Presenting His Excellency

When the United States welcomes a new foreign ambassador, the credentialing ceremony is an occasion for pomp and formality—a precise diplomatic dance steeped in centuries of tradition and timed to the minute.

By: Shane Harris

Italy's new ambassador to the US, Claudio Bisogniero (right), with daughter Serena, son Giampaolo, and wife Laura Denise. Photograph by Lucian Perkins.

Claudio Bisogniero has every reason to be nervous. No one would fault Italy's newly designated ambassador to the United States if he were found pacing the teak floors of the cavernous three-story foyer in his official residence, mentally rehearsing the choreography of his day. And it is a big day, perhaps the pinnacle of a 34-year diplomatic career that has already brought Bisogniero to Washington once before, as a counselor in the Italian Embassy, and that most recently saw him posted as the number-two man at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Today, in just about an hour, a sleek black sedan bearing the national flags of Italy and the United States will pull into Bisogniero's driveway and carry him and his wife to the White House. There--in a ceremony that's second only to a state dinner in terms of pomp and formality and that has been known to induce such a panic in some dignitaries that they forget their own wives' names--Bisogniero will meet President Obama in the Oval Office, exchange official correspondence between their two governments, and thus become ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to the United States.

Yet Bisogniero seems remarkably at ease. Dressed in an impeccably tailored, crisp blue suit, he sits with his wife, Laura Denise, son Giampaolo, and daughter Serena on a Louis XVI-style sofa in the residence's formal salon. He was up early this morning, Bisogniero says: "We're all still a little jet-lagged."

He touched down at Dulles Airport a week earlier, at 2:35 pm on Wednesday, January 11. The day matters. So do the hour and the minute. Precisely four hours and ten minutes after Bisogniero's arrival, His Excellency Asterio Takesy, ambassador of the Federated States of Micronesia, landed. Because Bisogniero got to Washington before his Micronesian counterpart, he will be placed one step ahead of him in the order of precedence, a nearly 200-year-old diplomatic hierarchy that will set the terms of much of their official life.

All ambassadors in Washington know the order of precedence and pay close attention to its fluctuations. The order can determine how close they sit to the President at official dinners. It decides who sits where on the floor of the House of Representatives during the State of the Union address--and who has to stand. If a group of ambassadors attends a State Department event and one of them is asked to speak, whoever ranks highest in the order gets the floor.

The order is set without regard to the size or influence of a country. The longest-serving ambassador in Washington, and thus dean of the diplomatic corps, is Roble Olhaye, from Djibouti, who has served since 1988. At the time of his arrival, Bisogniero is number 171, one step behind Al Maamoun Baba Lamine Keita, ambassador of the Republic of Mali, who arrived in Washington three days before him. If the Malian ambassador--or any other ambassador with more seniority--leaves his post, Bisogniero moves up in precedence.

But looking around Bisogniero's new home, an immense Tudor-style mansion overlooking the northern end of Rock Creek Park, it's hard to imagine he's feeling low. Villa Firenze--named not for the Italian city but for Florence Guggenheim, whose son Robert purchased it for her in 1942--sits on 22 acres at the end of Albemarle Street in DC's Van Ness neighborhood. With an assessed value of $42 million, the 24,000-square-foot mansion is the most expensive ambassador's residence in Washington. A massive Flemish tapestry depicting peacocks in a woody landscape hangs over the grand staircase. The salon is adorned with four large 17th-century Venetian mirrors, an oil painting of the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, and two chandeliers made of Murano glass. The organ in the foyer was built in 1925.

Bisogniero has had little time to appreciate the museum-quality antiques adorning what is now his living room. He has barely moved in. He and his wife and children have picked out their bedrooms. But some clothes are still in suitcases, and most of the family's personal belongings are at their home in Brussels, waiting to be packed.

Back in Italy, things are more profoundly unsettled. Bisogniero's predecessor, Giulio Terzi di Sant'Agata, was called back in November after Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was forced to resign amid a financial crisis. Terzi became foreign minister in Italy's new technocratic government, which is currently attempting to right the country's finances and prevent a default. Bisogniero is both separated from and intrinsically connected to his country's troubles. He is the face of Italy at ceremonial functions and social events. He is also the voice in the United States of his government's policies. He plans to use his position to encourage American companies to invest more in Italy and its manufacturing base.

Today will be his first chance to make Italy's case to Obama in a private moment with the President. But before Bisogniero steps into the Oval Office and becomes his country's full-fledged representative, there is a diplomatic dance so precise, so complex, and so freighted with expectation that it's a wonder Bisogniero is still smiling.

The moment Bisogniero stepped off the plane at Dulles, he was greeted by representatives from the State Department's Office of the Chief of Protocol, the government's minder of manners and mores. The office is as much a guide to foreign ambassadors in the United States as it is to American officials traveling abroad.

A protocol officer is the ultimate concierge. There's almost no professional request the office can't handle. When ambassadors take official tours of the United States, the office arranges the trip. If an ambassador's daughter wants to volunteer at a local hospital, the office will make introductions.

A group of State Department and Italian Embassy representatives met Bisogniero as he stepped off the jetway and welcomed him to Washington. Transportation-security officials make a special exception for these planeside visits, which were done away with after the 9/11 attacks, when only ticketed passengers were allowed into the gate area. Protocol officers do not bring gifts. Representatives from the country's embassy, who also attend the arrival, may bring flowers or other customary presents so long as they conform to federal security regulations.

Bisogniero and his family bypassed the normal entry lines for immigration and customs and were met by two waiting vehicles from the Italian Embassy. Built in 2000 on a vacant parcel of land off Massachusetts Avenue, the embassy is an homage to Italy and Washington. The exterior of architect Piero Sartogo's creation is an austere blend of Tuscan villa and medieval fortress. But viewed from above, it mimics the original diamond shape of the District. A glass walkway bisecting the embassy symbolizes the Potomac River.

The first official act on Bisogniero's schedule was a visit to the State Department. As is the custom, a few days after he arrived in the United States, Italy's "ambassador designate" met with a senior department official and presented copies of his diplomatic credentials--a set of correspondence from his government to that of the United States, marking the transition from one ambassador to the next. As Bisogniero walked out the department's entrance on C Street, Northwest, he was the "appointed ambassador." He could go about most of his duties and run his country's mission, but he wasn't authorized to meet with the President or senior White House officials. Many senior Cabinet members also refrain from conducting business with appointed ambassadors, so in effect ambassadors can't fully begin their job until after the White House ceremony, when they attain their 16-syllable title.

The State Department doesn't bring ambassadors to the White House one at a time. The call goes out to embassies that a credentialing ceremony is in the works and that all ambassador appointees who are ready to take the final step should alert the Office of Protocol. The White House keeps the date undetermined for as long as possible in order to accommodate the President's schedule.

Under Article II, Section 3, of the Constitution, ambassadors are accredited solely to the President. Only he, or she, can perform this ceremony--no stand-ins, no designees. Today will be an especially long one for Obama. There are 15 ambassadors on the list, the most he has credentialed at any one time. It's also one of the most illustrious and strategically significant lists in recent memory. The new ambassador from the United Kingdom is coming. So are the representatives of Pakistan and Iraq. Also in attendance will be the apostolic nuncio from the Holy See--the only foreign ambassador in Washington not called "ambassador." Then there's the ambassador from Lesotho, who outranks his excellency from the Vatican by one in the order of precedence. He arrived 11 days earlier.

President Obama met with Bisogniero and his family in the Oval Office. Photograph by Lawrence Jackson/The White House.

The black sedan arrives at Villa Firenze a bit early, one of the rare moments in this day that won't go precisely according to plan. A diplomatic car doesn't drive around town displaying a national flag unless its representative is actually inside the car. So the driver stops short of the residence, gets out, and slips a small Italian flag into a holster on the front of the sedan. Then he pulls into the long driveway and up to the ambassador's front door.

A second sedan pulls in behind it to carry Bisogniero's children. The ambassador and his wife climb into the back seat of the front car and make the five-mile trip to the White House. The rest of the day will be an exercise in punctuality and patience.

Washington's Top Ambassadors

Where ambassadors stand on the diplomatic ladder has nothing to do with the size or influence of their countries. The order of precedence, a centuries-old tradition, ranks foreign ambassadors to the United States according to when they arrived in Washington to assume their official duties. Here are the top ten in descending order along with when they arrived.

1. Djibouti

Roble Olhaye
(Dean of the Diplomatic Corps) March 1988

2. Singapore

Heng-Chee Chan
July 1996

3. Yemen

Abdulwahab A. Al-Hajjri
September 1997

4. Palau

Hersey Kyota
November 1997

5. Democratic Republic of the Congo

Faida Mitifu
February 2000

6. Liechtenstein

Claudia Fritsche
December 2000

7. Turkmenistan

Meret Bairamovich Orazov
February 2001

8. Benin

Segbe Cyrille Oguin
March 2001

9. Republic of the Congo

Serge Mombouli
July 2001

10. Kuwait

Sheikh Salem Abdullah Al Jaber Al-Sabah
October 2001

At the southwest gate, the ambassador's car queues up in the order of precedence, behind the fleet of flag-bearing sedans carrying the 12 other ambassadors who arrived in Washington before Bisogniero. Confirming that national influence has no bearing on who gets to see the President first, Sir Peter Westmacott, Her Majesty's ambassador to the United States, is at the end of the line.

The cars pull onto the White House grounds one by one. Each ambassador waits in his idling car until his or her turn comes. Just before 2:30, Bisogniero's car slowly winds its way up the driveway to the South Portico, the diplomatic entrance of the White House. The United States Army Band Herald Trumpets plays a series of fanfares, including "Call to Statesmanship" and "Salute to a New Beginning."

Bisogniero steps out of the car to a red carpet flanked by the US and Italian flags. Ambassador Capricia Marshall, the chief of protocol, is there to shake his hand and welcome him to the White House. While the protocol office has been busy for months planning the credentialing ceremony, it will fall mostly to Marshall to ensure that it comes off without a misstep.

Marshall--who was named social secretary in the Clinton White House when she was only 32--has memorized the names and faces of all the ambassadors, their spouses' names, their children's names, the names of each of their guests. Her staff has drawn up flash cards with all the officials' particulars, along with a headshot the size of a passport photo. She will guide each ambassador, along with the family, through a maze of rooms and hallways before ending up in the Oval Office.

Marshall takes Bisogniero first to the Diplomatic Reception Room. In 1837, this space was converted from a basement area used for polishing silver into the White House boiler room. A century later, it's where Franklin Roosevelt held his fireside chats.

Here, a protocol officer relieves Marshall and escorts Bisogniero farther into the White House, first outside, along the colonnade and past the rose garden, and then into the Cabinet Room, where Bisogniero signs the President's guest book. Next, he crosses the hall to the Roosevelt Room, the customary waiting area for foreign delegations, where Bisogniero can relax, take some refreshments, and mingle with his fellow ambassadors. In the early 1900s, this room was the site of the Oval Office. After FDR moved it to the southeast corner of the White House in 1934, he installed an aquarium and dubbed this the Fish Room.

It takes precise timing, and constant motion, to keep the flow of foreign dignitaries from ending up in a traffic jam somewhere between the south entrance and the West Wing. Marshall has only three minutes to bring each ambassador from the portico to the Diplomatic Reception Room before turning around and receiving the next ambassador as his or her car pulls up. While she was inside with Bisogniero, Italy's flag was removed from its stand at the entrance and replaced with Micronesia's.

When Sir Peter arrives at 2:40, the chief of protocol escorts him personally to the West Wing. (It's one of the few times when being last in the order has advantages.) In the Roosevelt Room, Marshall, acting as both hostess and stage manager, rehearses the big moment with the assembled crowd.

"I probably walk through the process at least two or three times with them," she says. But sometimes, "at the moment that they're greeting the President, it is as if they've never been told anything before."

"It's a unique moment," Marshall explains. "You're standing in the hallway outside the Oval Office, and then you can see the doorknob turn . . . and then the President is standing right there." This is the point at which, on occasion, a polished globetrotting diplomat has turned to jelly and forgotten his wife's name. Marshall steps in: "Mr. President, may I introduce Mrs. . . . ."

As Bisogniero prepares to enter the Oval Office, he holds onto a blue folder bearing three documents: a letter recalling his predecessor, Terzi, from Washington; written remarks from Bisogniero to Obama; and a letter of credence from the president of Italy and the foreign minister to Obama, acknowledging Bisogniero as the country's official representative to the US. These are originals, not copies. And Bisogniero must deliver them personally to the President.

He presents his documents, and Obama reciprocates with his own. They exchange brief remarks; Bisogniero conveys the best wishes of his president, of Prime Minister Mario Monti, and of Foreign Minister Terzi. Obama asks that the ambassador convey the same to them. With the formalities complete, Bisogniero introduces his family.

"The President was warm and welcoming in talking to my whole family--far beyond what we expected," Bisogniero says later. "He made us feel as if he had nothing else on his to-do list that day except to make me, my wife, and Serena and Giampaolo feel at home in the most famous house in America."

Bisogniero's sendoff is as grand as his arrival. It's back through the White House to the south entrance. A military honor cordon lines the drive. The sedan makes its way out the gate and returns to Villa Firenze. The family won't stay long. Tonight Bisogniero and his wife will fly back to Brussels and to the daunting reality every new Washingtonian must face: a houseful of moving boxes.

This article appears in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.