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
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
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
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.