A powerful group of Washington players gathered at the Meridian International Center Tuesday evening to be lavished with praise from the White House and the State Department. The honorees may not be household names, and most have not met one another, but they work at the highest levels of government and diplomacy. They are the embassy social secretaries.
The fluffy title belies the facts, which are that they’re neither particularly social nor even remotely secretaries. The daily particulars of the job have more in common with a military deployment, but instead of weapons their arsenals include deft understanding of protocol, etiquette, food, fashion, history, tradition, entertainment, and who’s who. As White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard, the leader of their pack, said, “We are the forefront of public service.”
It was the first time he’s ever addressed the whole group, and he used the occasion to state that he’s the first male and openly gay person to be White House social secretary. Before giving his speech, he confirmed that the President and First Lady invited him to continue in the job for the second term, and he accepted. He came to the party with his whole team from the White House social office. His cohost, chief of protocol Capricia Marshall, brought some of her staff from the State Department. Marshall took the protocol job to serve her friend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for whom she had once been White House social secretary. Tuesday evening she said Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, had asked her to continue as chief of protocol and she said she would.
For the assembled social secretaries, the gathering was a kick. Many were eager to meet people with whom they normally only communicate by phone. Nation sought out nation and bonded with a hug and perhaps the clink of a glass (because they know it’s okay to clink glasses). The social secretary from France, Francesca Craig, was eager to meet Sandra Pandit from the Embassy of Germany. Later she hung out with the British Embassy’s Amanda Downes, possibly the most seasoned and revered embassy social secretary in DC. Across the room, Agata Wieckowska of the Embassy of Poland caught up with Tarja Thatcher of the Embassy of Finland, and Sylvie Yassingou of the Embassy of the Central African Republic paused for a plate of food with Betty Belsoi of the Embassy of the Republic of Kenya.
There was Champagne, wine, a French 75 cocktail, buffets of rare roast beef, poached salmon, grilled vegetables, and passed hors d’oeuvres. The caterer, Main Event, and the servers knew they had a tough audience. After all, it’s the social secretaries who are the embassy event planners, and as such are constantly monitoring, grading, and perfecting food service. But all was smooth and festive.
Some ambassadors, and their assistants, attended, but the guests of honor were the social secretaries. Meridian also included THIS for Diplomats, an organization of volunteers who help new ambassadors, their staffers, and families adapt to life in the United States. When it was time for remarks, the order of speakers followed protocol, of course. First Meridian president Stuart Holliday, who called the social secretaries “the people who make Washington work.” The chairman of Meridian’s board, Jim Blanchard, said they are “the people who make ambassadors’ lives a lot more effective and enjoyable.” But it was Marshall and Bernard who spoke to the group as sisters and brothers. Bernard talked about his reliance on all the previous White House social secretaries, in particular Marshall. He called them his “sorority sisters.”
Marshall, who introduced Bernard, said they are “creators of the moment” and “prepare the table for history.” She added, “You are the experts at conveying to the people of the United States unique aspects of your country’s culture and traditions: the greetings, the music, the presentations, the entertainment, and, of course, the food. It’s no easy task.”
Bernard was emotional in his remarks, which were clearly thought through and heartfelt. “We are here as keepers of an under-appreciated art and a longstanding tradition,” he said. “That is why I am so grateful to be here with you. The work we do is to bring people together. There’s no guidebook for this work. The graciousness and thoughtfulness from this community of colleagues of social secretaries cannot be measured. The knowledge we share is invaluable.”
And the stresses, too. Social secretaries have to procure the right guests; seat them according to protocol while also taking ego into consideration and making sure people who are elbow to elbow are more likely friends than sworn enemies; and ensure the food suits everyone’s tastes and ethnic guidelines so the luncheon, reception, or dinner goes off without a moment’s turbulence. Bernard spoke to that aspect of the job, particularly as it relates to the White House.
“State dinners may be the pinnacle of our work, but they are also the source of endless worries,” he said. “You know the feeling—the fear of displaying a flag upside down, playing the wrong national anthem . . . the weather, especially here in DC.” Notably, he did not mention gate-crashing reality TV stars, but then, the Salahi episode did not happen on his watch.
The question Bernard is asked most often is, “How does one become a social secretary?” He called it a “tough question to answer,” and gave no clues, which seemed to be a secret of their society everyone in the room quietly understood. In sum, he talked about a “love for the country we serve,” adding, “We are flies on the wall, witnesses to history.” Marshall and Bernard received thank-you gifts from Tiffany & Company. For everyone else, the swag on the way out the door was deliciously, and most likely diplomatically, correct: a box of chocolate truffles.