Photo by Dorothy Hong

Protocol is a bit like plumbing. We don’t appreciate its importance until something goes wrong.

In her book, PROTOCOL: THE POWER OF DIPLOMACY AND HOW TO MAKE IT WORK FOR YOU (Ecco, $28.99, 422 pages), Capricia Penavic Marshall recounts some cringe-worthy blunders from her time as chief of protocol under President Obama along with many quiet successes. It was not a thankless job — Marshall clearly loved both her work and the man she still calls “my president” – but she makes the case that “soft power” is too often underestimated both in foreign relations and in life.

Every administration makes mistakes, and every faux pas made on Marshall’s watch – a flag hung upside down, the president’s overly deep bow while visiting Japan — she considered to be her own. Most of the events she oversaw went seamlessly thanks to her “six eyes” rule (three people checked every detail), but there is still the awful moment she realizes that she has failed to warn her boss not to say, “Her Majesty, the Queen” during his toast to Queen Elizabeth, as this phrase prompts the band to start playing, and that time the Mexican president’s new interpreter started spouting gibberish instead of English.

The international blooper reel is as brutally honest as it is entertaining, and the author’s candor gives her considerable authority when she later highlights, in all seriousness, the importance of humility in both international and personal relationships.

Marshall consults in the private sector now, advising companies on how to woo and avoid offending, so certain sections speak directly to a business audience. Using anecdotes from her long tenure in the White House (At age 32, she became the youngest Social Secretary in history when she was hired by Hillary Clinton), the book is half memoir, half how-to guide and, while only just published, already wears the patina of a bygone era.

Her president did not turn a handshake with the French president into a puerile arm wrestling match. He understood Marshall’s principles of “bridging” and persuasion. The bridging requires, at the very minimum, making sure the negotiating partner does not lose face.

In 2010, while preparing for the signing of the New START agreement with Russia, Marshall realized that then President Medvedev, “who is just shy of five feet five inches,” would be dwarfed by President Obama when they were seated side by side. The visual risked giving the impression that the agreement was not really mutual but had been coerced by the world’s only superpower, which could, in turn, have soured public opinion in Russia. Marshall ordered the legs of an identical chair to be sawn off and nailed to Medvedev’s, raising him to an equal height in the photographs. The Russian staff remembered the kindness, which paved the way for persuasion on even more important matters, such as the Iran nuclear deal.

It’s hard to quantify these little gestures’ worth, but until the current administration, the State Department certainly believed in their value. Readers might be surprised at the sheer number of staffers that were devoted to protocol as well as their lofty status. Most were highly trained, career foreign service officers. Marshall, who as chief of protocol had the rank of ambassador, has a law degree.

The child of immigrants (Mexican and Croatian), Marshall is no blue blood in the vein of Letitia Baldrige. A self-confessed Type A personality, she rose to the position on merit, long hours, and a childhood fascination with doing things comme il faut that began when her mother sent her to etiquette lessons dressed like a miniature Jacqueline Kennedy.

Reading about diplomacy before Trump and before the novel coronavirus pandemic feels as nostalgic as the pillbox hat Marshall wore as a little girl. Once upon a time there were handshakes and retreats at Camp David, glittering state dinners with a confusing array of forks but also heads of state enjoying a ballgame and a hot dog together. The American president was gracious in his interactions with everyone, whatever their differing points of view.

If Marshall hadn’t actually been there as a witness, you might think it was all a dream.