Obituary: Joseph Verner Reed Jr, UN undersecretary who presided over infamous diplomatic gaffe

Joseph Verner Reed Jr, right, with President George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev at a 1990 summit in Washington

Joseph Verner Reed Jr, right, with President George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev at a 1990 summit in Washington

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Joseph Verner Reed Jr, undersecretary for four UN secretaries-general. Born 17 December, 1937 in Manhattan. Died 6 October, 2016, in Conneticut, aged 78

Joseph Verner Reed Jr, who was undersecretary for four secretaries-general of the United Nations and, as chief of protocol under President George Bush, presided over one of the more colorful diplomatic gaffes in recent history, has died in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Fraser P Seitel, a friend and former colleague at Chase Manhattan Bank, said the cause was a heart attack.

Reed began his long career at the United Nations in 1985, after four years as ambassador to Morocco under President Ronald Reagan. He began as US representative to the organisation’s Economic and Social Council, where he was responsible for African issues, and later held the rank of undersecretary-general serving Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kofi Annan and the current secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, who appointed him as special adviser in 2007.

His enthusiasm for the United Nations — his license plate read “USA-UN” — occasionally led to conflict with Reagan, who regarded the organisation with a cold eye. At a UN lunch in September 1988, Reed warned Reagan that unless the United States paid its back dues, he ran the risk of being known as the president who closed the doors on the organisation.

Two months later, when the State Department barred Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, from entering the United States to address the General Assembly, Reed sent a scolding letter to the president, saying that the move would cause “incalculable damage to the United States’ credibility in the world arena”.

Reed absented himself from the United Nations for two years when the first President Bush, whose parents had been close friends of his parents in Connecticut, appointed him chief of protocol in 1989.

He threw himself into the job, much of it involving the care and handling of resident diplomats and foreign heads of state visiting Washington. New ambassadors delighted at the flourish of trumpets, waving of flags and presidential one-on-one that now constituted the official greeting package.

“It used to be a 30-second in and out with just a quick handshake,” Reed said in 1989. “Now it’s a warm welcome by the leader of the free world and the first lady of the land.”

Exuberance sometimes led him astray. He told an audience at Hofstra University in 1997, jokingly, that he had committed more gaffes than any other chief of protocol in the history of the US.

“I flew flags upside down, I flew the wrong flags, I’ve had the wrong national anthems playing — I’ve done everything wrong,” he said.

Most memorable was the affair of the talking hat. In May 1991, Queen Elizabeth II, at the start of an official visit, stepped up to a lectern on the White House lawn to deliver a few remarks. Unfortunately, the lectern was sized for the president, who was eight inches taller than the queen, and her face was hidden behind a cluster of microphones.

“You literally could not see her face as she spoke; just the hat bobbing up and down,” Barbara Bush wrote in her memoirs.When one newspaper ran a photograph of the event with the caption “The Talking Hat,” the slip-up entered the annals of diplomacy. His boss, although furious at the time, ultimately overlooked the episode, calling him “the ideal chief of protocol — perhaps the finest in modern history.”

Joseph Verner Reed Jr grew up in Greenwich, Manhattan. His father, Joseph Sr, spent much of the family’s oil and mining riches backing Broadway shows. He also helped found the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut. His mother, the former Permelia Pryor, devoted herself to charitable causes.

Reed earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1961. While at Yale, he married Marie Byers, known as Mimi. She died in 2015. He is survived by their two daughters, Serena Reed Kusserow and Electra Reed; a brother, Nathaniel; and four grandchildren.

After Yale, Reed served two years as private secretary to Eugene R Black, the president of the World Bank. In 1963, he became the chief of staff to David Rockefeller, the chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank. In 1979, Rockefeller handed him the unenviable task of bringing the deposed shah of Iran to the United States. He left Chase in 1981 to become ambassador to Morocco.

As chief of protocol, Reed helped organise the ceremonies surrounding the summit meeting between Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in June 1990, as well as numerous meetings between Bush and Prime Minister John Major of Britain, President François Mitterrand of France and other world leaders.

“Protocol is what keeps the architecture of international diplomacy in place,” Reed said in 1990. “Without it, you’d have chaos. It isn’t a question of which fork to use – that plays a minor role. What is very important is the framework in which the host government and the visiting government conduct state business.”

Reed never quite outlived the Talking Hat imbroglio. In 1993, representing the United Nations, he dined on the royal yacht Britannia in Cyprus and once again encountered the queen.

She remembered him. In an interview last year, he recalled that she suddenly pointed to him and said: “You should have the Talking Hat on your tombstone.”

Copyright New York Times 2016. Distributed by NYT Syndication Services

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