Club Fed

Last weekend the secretary of state flew down to the Caribbean for a couple of meetings. What does such a little official jaunt cost? Would you believe $40,000 -- and that's just for the rooms.

By Jeffrey Itell
Published April 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Like most Americans, I have never been a whiz at Caribbean geography -- my solution would be to rename the Caribbean islands in alphabetical order -- yet last weekend I found myself for the second time in three weeks in the country of Trinidad and Tobago. If you fire up your online encyclopedia, you will find the island of Trinidad seven miles off the Venezuelan coast. A few miles east lies the much smaller Tobago, the tropical paradise home of Robinson Crusoe.

Tobago is one of those unspoiled, unknown gems -- that is, until People magazine put the tiny island on the map. For this is the place where last December the Queen of CNN, Christiane Amanpour, became engaged to Jamie Rubin, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's press secretary and the Clinton administration's most eligible bachelor. The Clintonistas pushed this glam couple story hard. A Lexis-Nexis search shows over 50 articles referring to this Tobagan love story.

Now Rubin was back in Tobago with his boss, Albright, for a 36-hour visit -- a visit consisting of one 45-minute bilateral discussion with Trinidad and Tobago's Prime Minister Basdeo Panday. The meeting produced two agreements on environmental and energy cooperation that could have been signed in Trinidad. Although the State Department folks were reluctant to talk about why we were there, the local residents fed me the following story.

Rubin and Amanpour stayed at the Manta Lodge in the northern part of Tobago during their December visit. As they toured the tiny island, they discovered the five-star Le Grand Courlon Resort and Spa, the best hotel on the island. Rubin raved about the place to Albright, suggesting that she take an R&R break when she visited Trinidad for the annual Caricom Conference (an organization of Caribbean countries and the United States). Prime Minister Panday chuckled when he was asked to explain Albright's visit. "Someone must have told her about the beauty of Tobago," he said.

Air Albright left the United States for Haiti early Saturday morning, pausing long enough to chew out the Haitian government and watch a drug interdiction exercise (which turned out to be a real drug bust). Sensibly, she then returned to her jet to spend Saturday and Sunday nights in Tobago.

While the T&T government was delighted about Albright's visit, State Department officials were more circumspect. When asked why we were in Tobago, Jamie Rubin responded, "Oh no, not that question again. (Pause.) Tobago is a wonderful island. I'm glad to be here. I'm on the other side of the island this time." In an interview with the local newspaper, Newsday, Rubin called Tobago "his second home." Newsday reported that Amanpour hinted at purchasing a house in Tobago when she was there last year.

Albright deflected the same question with a combination of diplo-speak and a joke. "Our diplomats always go to just Trinidad when they visit this country. As the mother of twins, I like to treat them equally."

State Department ground troops were already in place when I arrived Friday night, April 3, in Tobago. Just like rich folks on the Titanic, secretaries of state do not travel lightly. More than 100 Americans came to Tobago to support the secretary (and catch rays by the beach while I typed). The first member of the State Department advance team arrived Sunday, March 29. Five more showed up the next day and a few more trickled in every day thereafter. By Saturday morning, Secret Service agents and State Department administrative staff were all over the Grand Courlon and adjacent Grafton Beach hotels.

One usually sees turbo-props and puddle-jumpers landing at Tobago's Crown Point International Airport, so the landing of British Airways' inaugural DC-9, followed minutes later by Air Albright at 6:15 p.m., caused quite a commotion. Albright's landing, though accompanied by little pomp and circumstance, was an important event -- no secretary of state had ever visited Tobago, according to my colleagues from the Trinidadian press.

A motorcade of nine cars and five 12-person passenger vans -- plus about 100 folks, some wearing blue blazers and tan slacks to make it easier to identify them as Americans -- waited on the tarmac as the passengers deplaned. About eight security agents preceded Albright off the front of the airplane, adding to those already working on the ground. The tarmac meet-and-greet was a quick hitter -- many handshakes and a couple of kisses. Meanwhile, somewhere between 40 and 50 people exited from the back into the waiting vans.

With that show over, we all headed over to the British Airways reception for a round of speeches, some finger food, rum punch and, presumably, sleep.

Albright began her Saturday with an early breakfast and a visit to St. Patrick's Anglican Church. On her return, she stopped in the hotel gift shop, which she left empty-handed. The earrings she wanted were made for pierced ears only. Tobago does not offer tourists much to buy, save for some pottery and batik clothing.

The secretary's next engagement was her bilateral discussion with the prime minister at 11, followed by a quick document signing and press conference. The show wrapped at 12:30. The prime minister hosted her for lunch -- which featured, according to the menu, callaloo soup, vegetable crêpe l'anse fourmi and a choice between chicken fantasia or poached mahi mahi in coconut sauce. After lunch, her schedule called for an afternoon of unspecified "private engagements," followed by an empty schedule. Most of the State Department folks knocked off for the afternoon and headed to the beach.

While it was strictly downtime for the secretary and the embassy staff, Trinidad and Tobago's industrial development and tourism organization shepherded the press to the Water Wheel -- a wildlife area -- for dinner and a cultural presentation. The State Department folks, scattered among different hotels, fended for themselves.

Government press officials should be wary of trips with too much downtime -- they give journalists too much time to think. I spent the afternoon trying to figure out how many people were supporting the secretary, how much it was costing the taxpayer and what these folks did.

The State Department had requested the entire 200-room Grand Courlon/Grafton Beach complex, but with British Airways direct flights to Tobago beginning almost simultaneously, hotel management was reluctant to give up that much space. Furthermore, April is still tourist season, room occupancy is high and Tobago offers only 2,000 hotel rooms. So State Department officials stayed in four different hotels.

Thirty-four lucky souls, including the secretary of state, stayed at Le Grand Courlon Resort and Spa, where garden rooms offer private hot tubs, suites feature Jacuzzis, and body massages, seaweed treatments and an entire Elizabeth Arden-type regimen is available. The regular room price for tourists during high season is $260 per night, but Uncle Sam paid only $200. Total cost for two nights? $13,600.

Thirty government employees stayed at the Grafton Beach Resort and 34 more at the Mount Irvine Bay Hotel. Regular price, $200; Uncle Sam's price, $162. Total cost: $20,736.

Thirty government peons stayed at the Palm Tree Village Hotel, where the regular price of $90 was discounted to $84, for a total of $5,040.

The total housing cost for State Department employees on Tobago for two nights was $39,376. And this was just for housing. For a fuller picture of the cost of this jaunt, add in the transportation and meal costs of State Department employees. And if you want to extend the numbers beyond the State Department, add the expenses for the 40 to 60 Trinidad officials who traveled to Tobago for the event and for the several dozen journalists sent there to cover it.

Watching the number of bodies accompanying the secretary of state is an awesome yet unbelievable experience. Although I spent four years working for an agency "attached" to the State Department, my imagination failed me when I tried to figure out what all these people were supposed to do. Thankfully, a number of State Department officials handed me the scorecard for the Team Albright players.

The Tobago hotels were filled with policy advisors on Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Caricom and the Caribbean. Haitian advisors who boarded Air Albright in Washington, D.C., completed the entire trip, though they had no duties in Tobago. Other policy and national security officials travel with the secretary in the event a crisis causes her to cut her trip short.

Advance teams scoped out locations, coordinated with counterparts and made sure the secretary could hit the ground running.

Officials from the Agency for International Development and the United States Information Service, who are responsible for press and cultural affairs, always travel with the secretary.

The secretary is also accompanied by her personal staff -- secretary, executive assistants, protocol officers and so forth. Plus Jamie Rubin leads a public affairs team.

A large communications team establishes secure telephone and radio connections. Staff uses the telephones to connect the secretary to the world. Radios provide onsite security. Unfortunately, the communications team had to ditch the cellular telephones brought for use at Le Grand Courlon because of signal interference.

Security folks were naturally crawling all over the place, even hanging out by the pool in full dress with those crinkly ear wires. German shepherds were ubiquitous. Marine guards, who are easy to spot with their closely shaved hair, were also present.

Then there were the general administrative folks who take care of schedules and "stuff"; the embassy officials brought in to supervise ground motorcades and other surface transportation; the air crew, who have to coordinate with their in-country counterparts; and additional bodies to make sure nothing goes wrong. Please forgive me if I have forgotten anyone.

Team Albright repeated this effort for the secretary's brief stay in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, on Monday. Air Albright departed at 7 a.m. and landed in Trinidad at 7:35. The secretary began discussions at the Hilton Hotel with her Caricom counterparts at 8:30. Talks ended at 11 with the obligatory signing of documents, and the joint press conference occurred at 11:30. The secretary lunched with her Trinidad and Tobago counterpart at 12:15 p.m. and Air Albright went wheels up for Washington, D.C., at 2.

During my years of government-subsidized travel -- and I've got a tchotchke closet, courtesy of Club Fed, that's a shrine to government per diem -- my colleagues and I would often try to make our travel accommodations work out for us. If I had to travel to Brussels one week and Paris the next, it was too bad that it was cheaper to spend the weekend in Paris than fly home to Frankfurt. However, we (and especially our supervisors) were always careful that our travel plans met the smell test. The secretary is burdened with a well-organized but expensive flying circus. Not to begrudge Albright her rare days of leisure, but I wonder how many citizens would think this trip passed that test.

Jeffrey Itell

Jeffrey Itell is the editor of dc.story, an e-mail magazine, and a freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C.

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