. But a round, oval, or multi-sided table, such as a pentagon or hexagon, implies a certain equality.

“Everyone, essentially, would have the same position,” Maddox said.

Even so, seating can be a perilous affair, said Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, chief of protocol from 1982 to 1989 under President Ronald Reagan.

“Of all my areas of responsibility, none was more contentious than the question of rank and seating,” said Roosevelt, quoting from her book on the subject. “People who were otherwise delightful and in fine mental health can behave like lunatics if they think they’ve been slighted or seated incorrectly.”

In the 17th century, Roosevelt said that France and Spain almost went to war over a matter of ambassadorial precedence. About a century later, the French and Russian ambassadors quarreled over placement, eventually settling the matter with a duel, which wounded the Russian envoy.

“Historical precedent is not on the side of sanity,” said Roosevelt, recalling that just before she was appointed, the Italian foreign minister had threatened to leave the White House in a rage unless seating arrangements were changed at the state dinner.

Name cards, in particular, must be thoroughly checked.

At one United Nations breakfast in the ‘90s, an official became so angry that he walked out after noticing his name was misspelled, French said.

“The man was really serious and there was just no making him happy,” French said. “I was just mortified.”

To avoid potential conflicts, dignitaries are usually lined up alphabetically by country name in official NATO photographs. But since some leaders still prefer to stand in the middle, or end, or back, French’s team took to taping name cards to the floor to ensure they went to their correct spots.

“Men and women of that status don’t want to be lined up and ordered around like children,” she said. “But without protocol everything would be chaos.”

Despite the logistical headaches, French said no summit-stopping protocol problems occurred.

“It is a successful summit when no one notices protocol,” Marshall said.

In the end, though, Weinmann said protocol officers must be ready to improvise.

During a State Department luncheon, Weinmann said he was unexpectedly called on to escort the vice president’s wife and guest of honor, Marilyn Quayle, to her table. He had no idea whether she was supposed to be on his left or right and quickly decided to place her on the side where she could be seen by the most people in the room.

“If in doubt,” he said. “Just use common sense.”

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