The Ceremonial Office of the Military District of Washington is charged with seeing that the lectern on the south lawn of the White House is in its proper place when a foreign dignitary such as a king, president or prime minister is formally received by the President of the United States. MDW also positions the ropes that channel the crowds and mark the ground where the ceremony will take place, so the dignitaries know where to sit or stand.
When I was MDW’s Commanding General I was sometimes asked what a king, queen or president talked about as I escorted them through a ceremony? If the ceremony was something like laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, the conversation might go something like this:
“Mr. President, about three steps ahead of you is a loose flagstone that we discovered during rehearsal this morning. If you step on it, you may fall flat on your face. So move a little more to your right. There … that’s fine. Now turn your head a little to the left so the TV cameras have a good angle on you. Yes, just a little more … good … hold it right there.”
Sometimes the dignitary just wanted to talk. For example, during one state visit, King Juan Carlos of Spain was so impressed with the massed array of our nation’s 50 state flags that he asked me to stop the ceremony so he could properly appreciate them.
One of the most amusing conversations I had was with President Diouf of Senegal at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Diouf, who is just under seven feet tall and speaks little English, insisted on conversing in my almost forgotten French, without an interpreter.
The ceremony took place on the east side of the Tomb which offered a sweeping panoramic view of the city of Washington, directly across the Potomac River. The ceremonial setting was glorious with walls of green trees, manicured grass, flagstone walks, and marble stairs.
That day the sky was a soft, bright blue; fluffy white clouds with no sharp edges had come down wonderfully close to the earth. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves.
We mounted the stairs together… and alone. It was like being in a football stadium with the bleachers full of silent fans and only two people moving about the playing field. At the top of the stairs is a landing too narrow for a normal ceremony and there is always the possibility that the dignitary will make a misstep and come tumbling back down.
As we climbed I cautioned, “Mr. President, when we get to the last step, stop on it. Do not go any further. The landing at the top is quite narrow. You will feel my arm touching your back to remind you not to back up. Remember, when you get to the last step…stop right there, do not step up onto the narrow landing.
Slowly, majestically we continued climbing, our footsteps perfectly synchronized. From his great height President Diouf obliquely glanced down at me and said softly, “My Dear General, thank you so much for your concern for my welfare. However, when you are the President of a Third World country like mine, without notice your government can become quite fragile. So any step could be my last step. On which one of my last steps would you like me to stop?”
I struggled to keep from laughing out loud, “Sir,” I responded, “In this case, I am able to choose your last step for you…I can assure you…it will be well protected and quite safe.”
Unknowingly, I was being prophetic. After the ceremony President Diouf returned to Senegal where he served his country as president with great dignity, competence and elegance for many peaceful years.