WASHINGTON -- Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, the nation's chief of protocol, is tracking thousands of details in advance of the Chicago NATO Summit -- about dinners, flags, flowers, motorcades, red carpets, gifts, spouse schedules, ceremonies at McCormick Place and arrivals at O'Hare Airport.
There's a lot involved -- just in arranging and handling flags, for example.
"First and foremost I had a team here who made sure that we went through our inventory of flags to make sure that each country saw the image of the flag that we have and that they were fine with that image," Marshall told me in an interview.
" . . . Beyond that was acquiring enough of those flags because they need to placed in so many different positions. We have about 65 delegations that are attending and we have about 10 sets of flags. That's over 700 flags that we have to manage and take care of."
Marshall's team makes sure a flag looks good -- steamed, attached if need be to a "flag spreader" so the main field of a flag shows properly and hung in a uniform way -- all flags on the same poles of the same height, all facing to the right of the flag of the summit host nation -- the U.S.
Based in the State Department, Marshall is the person who is on the steps of the White House or on the tarmac greeting global leaders when they come to Washington for a presidential visit. Marshall has a long history of international event management; in the late 1990s, she was the social secretary for then first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton -- who is now the secretary of state.
Marshall gave me a rundown of the protocol operation in a summit of this magnitude, with heads of state, their foreign and defense ministers, and leaders of organizations -- such as the European Union -- converging on Chicago.
Whether the leader lands at O'Hare Airport in a private plane or commercial flight, they will be met by high-level military and State Department greeters -- who have "well rehearsed" their moves.
"We will have a ceremony that is in place set for them when the leader has arrived in their plane," Marshall told me. With precise landing times subject to change -- the greeters may be sprinting with their flags and red carpets. "You can almost see the group running across the tarmac," she said.
"We have a full transportation team that is managing every movement of every motorcade trying desperately to make sure that the people of Chicago are not inconvenienced," Marshall said. The routes are being drawn so "they stay within a small footprint so that the movements of the motorcades stay within a specific area and don't really impede upon all the traffic of the city."
First lady Michelle Obama will host several events for spouses. A deputy chief of protocol is assigned to help spouses fill out their time in Chicago and Marshall said they are being encouraged to visit museums, take an architectural tour or shop "on that Magnificent Mile, we want them to go there." Topping the request list so far: the Art Institute.
Food and flowers
A top question the protocol operation asks each delegation is about food or flower allergies. If there is one, the leader or minister will be seated near non-scented flowers or greens. Color of flowers is another concern; in some cultures a certain color could designate a funeral.
Marshall's shop also advises on the official gifts for leaders, spouses and ministers -- and gets them wrapped and assembled. The aim is to "showcase the creativity of the people of our country." With the Summit in the hometown of the first couple, gifts will likely have a distinctive Chicago theme.
NATO sets the protocol for seating and the final plan is approved by the White House. On Sunday, Obama has a "working dinner" with the NATO member leaders at Soldier Field, leaders of partner countries and spouses dine at the Field Museum, foreign ministers have their "working dinner" at the Adler Planetarium while the defense ministers eat at the Chicago Cultural Center.
The idea for the dinners, motorcade arrivals and other events when the leaders are together is to use what is called "precedent order." No one feels slighted when things are done by alphabetical order by name of nation or seniority in office. Presidents trump prime ministers; that's protocol.
The "beauty" of the system, said Marshall, is "there is a reason for it. It has been followed for years and years and years and so everyone understands the reasoning for the seating."