Swarms of motorcades to descend on Washington for NATO summit

50 processions, 550 cars are expected in capital for three-day meeting

April 23, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Gentlemen, start your limousines.

The 50th anniversary of NATO this weekend is attracting the largest summit of world leaders in Washington's history -- as well as an enormous swarm of motorcades. With sirens wailing and little flags flapping from the corners of midnight-black sedans, about 50 motorcades, with a total of about 550 cars, will crisscross city streets during the three-day affair.

World leaders agree at least on this: Everybody loves a motorcade. The tinted-glass processions are a must for any appearance on the world stage this weekend. Even tiny Luxembourg gets one.

For six months, the Secret Service, city police and the U.S. military prepared for the mobilization of world leaders, with meetings, maps and drills. Some of the 450 soldiers who will serve as official Cadillac chauffeurs (and luggage carriers) have been making practice runs around the suburbs in shiny new limousines.

Washington, no stranger to motorcades, contends it is ready to roll.

"We do this all the time," said police Cmdr. Michael Radzilowski, who heads the department's Special Operations Division. "There's a knack to it. It's what we do."

Foreign dignitaries each will ride in a roughly 10-car motorcade, which is assigned Secret Service battle wagons with flashing lights, as well as city police and U.S. Park Police escorts. Only President Clinton -- the ultimate motorcader -- gets six police motorcycles, too.

To be sure, even with all the VIPs zipping everywhere, there will be little to see except traffic. The speeding cars, with their dark windows closed tight, usually do not allow bystanders to catch even a glimpse of official flesh -- though some observers have occasionally claimed to have spotted the pouf of Clinton's hair through his limousine.

Not everyone inside the motorcades will exactly be a NATO big-leaguer. To try to avoid the -snarled streets and congested parking lots, some non-NATO officials will hitchhike lifts on friendly motorcades. The abundance of motorcades poses some delicate questions: If multiple motorcades reach a summit meeting all at once, who goes first? (The country first in English alphabetical order.)

But if the same thing happens outside a NATO party? (The one holding the most senior VIP enters the driveway first.)

And when the day is over, what does the motorcade do en route to the hotel? (Phone the concierge to hold the elevator.)

Motorcades follow a strict set of security rules. The "package" -- the protected diplomat -- travels near the front, in an armored car. A tail car is given the most responsibility: When the motorcade changes lanes, the last car in line moves first, and the rest follow. The last car also has to keep the motorcade tight, making sure that no motorcade wannabes cut in.

"You can't be timid when you're driving in a motorcade," said Ramon Wallace, special events manager at Carey Limousine, which staffed the International Monetary Fund conference last year and increased its fleet to provide back-up for NATO. "Especially with the Secret Service. They're going lights and siren, and you've got to catch up to them if they lose you."

International limo companies like Carey were eager to strut their stuff for NATO. After shuttling actor Jimmy Smits and the Rolling Stones last year, Wallace said, he is ready for some world leaders. But unfortunately for Carey, NATO will not prove much of a moneymaker. The Secret Service will handle most of the limousines, for security reasons.

But some companies managed to get in on the motorcade act. General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler donated about 350 cars and minivans for backup staff. The exposure comes at a price: The brand-new cars will be sold as used after the weekend.

The car donations sound like valuable advertising for an important audience. But the companies insist they are just trying to be good corporate citizens.

"You don't get a great deal of visibility from doing a thing like this -- no one wanted it to look commercial," said Nicole Solomon, a spokeswoman for Daimler-Chrysler.

Motorcades have long been a Washington fixture. The city even boasts motorcade trivia: Car company executives know that Clinton is chauffeured in a Cadillac (GM), while President Ronald Reagan was driven in a Lincoln Town Car (Ford). The Secret Service periodically selects new state-of-the-art limousines from among several bids.

A single motorcade is hard enough to manage. But multiple motorcades?

"A nightmare," said Joseph Verner Reed, the former protocol chief from the Bush administration. "Everything has to work like clockwork."

And then one of the motorcade cars can always break down.

"That happened to Bush in Fez in Morocco," Reed said, adding that Bush was surrounded by security and was swept into a spare limousine in the procession. "That was a lulu!"

Motorcades are not just a security challenge but also a potential protocol disaster.

"I really have to stop and concentrate," said Mary Mel French, protocol chief at the State Department. "Like, how many cars are supposed to be in a motorcade, and which ones are peeling off and going in a different direction once they arrive at their destination and, well, you really have to keep your composure when you're dealing with it all."

Motorcade veterans offer their own wisdom to the NATO crowd.

"Just be sure you can see far enough ahead so you don't end up with three motorcades converging on one intersection at one time," said James Symington, protocol chief in the Johnson White House.

And, as if NATO did not have enough to worry about, Symington offers this parting memory:

"I remember one motorcade I was in got tied up this car drove up to a brick wall, and somehow we had to figure out how to back out of there. Everybody just stood there scratching their head. I still wonder -- how did that happen?"

Pub Date: 4/23/99

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