Friday, April 4, 2008

Post-Summit Reflections

The NATO Summit in Bucharest ended yesterday. Last night is the first good night's sleep I've had in over a week. My role was site officer at the airport in Constanta where President Bush met Romanian President Basescu at his seaside villa in Neptun (no, that's not a code name, it's the actual name of the resort town where the presidential compound is located). The presidents would arrive at the airport separately by plane, and after a welcome ceremony they would get into their respective motorcades and drive to the villa. There, they would have a bilateral meeting with staff, a working lunch, then the two presidents would take a short stroll before holding a press conference. Both motorcades would return to the airport, the presidents would pose with Romanian and American troops stationed there, then depart to Bucharest. Sounds relatively simple, doesn't it?

President Bush would be in Constanta/Neptun for roughly 4 hours. But the preparations for this brief trip began over a week in advance. Without going in to details, White House advance teams had to coordinate every single step with our Secret Service, Romanian protective services, and President Basescu's protocol people. There were numerous walk-thrus at the villa and at the airport. (Above, setting up the press conference site at the villa the day before the event, it was cold and rainy!)

Part of my job was to help coordinate the welcome ceremony at the airport. Upon arrival of Air Force One, I also had to escort staff and support personnel to the correct vehicles in the motorcade. These folks know the drill, so that happended quickly. So I had enough time to position myself at the end of the red carpet and watch the welcome ceremony proceed pretty much according to plan.

After the 2 motorcades departed the airport for the villa, I handed out gifts to the offical greeters. The prefect of Constanta was so excited about his White House cufflinks. I saw him on the news later that night showing them off to a reporter.

With a couple of hours to kill, I hung out at the airport (note: standing on a cement tarmac in heels for several hours will *destroy* your feet). A friend of mine who is the Air Force attache at the embassy called me and hooked me up with the co-pilot of Air Force One, who gave me a private tour! Very, very cool. The various areas of the plane are very comfortable and spatious (for an airplane), but not luxurious. It's not like traveling on the QE2. With presidential M&Ms and Air Force One matchbooks in hand, it was time to grab some lunch and get ready for the president's return from the villa and departure to Bucharest.

The departure plan was simplier than the arrival ceremony. All I had to do was position the honor guard along the red carpet and arrange the Romanian and American troops alongside the plane for the photo with the 2 presidents. Who knew that my high school job as a photographer at JC Penney's portrait studio would be helpful in my foreign service career! The presidents posed with the troops, chatted a bit, then boarded their respective planes and left. Piece of cake.

At times it seemed silly that so many people were spending so much time and energy to prepare for such a brief visit. Embassy staff, White House advance teams, communication technicians, and secret service agents all started arriving in Neptun a week in advance. But the reality is that the president needs to be able to run the country from wherever he is at any given moment. And his every move and the movements of those around him (i.e. the press) also need to be carefully choreographed and staged. It was an eye-opening experience. We were fortunate that the teams we worked with were very professional and competent. It was a good group of people.

Back in Bucharest the following day, I had foolishly agreed to work the night shift in the Control Room at the Marriott Hotel (where the U.S. delegation was staying). It was a little surprising how much activity there was at 2:30 in the morning. But things died down after 3:00. That morning was the embassy "meet-n-greet," where the president and Secretaries Rice & Gates were introduced to the embassy staff and took a few pictures. Having boldly claimed a spot up front, I got to shake their hands and say hello.

Overall, it was quite an experience. And a great way to end my assignment in Bucharest. Now that the Summit is over, I can focus on packing and checking out. My departure date is April 14 and I cannot wait to get home!

3 comments:

Marcia said...

We can't wait for you to get home either. A surprise awaits you. Thanks for the update. See you a week from Monday.

Mom

Marilyn said...

Heather - this was so interesting! I love the photo of you up at the door to Air Force One. When I heard that the President was in Romania I knew you would be involved. Thanks for the story! 9 days and counting til you're back in the US. Hope to see you when you're here! Love, Marilyn

Megan said...

Great story Heather!