At Clinton library event, ex-White House staffers share memories of diplomatic visits

Panelists at presidential center recount diplomatic visits

Stephanie Streett (from right), executive director of the Clinton Foundation, speaks as Sharon Farmer, former White House photographer and Capricia Marshall, former White House social secretary, look on Friday during opening night of the “Be Our Guest” exhibit at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
Stephanie Streett (from right), executive director of the Clinton Foundation, speaks as Sharon Farmer, former White House photographer and Capricia Marshall, former White House social secretary, look on Friday during opening night of the “Be Our Guest” exhibit at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)


Rock singer Lou Reed nearly caused chandeliers to crash to the floor when he performed at the White House during a 1998 state dinner.

The then-president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, requested the rocker specifically because it was Reed's music that inspired him to become a political dissident who stood against an authoritarian regime.

The chandeliers were shaking while Reed and his band rehearsed prior to the dinner, Capricia Marshall, who was the White House social secretary at the time, said at an event Friday at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.

First lady Hillary Clinton looked at the shaking chandeliers, then looked at Marshall, who at that moment knew she had to tell Reed to reduce his volume.

The unenviable task of telling Havel's hero and the invited guest of her boss, then-President Bill Clinton, to turn down his amplifiers was one of the many stories that Marshall and others shared during a panel discussion at the presidential library.

The event kicked off a new exhibition, "Be Our Guest," that includes videos, gifts from world leaders, official correspondence and other items related to diplomatic visits to the White House by foreign leaders during the Clinton administration.

Friday's discussion, which lasted more than an hour and was meant to share behind-the-scenes moments from such visits, was interrupted five times by pro-Palestinian activists, many of whom stood up in the middle of the audience with their hands painted red chanting, "Cease fire, now!"

After security escorted a few out of the room, a few more would stand up and start chanting.

One of the protesters wore a shirt that read "Jews for Palestine," and another wore one that read "Not In Our Name."

Bill Clinton was scheduled to appear and introduce the panel, but he was visiting an ailing friend on the East Coast. He did record an opening statement, which had to be restarted due to the activists' disruptions.

In addition to Marshall, the panel included Nancy Soderberg, a deputy assistant to Clinton for national security affairs, and former White House photographer Sharon Farmer.

The discussion was moderated by Clinton Foundation Executive Director Stephanie Streett, who herself was an assistant to the president and director of scheduling during the Clinton administration.

Farmer said when she first started taking photographs in the White House, she realized she was meeting people, hearing conversations and witnessing the type of interactions that aren't shown on television. It was a lot to take in for a young woman who had grown up in the inner city.

"I'm from southeast [Washington] D.C.," she joked. "Do they know where I'm from?"

She realized from the outset that her job was an important one. She was a chronicler inside one of the most consequential buildings in the world.

"Everything we did was historical," she said.

"Everybody did their job. ... Everybody knew what was at stake."

Soderberg spoke about Yitzak Rabin, former Israeli prime minister, who grimaced through the handshake he had with the Palestinian leader at the time, Yasser Arafat, during a dinner at the White House.

While she spoke of that historical moment, the pro-Palestinian activists who had been escorted out of the room earlier were assembled outside, protesting.

Most of the stories shared by the panelists were on the lighter side.

Marshall spoke a lot more about her interactions with Reed.

When she had to gingerly walk up to Reed and ask him to have his band play at a lower volume, the former Velvet Underground frontman was indignant.

"Are you asking me to change my art? Change the craft?" Marshall recalled him telling her.

It wasn't merely the chandeliers that Marshall had to consider. There would be people sitting underneath those chandeliers. It was a face-off she wasn't expecting -- and one she couldn't afford to lose because the safety of the attendees seemed to be at stake.

Reed, who had threatened to leave over the suggestion of playing softer, asked Marshall whether his band mates could take part in the dinner. Marshall had not provided enough space for the band.

Without skipping a beat, Marshall told Reed, "I set up these tables. ... Are you telling me to change my art?"

Reed knew he had been checkmated. The two reached a compromise -- table space for the band mates in exchange for a quieter set.

Streett also described her encounters with Reed during the same event. He wasn't the only famous rocker in attendance. Former lead singer and songwriter of The Cars, Ric Ocasek, also was a guest -- and both he and Reed wanted a cigarette.

Reed was the first to ask. Streett told him that the White House was a "smoke-free campus." Reed wasn't going to compromise this time and told Streett, "You don't understand, I can't play unless I have a cigarette," she recalled.

It was at that time that Ocasek spoke up and told Streett that if Reed gets to smoke, he should get to smoke, she said.

Streett ushered them to an out-of-the-way location, next to a trash bin, so the two rockers could have their cigarettes.

Before they reentered the dining room, Streett told them to wash their hands because they reeked of smoke. They did so.

Streett confirmed that Reed and his band still played loudly enough for the chandeliers to rattle, but everyone -- including Havel -- safely enjoyed the show.


  photo  Visitors tour the “Be Our Guest” exhibit during its opening night Friday at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)