UBToday Online Alumni Magazine -Spring 1997
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good golly, miss molly

Molly Raiser, '79, completes her tour of duty as the U.S. chief of protocol -quite possibly the best job in the world

Yitzhak Rabin reached across and clasped the hand that Yasser Arafat offered. It was a handshake that sent people into the streets, rejoicing at the first sign of peace in the Middle East. It was a thrilling moment for Molly Raiser, too, who had a close-up view of the ceremony. But this historic handshake, decades in the making, meant something else, too: Lunch was about to start, and she'd better get moving.

Molly Raiser That famous ceremony in September 1993 was Molly Raiser's first responsibility as U.S. chief of protocol. "I think it was the day after I was officially sworn in. I went out at four in the morning to greet the Israelis as they came in, and then greeted everybody at the White House and helped organize the ceremony and the luncheon afterward at the State Department-I mean, talk about trial by fire!" She laughs at the memory.

Raiser, who earned her master's degree in American studies from UB in 1979, stepped down from her State Department post this summer. As she reminisces about the past four years of her life, recounting historic moments and conversations with kings, she laughs often and easily. Indeed, without a sense of humor, any aspiring chief of protocol might as well give up before even starting. That's assuming, of course, that the average American even knows what a protocol chief is. Raiser now describes it as "intrinsically the best job in Washington, if not the world." But when she got "the call" early in the Clinton administration, her first response was "Chief of what?" Pressed to sum up what she and her staff of 50 did, Raiser says simply, "We were there to make everybody feel at home and to prevent anything from going wrong."

The advisor to the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state on all matters of domestic and foreign protocol, Raiser was also the chief liaison between some 160 foreign ambassadors and the president. In other words, as the Washington Post once put it, she was "the mother hen of the diplomatic corps." An engaging, energetic, easy going woman, Raiser is predictably diplomatic. When asked if an ambassador or foreign minister ever gave her a hard time, she laughs and says, "I'm not going to answer that question!" Perhaps a revealing anecdote about French president Jacques Chirac-or any other head of state? Not a chance. Okay then, could she talk about any goofs she made? "In protocol," Raiser says with some delight, "we don't do mistakes and we don't do disasters."

On any given week in the past four years, you might have found Raiser flying to Sarajevo to scout out potential sites for the president's next trip, meeting with her protocol counterparts and nailing down details with the Secret Service. Or maybe she was back in Washington, briefing the ambassadors about a trip the president just took. Or overseeing the formal presentation of ambassadorial credentials-a grand ceremony held every other month in the Oval Office.

Another week, you'd have found Raiser making arrangements for Boris Yeltsin's next stay at the presidential guest house. Or running a meeting for then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher, consulting with embassy officials about a diplomat caught shoplifting, or choosing a gift for Hillary Clinton to give to a prime minister's wife.

As chief of protocol, Molly Raiser was often one of the primary representatives of the United States to a foreign country. Caught up in a whirlwind of details, Raiser sometimes had to remind herself how fortunate she was to be in such a position. Other times, she needed no reminder.

"I was sitting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, talking with King Hussein, President Mubarak, Prime Minister Rabin, and Mr. Arafat," Raiser recounts. "And I said, 'You know, I'm sitting here with four of the most important people in the world right now.' They gave me some grief about that; King Hussein was so cute-he said, 'I think, gentlemen, that Molly is trying to tell us that meeting us each individually was no big deal for her.'" Raiser laughs. "I thought that was kind of charming."

It's a safe bet that Raiser could never have predicted that one day she'd describe a king as "cute." In some ways, however, her background did prepare her for her job in protocol. The daughter of the late Robert I. Millonzi, a prominent Buffalo attorney, former UB Council chair and community leader, Raiser was brought up to believe in the importance of "engaging life, of loving it and meeting it head-on." Her parents taught her to have faith in herself, to believe that she could do anything she set her mind to.

Raiser traveled in Europe with her family and was exposed to the world of adults from an early age. Her father was a longtime patron of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and he often hosted receptions at their home. "We had Van Cliburn come to the house, and Isaac Stern," Raiser remembers. "So I was used to shaking hands and looking people in the eye and carrying on conversations."

The role models Raiser had growing up served her well; both she and her husband, a businessman and lawyer, were active supporters of political and cultural organizations in Buffalo and, later, in Washington. It was through campaign fund-raising and parent-teacher associations, in fact, that Raiser first met her future boss, Bill Clinton.

While her community work gave her experience in dealing with many different kinds of people, Raiser's academic studies narrowed the focus to ethnic differences in the inner city. At UB, she met and became friends with Mike Frisch, former chair of the American studies department and now its director of graduate studies, and wrote her master's thesis on the economic development of Buffalo. Her interest in inner-city ethnicity then took her to George Washington University, where she enrolled in a doctoral program.

In her own words, she was blessed for 50 years. Her childhood had been stimulating, her life with her husband and two children happy and fulfilling. Just as her parents had hoped, Raiser had successfully "engaged" life.

But then came "the horror." In 1992, Raiser's husband and son were killed in a plane crash in Alaska. Nothing could have prepared her for such "total desolation." It is a testament to her upbringing that Raiser was able to suffer the loss without losing her enthusiasm for life.

"The first thing my mother said to me was, 'Molly, there will be life after death for you and Skye [her daughter, now 30],'" Raiser remembers. "You have to meet life head-on. You just get up every morning and you get on with it."

In a way, she says, the loss was liberating: "You feel, 'I've paid my dues in this life. And if someone doesn't like me, tough.' Things happen, and then you move on." That attitude helped her recover-and it certainly proved valuable one year later, when she went to work for the president.

"I was privileged to have been asked to be on the official delegation to Rabin's funeral," Raiser says. "I went up to Mrs. Rabin and gave her a big hug, and I told her, 'You know, life will go on, and you will learn to live with this.' And she said, 'Well, coming from you, that means something.'"

As she resigns from her post this year, Raiser notes that it is also the fifth anniversary of the plane crash. Now almost 55, she is ready to start living a normal life again. What's normal? "I want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, explore the Silk Route, and hike in New Zealand," she says, consciously quoting herself from a Washington Post interview. "I want to work on democratization projects abroad and to help women's groups. And I want to write my dissertation, which will probably be on foreign relations in the Clinton White House."

But can she stand it? After the exotic places she's gone and the important people she's met, after witnessing history-making events and hobnobbing with kings and queens, can Raiser really want the kind of life the rest of us have? "Yes, I do-believe me, I want a normal life!" she says, laughing. "Going out to Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday afternoons is wonderful, but four years of it is enough."

Clare O'Shea, M.A. '87 & B.A. '84, is copy chief for Barnes & Noble's recently launched Web site.

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