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The Master Of Ceremony

June 26, 2002

Arthur Nead
Michael DeMocker

It's a cold, but sunny, morning in the nation's capital. A long black limousine glides up to the White House. Television camera crews jockey for position. Car doors open, and the leader of a foreign nation and a gaggle of handlers emerge and are ushered into the building. Passing tourists glance curiously at the flurry of activity, but are oblivious to the weeks of intensive groundwork that preceded this visit.

Behind the scenes--overseeing the preparations and making sure every detail is taken care of--is Donald Ensenat, chief of protocol for the United States. Ensenat, a New Orleans native and 1973 graduate of Tulane Law School, now makes the U.S. Department of State near the White House his home away from home. "My office is on the ground floor, near the diplomatic entrance on C Street," he says.

The protocol office is at the heart of high-level diplomatic activities in Washington, D.C., arranging visits by foreign ministers and heads of state, working closely with ambassadors of other nations and overseeing a variety of ceremonial events.


Ensenat was no stranger to the workings of government when he accepted the presidential appointment as chief of protocol. From trial attorney to congressional staffer to ambassador to the Sultanate of Brunei, Ensenat had amassed a wealth of government and diplomatic experience before taking his current post. He also had made some im-portant contacts in the unlikeliest places.

While attending Yale as a freshman majoring in American Studies, Ensenat met a fellow student who would become a good friend. George W. Bush also would become the 43rd president of the United States. The two shared many experiences during college and after graduation from Yale in 1968. "We were fraternity brothers in college," says Ensenat.

The relationship would solidify after college, when Ensenat, who had started law school at Tulane in 1969, left after one semester and moved to Houston. "I was restless, and probably should not have started law school then," he recollects. "It was a highly politicized era. Unlike a lot of my peers, I was not in the streets, but I was interested in getting some political experience." He began working for George Bush--the future 41st president--and rooming with his son.

"He [George W. Bush] went into the oil business, and I became one of his partners and investors." Ensenat made another key political contact during this time. While attending the New Orleans wedding of the daughter of James J. Coleman Sr. (A&S '35, L '37), he ran into Hale (A&S '35, L '37) and Lindy (N '35) Boggs. Hale Boggs was a longtime congressional representative for Louisiana and was the Democratic assistant majority leader, or "whip," in the House.

"I just mentioned that I wanted to go to Washington, to go up to the Hill to have a political experience," says Ensenat. "Hale told me, 'I've known your parents a long time. I know who you are. I have a job that will be starting July 1. If you can be in Washington on July 1, you can have the job.' So I loaded everything I had in the back seat of my car--an Opal--and drove up."

Ensenat worked as a legislative assistant on Boggs' congressional staff for about a year. "There were three of us there," Ensenat recalls. "I was low man on the totem pole." During this time he joined up with his friend and former classmate George W. Bush, who was also spending some time in Washington. "I visited with him at his parents' house. His father was there--he was then a congressman," says Ensenat. "He started talking about running for the Senate, and I said I'd love to work on a campaign. He put me in touch with his campaign manager. The campaign was just forming up, and they hired me as a staffer at $500 a month."

Ensenat started working in Houston for the elder Bush's Senate campaign. At first he was assigned to scheduling. But before long, campaign managers selected Ensenat to fill the role of "candidate handler"--a personal aide for Bush. After the Senate campaign was wrapped up, Ensenat stayed on in Houston to take courses at the University of Houston Law School.

"That's when I roomed with (now) President Bush. He was working and I was going to law school and working as a clerk in a law firm. That next January [1972], I transferred back to Tulane Law School and finished in 1973," Ensenat says.

New Orleans was home, after all, and Ensenat knew he wanted to settle down in his hometown after law school. "Many lawyers have said to me that one of the strongest assets you have as a lawyer is your law school network, so you should go to law school where you intend to practice. That was the advice that carried the day," he says. But a law career would have to wait a while longer.

Shortly after Ensenat finished law school, Hale Boggs was lost in an airplane crash in Alaska. "Lindy, his wife, was elected to his seat in Congress," Ensenat says. "I had been active for her in that campaign. So after I graduated, I became her first legislative assistant in Washington. I did that for about a year, then I came back to New Orleans--I keep coming back!"

On returning, Ensenat finally launched into the practice of law with a brief stint at the firm of Phelps Dunbar. Next, he went to work as an assistant attorney general under Louisiana Attorney General William Guste and then into more than 20 years of private practice in New Orleans.

Working for 41

Fast-forward to 1989, when Ensenat left his law practice once again for a stint in public life. "In 1989, I went to work for '41,' " Ensenat says, explaining a shorthand method insiders use to distinguish between the two presidents Bush. "The first President Bush is called '41,' as he was the 41st president, to distinguish him from his son, who is called '43.' " President Bush--"41"--nominated Ensenat to the board of the Overseas Private Investment Corp., a federal financial institution that supports United States capital investments overseas.

"It is the sister institution to the Export-Import Bank," explains Ensenat. "'Ex-Im' Bank does trade; this does capital investments. It's a wonderful organization--it actually makes money. Its principal product is political risk insurance."

Ensenat's nomination to this board was timely, he says. The global economy was growing at an explosive rate, and Ensenat was in a good position to get the big picture of what was going on in world economic circles. A big player in those circles was the tiny, oil-rich sultanate of Brunei, so it was something of a natural progression for Ensenat when President Bush (No. 41) appointed him ambassador to the small nation on the northern coast of Borneo.

Brunei is a very old country whose heyday as a regional power occurred between 1500 and 1700. It became a British protectorate in 1888 and became fully independent in 1984. The head of state is the Sultan of Brunei, one of the wealthiest people in the world, whose family has ruled Brunei for six centuries. Serving as the U.S. ambassador to Brunei was a new experience for Ensenat, but at the same time oddly familiar. "Brunei is a colorful country," says Ensenat.

"One of the nice things about it as a post is that the country is small. Of course, it is an entirely different culture from the West. But on the other hand, you can see a lot of similarities to New Orleans. One, it's tropical. Its food is a lot like ours--rice, seafood, spicy, good sauces--that sort of thing. And the people are friendly. "While it is a small country, it's strategically important because of its resources and because of its location in the South China Sea--one of the world's major shipping lanes."

One advance in relations effected by Ensenat while he was in Brunei was to negotiate a military agreement between that country and the United States. The United States had just lost its military bases in the Philippines and was rethinking its Southeast Asian military strategy.

"The new strategy became 'places' not 'bases,'" says Ensenat. "We were looking for arrangements that would allow us to have access to strategic resources. The way these things begin is with baby steps. The first baby step was cross-training, having joint exercises with their military."

At this point, Ensenat's tenure as ambassador to Brunei was cut short when "41" was not re-elected. Ensenat returned to his law firm in New Orleans for the next eight years. And then, in 2001, the second President Bush--"43"-- nominated Ensenat as his chief of protocol, the position he holds today.

On the Job

Ensenat succinctly sums up the duties of the chief of protocol for the world's greatest superpower: "The chief of protocol ensures that things are handled according to codes of international or diplomatic conduct." In other words, he makes sure everyone plays nice and plays by the rules. "Protocol" as a term is linked throughout its long history with the diplomatic profession. The word first appeared centuries ago in the Greek language.

It meant the first (proto) page or flyleaf of a manuscript, often serving as a draft or summary of a treaty or diplomatic dispatch, glued (collon) to the front or case of the volume. Even more ancient than the word is the craft of diplomatic protocol itself. In just one of many cases that reveal the antiquity of diplomacy, archaeologists have translated numerous mud tablets inscribed with Babylonian cuneiform that carried diplomatic messages among countries of the ancient Mideast.

One set of tablets, written around 1350 B.C., records that the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III sent his ambassadors to the king of Babylon, with whom he was in diplomatic negotiations. They arrived in the city of Babylon with a large caravan of precious gifts, including gold, silver and ivory artifacts, jewelry, armor and weapons, clothing, perfumes, spices, incense and more.

The negotiations proceeded successfully, and the king of Babylon sent one of his daughters to Egypt to seal the peaceful relations between the two kingdoms by her marriage to the pharaoh.

Now, nearly 3,300 years later, governments are still sending emissaries back and forth. While royal marriage is a rare outcome of diplomatic negotiations these days, intergovernmental contacts continue to be vitally important. A network of diplomatic relations that spreads across the world is key in the creation of treaties, in working out trade and international cooperation issues, and in deciding whether countries and peoples will be at peace or war.

And what glues this delicate network of trust and cooperation together is a corps of skilled practitioners of the art of diplomatic protocol--a code of conduct that allows states to communicate with one another in a peaceful, dignified and mutually beneficial manner. For some, the expression "diplomatic protocol" might conjure up images of glittering state events, attended by a swirl of dignitaries decked out in ribbons, medals and exotic national costumes of distant lands.

Not all diplomatic meetings have such a dramatic character, but in both grand events and more prosaic working sessions alike, the protocol officer's role is to assure the productivity of meetings by seeing that established rules of diplomatic precedence and social conduct are adhered to. "There has always been someone like the chief of protocol (the name we use now) going back to the ancients," says Ensenat. "That individual's job has been to implement the accepted rules of conduct in every capital, in every court. That's what I do."

Do protocol officers have a definitive reference book, something like an Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt-style guide to correct diplomatic usage that they can refer to when a question of diplomatic etiquette arises? Well, not exactly. "There is what, in law, we would call more a set of customs or practices that have grown up," says Ensenat. "People write it down from time to time, but it doesn't have statutory or treaty form or anything like that."
Truth be told, protocol re-mains more of a craft than an exact science, and its practice has been the province of seasoned professionals throughout the ages. But the age of technology has wrought changes even on this delicate profession. In past centuries, stark cultural differences between countries attempting diplomatic communication occasionally created stumbling blocks to good relations, but the world today is different, says Ensenat.
"Frankly, the world has gotten increasingly homogenous, culturally," says Ensenat. "Some criticize this, because it looks like it's American-dominated, but it's not, really. We're absorbing other cultures; they're absorbing some of our culture. It's all kind of coming together."

Hail to the Chiefs

One main area of responsibility for the U.S. protocol office is arranging for visits of foreign leaders. When the office receives word that a foreign leader intends to visit, it immediately starts up an intensive interaction with the visitor's protocol office.

"The preparation goes on both in our office and on the visitor's side," says Ensenat. The two staffs work to build a schedule for the upcoming visit. It's worked out to the finest detail--down to which cars will be used, where the leader and his group will stay and what they will eat. The protocol office books appointments and sets up press interviews if these are wanted.

Ensenat is frequently on hand to facilitate the first meetings of foreign leaders with the president. "It's a big job, but seldom do people see what's behind the camera. My role is to be as invisible as possible." Some visitors want to plan their own visits privately, with no input from the U.S. protocol office, but that's rare, he says. The protocol office also provides security. "That's an important aspect of what we do," Ensenat says. "If the visitor is a foreign minister, then the security arm of the State Department provides security. If it's a head of government, prime minister or head of state (a king or president), then the Secret Service provides security."

Visiting leaders and dignitaries are frequently lodged at Blair House, the White House's diplomatic guesthouse. Blair House, which is located across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House in a series of Federal-era buildings, is a high-profile part of Ensenat's responsibility.

"It is essentially a five-star hotel," says Ensenat. Another important area of responsibility for Ensenat and his protocol staff is working with the resident diplomatic corps in Washington D.C., a sizable community that includes 176 accredited ambassadors together with their embassies and staffs.

Ensenat says, "We have a big section that deals with their care, feeding and handling, and with our relationships with them." Besides arranging visits and handling the resident diplomatic corps, the protocol office is in charge of arranging diplomatic ceremonies. "This is the thing most people think 'protocol' is about," says Ensenat. "There are a lot of ceremonies that we do, including, for example, swearings-in and treaty signings."

Swearings-in of newly ap-pointed American diplomats and State Department officials are important ceremonies within the State Department. For these events, the protocol office issues invitations and orders the food and beverages. Most of these ceremonies are staged in the reception rooms of the State Department building. These rooms, which started out their existence as institutional and pedestrian, according to Ensenat, were converted in the 1970s into a showcase suite.

As a result of generous contributions from private citizens, the rooms now are furnished with a superb collection of early American furniture associated with key historical events and figures. The largest of the rooms is the Benjamin Franklin Room, which can seat 300 people for lunch and accommodate from 600 to 700 people standing for receptions. There also are smaller reception rooms and private dining rooms.

"The collection includes the desk on which the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution, was signed," says Ensenat. "There is Thomas Jefferson's desk on which he reportedly drafted the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. These are magnificent rooms, where we do our ceremonies. For example, the Secretary of State uses them very often."

Staffing Up

To do all of this vital and demanding work, Ensenat has a staff of 70 people. "In the government context, that's pretty trim," he adds. But it works because Ensenat's staff includes people of long and varied experience. "In our department there is a base of political appointees who come out of the private sector," says Ensenat.

"They work alongside career government employees who have been there for years. "The people from the private sector know a lot about business, trade and travel. The career guys know how the government works and how other governments work. You blend the various areas of expertise together and they come together very nicely as a team."

Ensenat credits the expertise of protocol office personnel with making things go smoothly. He notes that one woman has handled press relations since 1963. She first came to the department in 1958. "The fellow that heads up the section that runs the diplomatic and consular liaison, the section that handles the resident diplomatic corps, has been in that job for 25 years," marvels Ensenat. Ensenat is clearly enjoying his present job. Politics being what it is, he might remain where he is for quite a while, or the de-mands of public service may whisk him elsewhere.

"This job I have now is my sixth stint in government," says Ensenat. "It was not a plan, it just sort of happened. "What was I thinking!?"

Arthur Nead is an assistant editor in the Tulane publications office and is editor of Alumline in Tulanian. He may be reached by e-mail at


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