The Strategy Behind Presidential Trips

President Obama is visiting a number of cultural sites during his Asia trip, but is also skipping some spots that may be considered too sensitive. NPR's Melissa Block talks with Anne Edwards, former special assistant and director of press advance for President Clinton, about the strategy and negotiations behind presidential visits to foreign countries.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now, earlier this year, it was thought that President Obama would pay a visit to Menteng and to his old elementary school there. But, as we mentioned, his Indonesia trip was postponed twice. And this time around, the school is not on the president's agenda.

While Mr. Obama and his wife were in India over the weekend, they did pay a visit to Holy Name High School in Mumbai, taking part in their Diwali celebrations. But they did not visit the Golden Temple, the most sacred of Sikh sites.

To visit or not to visit? That question falls in part to the president's advance team. Anne Edwards was director of Press Advance for President Bill Clinton. She also worked in the Carter White House. And she says behind every presidential trip are thousands of conversations.

Ms. ANNE EDWARDS (Former Director, Press Advance, White House): The discussion starts way, way, way back from the people who are driving particular policies, in charge of particular relationships, all the way through different departments, embassies, of is he coming here? Is he coming here? Well, not this trip. It's a huge conversation that goes on for a very long time.

BLOCK: There are, of course, classic examples of visits that have gone awry. I'm thinking of President Reagan's visit to Bitburg Cemetery, which became hugely controversial because, of course, German soldiers buried in that cemetery, among them Waffen-SS soldiers.

How do you navigate those shoals when a visit is planned and maybe a mistake has been made and you realize you have to not undo it but figure out a way to finesse it?

Ms. EDWARDS: Well, every president has a point he's trying to make on behalf of the policy of the United States. And if you have something happen that flies in the face of or contradicts or damages that, you simply explain it. You go out front, you go out quickly, and you explain it.

Does it happen? Sure. There are a lot of humans involved. But there is the most painstaking, constant scrubbing process going on, the widest conversation you can imagine to try to avoid exactly that. And if you're really listening to your own people, really listening to them, that should puncture through the noise. I can think of a thousand times of near misses because somebody spoke up, thank God.

BLOCK: This also was a problem when President Clinton visited China in 1998. And human rights groups had urged him not to open that state visit in Tiananmen Square, where there was of course the massacre in 1989. But following Chinese protocol, he did take part in the ceremony there.

Help us understand what was going on behind the scenes and the kinds of discussions you were having.

Ms. EDWARDS: There was a decision made that we needed to move forward with China, not instead ignoring anything that had ever happened in the past. But they're too big. They're too important. And we - that by participating in ceremonies, did not take anything away from the stance we were making on human rights, on democratic principles and the other statements we made.

BLOCK: Do you remember thinking at the time, this is going to be controversial no matter what we do?

Ms. EDWARDS: Oh, I didn't have to think that at the time. We knew that. We knew that. And we knew that we had to go into it explaining exactly why. You take brave stands sometimes. You take brave stands.

BLOCK: When you're thinking about a presidential visit to a foreign country, what are advance people thinking about in terms of the visuals that emerge, the lasting image that's left from a trip like that?

Ms. EDWARDS: Sometimes you're looking for two. You're trying to find one that's going to mean everything to the people in the host country, that you're serious about respecting them and you're serious about the work you're doing when you're there. And then you're trying to find one that speaks to the people of this country, that it really does matter when a president goes to visit a place. It really does have a lasting impact.

It might be just another clip blown by and kids dancing, but there really is an awful lot of important, productive discussion. Things are happening. Things are being created. Things are growing. Things are being cemented, affirmed, discovered. An enormous amount happens during a presidential trip, and you're trying to find the one way to capture people's attention to understand that. It's not easy.

I know one of my favorite examples is when President Clinton turned on the lights on the Christmas tree on a dark night in Belfast to the first crowd ever there, in generations, of Catholic and Protestant Northern Irish. And the light went on in the darkness and it electrified everybody.

BLOCK: Anne Edwards, thanks very much for talking with us.

Ms. EDWARDS: My honor, Melissa.

BLOCK: Anne Edwards worked as the director of Press Advance for President Bill Clinton.

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