WASHINGTON — When she calls, the president stops what he's doing and picks up the phone.
So do many world leaders, not to mention the first lady and the Secret Service.
She has a standing invitation to every US state dinner, and the clout to steer a 40-car motorcade through Washington rush-hour traffic.
And this week, US Chief of Protocol Mary Mel French's job is to ensure diplomatic harmony at perhaps the largest gathering of presidents, parliamentarians, and general pooh-bahs ever assembled: the 50th anniversary summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
For a few days, D.C. will be not just the capital of the free world, but the capital of free world egos. If Ambassador French has her way, none of them are going to get bent out of shape.
"It's been a massive undertaking," French says in an interview in her State Department office. "There are a lot of judgment calls."
As chief of protocol, French might be called the nation's highest-ranking Miss Manners. The post's task is to make sure that dignitaries are treated in the manner their position deserves, and that the president and other officials are aware of such niceties as the fact that some Asian cultures are offended if you show them the soles of your feet.
Not that her advice is always taken. During the Middle East peace talks held at Wye River, Md., in October, French informed President Clinton that some Mideast peoples do not always take kindly to dogs. Buddy, she said, should stay back at the White House.
The president took Buddy anyway. He was a big hit with all the negotiators.
French began her friendship with the Clintons more than 20 years ago. She joined Mr. Clinton's final gubernatorial campaign in 1990 at the "total bottom," and became acclimated to life on the 18- hour a day fast-track.
When her organizational skills became apparent, she moved up through the ranks, and was tapped as a co-director of President-elect Clinton's inaugural committee, an epic endeavor that gave her experience organizing large-scale gatherings.
"She's hyper-organized," says former White House Deputy Press Secretary Mary Ellen Glenn, and ready to spring into action at a moment's notice. Immediately following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for example, French jumped on the first available flight within hours to plan the president's attendance at the funeral.
She is also media-shy, which is something of a prerequisite for her sensitive job. She is so little known to the national media that during the first Middle East peace signing one news organization mistakenly identified her in a photograph as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's wife.
The soft-spoken Arkansas native with a Southern accent worked in the protocol office as assistant chief and deputy chief for close to four years before the Senate confirmed her nomination as protocol head.
She believes starting low and working her way up has made her better able to run the 60-person protocol staff. "It allows me to totally understand how the office works and how all the employees within protocol do their jobs," she says.
FRENCH'S knowledge of international protocol comes from on-the-job training, consultations with career State Department personnel, and frequent consultation of "Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage," the protocol world's bible.
She might be consulting the book many times this week. The NATO summit will bring more than 1,700 leaders, ministers and dignitaries from 44 NATO and Partnership for Peace nations along with their staffs, security teams, and motorcades into the nation's capital, not to mention more than 2,000 members of the media.
It's French's job to make sure it doesn't all turn to gridlock.
The coordination among dozens of local and federal government agencies has been endless. Secret Service and the Pentagon have taken "extensive" security precautions against what is being described as a heightened security environment.
So great is the anticipated impact of the visit on the city's infrastructure that 90,000 federal workers have been given the day off, lest they get stuck in massive limousine jams. Hotels in D.C., northern Virginia, and nearby Maryland are booked solid. All three of the regional airports, as well as nearby Andrews Air Force Base, will be used to fly in dignitaries.
Down to planning menus and buying the gifts the president presents to foreign guests, there is little in which French is not directly involved, including a recent practice run of more than 40 cars motorcading through town to give security and traffic officials a sense of the potential chaos.
Adding to the complexity of the logistical planning is the recent shift in the summit's tone. Originally conceived as a celebration, the event has been toned down, and called a commemoration, given the gravity of the alliance's undertaking in Yugoslavia. "It will be a serious, somber occasion which will show concern while highlighting NATO," French says.
French's past experience in planning mega-events has been invaluable in conceiving the blueprint for this NATO summit. She organized the Summit of the Americas in Miami for example, which brought together the leaders of Latin American countries. "Along with the Secret Service, we sat down and discussed how we could do that kind of thing better." With the lessons of that summit, French co-planned last year's 50th anniversary of the United Nations in New York.
Part of what makes French successful in dealing with the delicate nuances of her work, say recent co-workers, is her understanding of complex relationships within the White House and State Department, as well as with foreign leaders. Her access to and understanding of Bill and Hillary Clinton is also key.
It might not come as a comfort for French to know even the author of the protocol handbook, Pauline Innis, is overwhelmed thinking of the logistics and complexities of this week's undertaking. "It's very easy to screw things up," Ms. Innis says with a chuckle. "You have to have endless patience and a tremendous knowledge of history and good management abilities."