News & Politics

Have a Meeting With the Queen? Don’t Do This.

How Obama’s former chief of protocol almost blew it with a royal get-together.

Barack Obama with Capricia Penavic Marshall in 2012. Photograph by Pete Souza.

When world leaders meet, the stakes are often high—and the details crucial. As President Obama’s chief of protocol for four years, Capricia Penavic Marshall handled everything from toasts (never clink glasses in Britain) to translation (always bring your own interpreter). Now she’s chronicling that time in the White House in a new book, Protocol: The Power of Diplomacy and How to Make It Work for You. We asked Marshall to tell us more about one of our favorite anecdotes in the book, about a close call that happened when the Obamas met with Queen Elizabeth during a 2011 state visit to the UK:

“It’s game day, the morning of the visit. We have rehearsed the arrival ceremony with the President. He is fully prepared. We go to Buckingham Palace, where the formal arrival ceremony will take place and Her Majesty and Prince Philip [will greet] President and Mrs. Obama. I stand in the hallway with the President and two other individuals from Protocol, making sure everything that’s planned is executed and trying to keep out of the way.

“It’s our custom in the United States that when a woman has a handbag, we offer to hold it for her during official ceremonies. [So when the queen arrived,] it was instinctual for me to reach out and ask to take it. I took one step out from my placement against the wall, and my counterpart slung his arms open, held me back, looked me dead in the eye, and said, ‘Do not touch the bag.’

“I said, ‘I’m so sorry! Why do we not touch the bag?’

“ ‘We don’t touch the bag,’ he said.

“ ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Absolutely understood. What’s in the bag?’

“ ‘We don’t know what’s in the bag,’ he said. ‘We just don’t touch the bag.’

“I was just really curious! She does not lay the bag down. The bag is always on the crook of the arm, even during black-tie dinners. And it is not to be disturbed.

“Later in the evening, the queen walked up to me and said, ‘Who are you?’ I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness. She’s looking at me. She’s talking to me.’ I said, ‘I’m President Obama’s chief of protocol.’ She said, ‘Well, I just want to say very good job today. Very good job indeed.’ ”

This article appears in the June/July 2020 issue of Washingtonian.

Jane Recker
Assistant Editor

Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park her home. Before joining Washingtonian, she wrote for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and opera.