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U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia; Portrait by Joshua Cogan

Northern Exposure

by Karen Sommer Shalett | DC magazine | April 28, 2011
Capricia Penavic Marshall understood a political secret long before the pundits figured it out: As Ohio goes, so goes the nation. Having grown up in Cleveland in the ’60s, her parents’ kitchen table was a metaphor for the country’s immigration story. The daughter of a Mexican mother and Croatian father—whose own adopted siblings were Italian—Marshall’s family’s Thanksgiving dinners included the Russian family down the street, while Sundays rarely passed without tamales, mole and a visit from the Lebanese family across the way. “My parents made sure we understood how lucky we were to have the benefits of living in the U.S.,” says Marshall, who in 2009 became an ambassador and the country’s chief of protocol. “And with so many ethnic communities around us, we really saw the beauty of America.”   Marshall believes a more perfect training ground couldn’t be found for handling the various customs and traditions of the international diplomatic corps living in the United States. An ardent member of Hillaryland since staffing Hillary Clinton in her role as a presidential candidate’s wife in 1991, Marshall became a White House special assistant, and later social secretary, after both women ascended to the East Wing. A law school grad, campaign veteran and one-time consultant to Hollywood and nonprofits alike, Marshall has never been content to simply glad-hand.    Indeed, the way her office undertakes diplomacy—creating a relationship with each embassy representative who comes to the State Department—impacts international relations. Past administrations have focused it on the tasks of credentialing the diplomatic corps and hospitality, in large part because the first handshake every foreign ambassador receives in the United States comes from this office. Marshall has been ambitious in her efforts to offer more. “We not only want to greet them,” she says, “but get them involved. President Obama, Secretary Clinton—we all want visiting dignitaries to bring something of substance back to their home countries from ours.”    As Marshall set up the priorities for her team, she interviewed the past four individuals who’d held her post. All mentioned programs that diminished in importance when their tours of duty ended. Marshall’s signature? To take ideas from each and cement them into the legacy and future of the office. “We hear ambassadors consistently say that they’ve never seen an office of protocol as active as this one,” says Sarah Nolan, assistant chief of protocol for diplomatic partnerships.
In two years, the office has put into effect such long-range programs as the State of the Administration, a series of off-the-record briefings by high-ranking White House officials. “The best was when Rahm Emanuel was chief of staff,” Marshall laughs. “Naturally he’s the least diplomatic.” Another program, The Diplomatic Roundtable, offers the corps an opportunity to discuss issues among themselves and hear from experts regarding topics relevant to their time spent in the States.   Recently, the program convened a panel in conjunction with the American Society of Magazine Editors, where editors-in-chief from The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, People and Self magazines addressed “What’s America Thinking” for the group. The office has also spearheaded events at the Blair House for children from the various embassies and their DC elementary school counterparts. “Sharing foods, music, sports, jokes—it’s similar to how I was brought up,” Marshall says. “It bridges understanding to learn that something different is also kind of cool.”    If your agenda is to educate about America, you can’t do it by simply staying inside the Beltway. Marshall took a page from her most recent predecessor’s book and expanded the program Experience America. Ambassadors from all over the world have joined Marshall on VIP expeditions to Chicago and Atlanta to hear from “real” Americans. “On the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange, the ambassador from Kosovo told a McDonald’s exec that his was one of a few countries without a branch of the fast-food chain,” Marshall recounts. He will have one soon.    Other ambassadors have used the trips to expand economic opportunities for their countries on these trips by negotiating new airline routes back home or beginning talks to bring new industries back as well. Some connections have been of an even deeper meaning. At The King Center in Atlanta, South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool explained how the American civil rights movement gave he and Nelson Mandela the motivation to continue their fight for freedom when they were jailed together during apartheid.
The team is on the move again in June during the summer solstice. Marshall reports that 71 ambassadors and their spouses have signed up for a trip to Alaska. “It was the number one request,” says Nolan. “It really is America’s final frontier.” And while Sarah Palin’s celebrity may have had something to do with the delegation’s enthusiasm, Palin won’t be joining. Instead, the trip will focus on climate change and ways to maximize energy, be it oil, geothermal or wind. They are also expecting to trade best practices for an economy where 40 percent of its citizens work in tourism. But Marshall assures, there will be time for the group to be tourists themselves.    Given that the sun will stay up throughout the trip, the travelers are looking forward to midnight rounds of golf and baseball games. They’ll head to the North Slope Borough and taste Eskimo ice cream, or whale blubber, and go fishing in Seward’s Resurrection Bay. Even Marshall is excited. “The first time I was in Alaska was with a boyfriend in Juneau in the ’80s,” she says. “This will be extraordinary.”