WASHINGTON — “I run on coffee,” says Chief of Protocol Capricia Marshall, pouring a cup for visiting ambassador Josefina Pitra Diakite from Angola.
This story first appeared in the November 3, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Marshall, just back from a State Department evacuation drill that sent everyone out onto the street for half an hour, is savoring a moment of repose before the onslaught of visitors this week, which includes everyone from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her guest is giving her high marks for what she’s already done since her arrival at the State Department at the end of August.
“The Rahm Emmanuel event was awesome,” says Diakite, remembering the protocol chief’s power breakfast in mid-October at Blair House, the president’s official guest house, for the diplomatic corps to meet President Barack Obama’s scrappy chief of staff.
Part of Marshall’s responsibility is to charm — and she clearly knows how to do it. “I’ve always had the gift of gab,” she says, adding she uses it to help put her guests at ease. “Whether you’re walking through the White House or the State Department, the setting can be quite intimidating.”
Born and raised in Cleveland, Marshall was fresh off the Bill Clinton campaign trail and just out of Case Western Law School in 1993 when Hillary Rodham Clinton, herself a new first lady, hired her to, among other duties, act as a mentor to help smooth the way for her then-12-year-old daughter, Chelsea. Four years later and then in her early 30s, Marshall became the youngest White House social secretary in recent memory, filling the job now held by Obama insider Desirée Rogers. Among a handful of loyal pals Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requested Obama appoint when she agreed to join his cabinet, Marshall is now easing the way for a new contingent of Washington outsiders — the ambassadors and representatives of 178 foreign delegations in the nation’s capital alone.
At the same time, she is working hard to support the Obama team’s commitment to community with a more grassroots approach to cultural exchange, along with an administration speakers series, diplomatic roundtable meetings and lots of travel opportunities for overseas diplomats to tour the country.
Later in the month, when the Obamas host their first state dinner for Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, Marshall plans a cultural exchange at the Indian embassy with D.C. school kids. The state dinner is set for Nov. 24, just two days before Thanksgiving, and right before the White House begins decorating for Christmas.
“We want to highlight the culture of India through food and have children of India teach children of our country about their culture and traditions through their food — tasting it, seeing how it’s prepared and sharing together,” says Marshall, who is also helping to put together a guest list for Hillary Clinton’s lunch for more than 200 at the State Department to celebrate the Indian prime minister’s visit.
The influx of foreign visitors in coming days, not to mention her usual duties working with those already here, are the reason Marshall doesn’t have a moment to spare right now. Today, she’s off to Andrews Air Force Base to welcome Merkel and accompany her to the White House, where the newly reelected German chancellor will meet Obama to discuss Afghanistan. Marshall is also on the front line to escort the diplomatic corps up to Capitol Hill tonight to listen to Merkel address a joint session of Congress. To top it off, there’s the U.S.-European Union summit, where Obama will meet with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, European Commission President Jose Barroso and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
It’s all part of the political, social and even religious whirlwind that forms Marshall’s job ensuring the visits of foreign dignitaries go off without a hitch. On Sunday and Monday, for instance, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was in Washington, which included dinner at Vice President Joe Biden’s house, while on Thursday there will be a dinner at the State Department for the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. As for what keeps her going through it all, Marshall has an easy answer: “My favorite part of the job is getting to know extraordinary individuals from around the world,” she says by telephone — as she’s en route to Dulles Airport to meet Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.