When the Group of 20 summit kicks off in Pittsburgh on Thursday, Michelle Obama will be front and center as hostess extraordinaire. It is her first major international meet-and-greet in the U.S. and her moment to shine. Preparations for the extravaganza have been whispered, written about, and rehearsed for months. The Bridge City was picked as the venue because the sooty steel mill town has totally reinvented itself— according to the president, it is a “world-class” town “that has transformed itself, after some very tough times, into a city that’s competing in the world economy.”
A former deputy chief of protocol says that no matter how dire the circumstance or glitch, you simply press on. “You just pedal through like mad,” she says. “You cover, cover, cover, and smile, smile, smile.”
In a situation fraught with endless possibilities for things to go wrong, the protocol office has been working 24/7. Every motorcade has been timed to the minute, the roads are prepared for gridlock, the airport is geared for 35 to 45 private planes to land and take off, and credentials have been scrutinized and distributed—yet somehow, bathrooms have become the buzz du jour.
“That’s the word around town,” says a well-placed denizen “The Secret Service is worried that there aren’t enough bathrooms for all these heads of state and their entourage.”
• More Daily Beast G-20 coverage• Gallery: First Lady Face-Off Events, which have been carefully calibrated to showcase Michelle’s interest in the arts, environment, education, and architecture, start Thursday night, when the first couple welcomes leaders and their spouses to an elegant reception in the landmark Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, A gift to the city from steel magnate Henry Phipps in 1893, the glass-and-metal Victorian structure has been added to and expanded and is known as the “green heart of Pittsburgh.”
The president and his counterparts will stay on for a working dinner to deal with the global financial turmoil and promote economic stability, while Michelle launches the well-orchestrated two-day spousal program at Rosemont Farm, the pastoral home of Teresa Heinz, a leading environmentalist and philanthropist and the wife Senator John Kerry. A 25-minute drive from downtown in verdant Fox Chapel, Rosemont is a working farm with a old barn, flower and vegetable gardens, chickens and cows, and an occasional sheep grazing in nearby fields.
In the back of the house, with a view over the hills, a flower-filled tent with festive lights will seat the 18 wives of the G-20 heads of state. Two male spouses have declined to attend: Joachim Sauer, husband of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a quantum chemist who eschews publicity and stayed home; and Nestor Kirchner, former president of Argentina, who tagged along with his wife, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, but made dinner plans of his own.
The Pittsburgh Philharmonic Orchestra’s Jazz Trio will be on hand to provide music throughout the evening.
The meal, catered by super chef Bob Sendall of All in Good Taste, who is known for foolproof soufflés and jumbo lump crab cakes, is top secret. No one will spill the beans—literally—except some of Heinz’s fresh organic veggies or free-range chicken might make it to the table. Or maybe Michelle will opt for Sendall’s most sought-after item: Toffee Taboo—thin sheets of Belgian dark chocolate with toffee cashews and almonds, a salty sweet dessert he has been concocting for years. (Before the summit even started, one unidentified dignitary requested pancakes from Pamela’s Diner. During a campaign stop in 2008, the president made a pit stop at Pamela’s and called the pancakes “outstanding.” Because of the massive security, the restaurant hasn’t a clue about how it will manage to get the pancakes to the customer, but they’ll be ready for delivery, as requested, on Friday morning.)
While international leaders confer in the nearby David L. Lawrence Convention Center, musical stars will shine on Friday when Michelle stewards the wives to the city’s Creative and Performing Arts School for a concert, class, and interactive performance with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, country music’s Trisha Yearwood, and singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles. This stellar group will also drop in on other classes and watch some rehearsals. Then they and the spouse group will trek over to the museum named for native son Andy Warhol, which features seven floors of iconic Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s soup cans, and Brillo boxes, along with other famous works of art, for lunch and the opportunity to silkscreen one of Warhol’s colorful flower images on a souvenir tote bag.
Apparently the famed pop artist squirreled away 600 sealed time capsules, each containing a variety of contemporary objects, to be opened at specific times. During the tour, the museum’s director plans to open one and reveal its contents for the visiting VIPs. It boggles the mind to contemplate how security, or protocol, or anyone else could possibly anticipate or prepare for the outcome of this unusual event.
Could there possibly be some sort of Plan B?
Bunny Murdoch, a former deputy chief of protocol, says that no matter how dire the circumstance or glitch, you simply press on. “You just pedal through like mad,” she says. “You cover, cover, cover, and smile, smile, smile.”
Whatever the result of the summit, for Michelle it will have been an opportunity to further imprint her unique style and taste and highlight her distinctive image.
As White House social secretary Desiree Rogers has said, “We have the best brand on earth. The Obama brand. Our possibilities are endless.”
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She writes for The Washington Post, Time and Forbes.