On the Eve of Another Summit, Joseph Reed Is the Man of Every Hour

updated 06/04/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/04/1990 01:00AM

How can you even raise that question?" says Joseph Reed, throwing up his hands in mock horror. Reed, the U.S. Chief of Protocol, has been working day and night for weeks to make certain every detail is in place for this week's summit meeting between President Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—and he does not take kindly to even the mention of the word "rain." The weather, he somewhat grudgingly acknowledges, is the one variable he cannot control.

As the White House protocol boss, Reed, 52, is Uncle Sam's Mister Manners—and Washington's host on high. It is his job to make sure there are no stubbed toes in the delicate dance otherwise known as diplomacy. Reed serves as liaison between the U.S. and the more than 110,000 foreign officials and their dependents living and working in this country. But his primary duty is to be a kind of welcome wagon for visiting heads of state. Last month, for example, he squired the Presidents of Bolivia and Tunisia and the Prime Minister of Jamaica around the nation's capital. Lately, however, he has had Moscow on his mind.

In the weeks leading up to the summit, Reed often met twice a day with his Soviet counterparts, handling questions as diverse as whether Gorbachev will need Secret Service protection (he will) to whether a fully loaded Ilyushin 76—roughly the size of a C-17 transport plane—can fly nonstop from Minneapolis to San Francisco (it can, easily). "There's a lot of moving parts to this one," Reed says of the summit. "But, in real terms, it is a state visit to Washington, and we will provide the standard package."

The "standard package" includes the following: a While House welcoming ceremony with a 21-gun salute; a state dinner at the White House, to which 14 members of the official Soviet delegation are invited; after-dinner entertainment, which an additional nine members of the delegation may attend; four limousines for the duration of the summit; plus a battery of interpreters. "The beauty of a state visit," says Reed, "is that the guidelines have been honed over the years."

This may all sound like grand fun, but Reed sees his job as serious business. "Protocol," he says, "is what keeps the architecture of international diplomacy in place. Without it, you'd have chaos. It isn't a question of which fork to use—that plays a minor role. What is very important is the framework in which the host government and the visiting government conduct state business."

Whenever a dignitary comes calling on the President, Reed concerns himself with every detail and nuance, even down to the flower arrangements. His assistants are schooled to screen the bouquets for unintended insults: Chrysanthemums are associated with mourning in some cultures, while yellow blooms may imply jealousy. Gorbachev and his retinue will put their own mark on the black-tie state dinners, to which men usually wear tuxedos. "The Soviets don't own such an item," says Reed. Instead, they will show up in dark suits, known as tenue de ville.

If Reed had his way, nothing whatsoever would be left to chance. For each visit, his 70-member staff publishes a finely tuned schedule, including names and titles of the entire delegation (complete with pronunciation), the order of cars in the motorcade and a list of who's riding in which car, as well as a down-to-the-minute timetable of arrival and departure, which cannot be altered without risking Reed's wrath. "Protocol is punctuality," he likes to declare.

That's sometimes easier said than done. Recently, Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso came here on a state visit. Reed timed his trip to Andrews Air Force Base so he could climb aboard the plane as soon as it landed. En route, however, he learned that the plane had arrived ahead of time. "This is what I would call a crisis," said Reed. "It's going to require creative diplomacy." By the time he arrived at Andrews, the Congolese visitors had deplaned and boarded helicopters. No matter. Reed arranged with the chopper pilots for a special airborne tour of the capital—which took just long enough to put the visit back on schedule.

The Chief of Protocol's job is as tailored to Reed as one of his Savile Row suits. A descendant of Edward Doty, a servant who arrived on the Mayflower, Reed is the grandson of Verner Reed, who amassed a fortune first in oil, then in gold. He grew up in Greenwich, Conn., where his parents were friends with the President's parents, Prescott and Dorothy Bush.

Like the President, Reed went to Yale and in 1959 married Marie "Mimi" Byers, now 51, the daughter of an upper-crust Pennsylvania family. The couple have two grown daughters, Serena and Electra. After graduating, Reed worked for the World Bank, then spent almost two decades at the Chase Manhattan Bank, eventually becoming a vice president and personal assistant to Chairman David Rockefeller. In 1979 Rockefeller asked Reed to help arrange for the ailing Shah of Iran to enter the U.S. Two years later President Reagan made Reed Ambassador to Morocco; in 1987 he became the United Nations' highest-ranking American, when he was appointed Undersecretary General for Political and General Assembly Affairs.

Some friends have wondered why Reed—who lives with his wife in Washington's Watergate apartments but also has an elegant estate in Connecticut—gave up a substantive job at the U.N. to be Bush's $83,600-a-year Chief of Protocol last year. But anyone who has seen Reed fully unfurled at a state dinner knows that he relishes the role of all-seeing impresario. "He brings something very unusual to the job," says Barbara Bush. "Ambassador Reed treats the bag carrier the same way he does the President. Everybody loves him."

Reed never takes personal credit for his successes, which would, of course, be bad form. But there is little doubt that he's the star behind the scene. "People think of protocol as being somewhat frivolous," says William Black, Reed's deputy in charge of visits. "But it is substance." What's more, continues Black, "if you were to call central casting and ask for a chief of protocol, they would send Joseph Verner Reed."

—William Plummer, Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.

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