So you're having the prime minister of India over for dinner and everything appears to be going beautifully in spite of that crack you made about the Taj Mahal not quite fitting into your camera frame the way you expected. Conversation is flowing along and the visitors seem relaxed as they wait for the entree: a delicately prepared beef Wellington.
If you notice that one of the guests is temporarily missing, however, it will be Mary Bonino Jones. She'll be the one in the kitchen putting the beef Wellington into Glad bags and phoning out for Chinese.
It is Jones' business to know that cows are sacred in India and that a little cold kung pao chicken won't horrify the prime minister nearly as much as the beef Wellington.
Jones is Orange County's chief of protocol and the director of the nonprofit Protocol Foundation of Orange County. She is the point person in the local international relations business, a professional smoother of divergent paths, the one Orange County officialdom looks to when they want to know if it's all right to give the Chinese ambassador a clock as a gift (it isn't, she says), or to cross your legs while seated facing an Arab diplomat (a huge mistake, she says).
It really isn't that difficult keeping keeping it all straight, said Jones. Common sense is the key.
"Protocol," she said, "is just being sensitive to others' needs. That's just being polite, right?"
Though Jones has been the county's chief of protocol since the office was sanctioned by the Board of Supervisors slightly more than four years ago, she held a similar post at Disneyland--manager of community affairs--for 24 years. During her tenure there, she said she arranged tours of the park and other amenities for hundreds of foreign dignitaries, from Emperor Hirohito of Japan to the king of Tonga. She also established frequent and friendly contacts with the nearly 70 foreign consulates in Los Angeles which, she said, made it easier to set up shop when she made her move to the protocol job.
The idea of an office of protocol, said Jones, may be nebulous to some, but she said that she agreed with Supervisor Harriet Wieder, who proposed the position in 1984, that it was an idea whose time had come in Orange County.
"When people came here in 1984 to see some of the Olympic events at the venues in the county," she said, "Orange County got quite a bit of international attention. And today so many of our businesses here are involved in international trade. One of the things our office and the foundation are doing--and we're being successful at it--is establishing an international identity for Orange County."
Today, she said, chiefs of the nearly 70 consulates in Los Angeles and the dozen in San Francisco whose jurisdiction extends to Orange County routinely pay courtesy calls on members of the Board of Supervisors, and many in the consular corps attend a yearly Orange County economic briefing and a "Protocol Ball," both of which are arranged by Jones and the foundation.
"I knew many of these people already from my association with Disneyland," said Jones, "so that made things somewhat easier because I feel comfortable with them. But in the beginning, I don't really think they knew what we had going for us down here."
Jones' job technically is not a full-time one. Her position, as well as those of her two office staff workers and the Protocol Foundation of Orange County, is funded by private money, much of it gleaned from periodic fund-raising events such as the Protocol Ball. However, she said, she often finds herself in the office five days a week. She also frequently attends consular and other international events in her off-work hours.
"Every country has at least one day a year when they just naturally celebrate something, like Bastille Day," said Jones. "And I get invited to those events."
The job, she said, requires flexibility. She, her staff and members of the 200-member foundation (which is open to anyone in the county) often refer to printed State Department sources delineating ceremonies and protocol for every country.
Occasionally, though, she said she finds herself winging it.
"When the King of Tonga visited Disneyland," she said, "I discovered two things after his arrival: one was that the king and queen eat separately from the other people with them, which we hadn't anticipated; the other thing I didn't know was that the dinner they were having that night was the same thing I'd planned for (for them) lunch."
A quick shuffle of furniture and food solved the problem.
Cultural hitches aside, however, Jones said that heads of state--even such recent visitors to the county as King Carl Gustav and Queen Silvia of Sweden and Prime Minister Karoly Grosz of Hungary--are just folks.
"You'd be surprised," she said. "All of them are just delightful people. It helps you to realize that we're all just one family, that no matter where people come from, we all have the same basic needs."