News & Politics

Proper, But Not Prim

The fall diplomatic season kicks off with a book party for Ambassador Mary Mel French at Singapore's embassy

Ambassador Mary Mel French's new book may be an exhaustive guide to official diplomatic etiquette, but that hardly meant the party in her honor on Tuesday night at Singapore's embassy was boring. Instead, said Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, the dean of the women in Washington's diplomatic corps, it was the perfect way to kick off the fall embassy social season in celebration of "a book we should have had before," an "authoritative and helpful guide for…anyone wanting to engage with officialdom." 

Even with that handy guide tucked under guests' arms (Politics and Prose quickly sold out), current Protocol Chief Ambassador Capricia Marshall joked that she didn't want to deviate from the practices of French, her predecessor, who "set the path most correct and straight when it comes to protocol."

But it was clearly a crowd, and a host, who knew their collective stuff. Marian Robinson, First Lady Michelle Obama's mother, and Dorothy Howell Rodham, mother to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (who begged off, citing the on-going Middle East peace talks) had honored seats at the front of the room. Former Clinton chief of staff Mack McLarty and his wife Donna were there to support French, an old friend from Arkansas (Marshall noted that "There is no question as to where she learned her elegant manner, her graceful way and her smile.") Ken Duberstein, who served as chief of staff to President Reagan was also in attendance, and former Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean Mary Ourisman provided her usual sparkle.

French said it was important to remember that protocol wasn't simply a matter of politeness that ought to be universal—"everyone needs to know how to address the President of the United States down to a sheriff, she noted—but rather a key to achieving better foreign policy objectives. Getting protocol right is the key to a successful first impression, and in turn, to a successful state visit or negotiation. To that end, she said her book, written with the assistance of other experienced protocol officers, addresses everything from titles, to flags, to gift-giving.

"We can be nicer, kinder, happier Americans," French told her guests. "We all know how, we just sometimes don't do it."

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