Geissinger recounts the planning that went into the most complex foreign trip of the Presidency – the visit to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
The White House Advance Team for President & Mrs. Bush’s trip to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing (L-R): Therese Burch, Rachael Duffy, Liz Rhodes, Jason Recher, Jeanette Smith (obscured), Robbie Aiken, Whitney Reboulet, Rich Ward, David Anderson, Aaron Nutter, President Bush, Wesley Fricks, Mrs. Bush, Marvin Bush, Kim Kimball, Cody Johnson, Meghan O’Brien, John Plack, Jessica Sciacca, Nina Bishop, Spencer Geissinger
Spence Geissinger, who recently transitioned to a leadership role at D.C.-based Susan Davis International, is an accomplished operations and events professional who held multiple roles in the administration. In this special edition of Five Questions With…Spence recounts the planning that went into the most complex foreign trip of the Presidency – the visit to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Q: You helped plan many international trips for President Bush. What was unique about the 2008 trip to Beijing for the Olympic Games – the first time a sitting U.S. president ever attended an overseas Olympics?
It was an immense honor to plan it. President Bush was extremely excited to go, which was not always the case for international travel. Secondly, it was the longest stay in one location (five nights and six days) in his Presidency. While some foreign trips were longer in duration through multiple cities, he never stayed that many days in one location overseas. We also had the great honor of having the 41st President and former First Lady on the trip as well. The stakes were high, and we wanted it to go perfectly and make it the capstone to President Bush’s foreign travel as the leader of our country.
Q: What challenges did you and the advance team have to overcome?
I made two planning trips to China prior to the actual trip to negotiate with the Chinese government on where our delegation would stay, what official meetings President Bush would attend and the limits to which he could move around Beijing to attend Olympic events. This was not a normal foreign trip due in large part to the sheer number of world leaders visiting Beijing and all the other delegations, the athletes and spectators all trying to move about the city. The Chinese government was overwhelmed with requests coming from every corner of the globe and then they had to figure out how to deal with our 750-person travel delegation of staff, guests, U.S. Secret Service, the White House Communications Agency, air crews, media, multiple aircraft and helicopters, 40-car motorcade and extensive security requirements.
This is where its gets interesting, The starting point from the Chinese government was that we could have 10 credentials and 10 vehicle passes, no weapons for the Secret Service, no helicopter and they wanted President and Mrs. Bush to stay at the official Chinese government State House, which is called the Diaoyutai State Guest House (their version of the Blair House). I had my work cut out for me. Our team spent hours and hours in a hot, smoke-filled conference room negotiating with Chinese Protocol and Security (The concept of not smoking cigarettes indoors had not yet arrived in China). By the time Air Force One took off from Andrews AFB enroute Beijing, we had made baby steps in getting what we needed. A lot of promises were made, very few were kept. More on this in the next answer!
Q: What are your favorite memories or stories from that trip?
On the flight over on Air Force One, I called our Lead Advance Representative David Anderson to see if any progress had been made, knowing we were still no closer to getting what we needed as the bare minimum to execute the trip. We had tried every trick in the book, including threatening to cancel the trip (which was never really an option) to having Secretary Condoleezza Rice call the Chinese Foreign Minister. The President was unaware what was going on with respect to the logistics because we tried never to bog him down with stuff like that, and then I get summoned to the conference room on the plane by the Commander in Chief. I remember his words exactly as if he had just said them to me five minutes ago: “Spence, what events are we going to?” Without thinking for one second, I blurted out, “Sir, any events you would like to go to.” And that is exactly what we did. I went to Special Agent in Charge Don White, and I said, “Donny, we are going to do this trip on the fly, tape up your socks and button your chin strap. We are going to go to attend whatever events the President wants to attend whether our host is on board or not. We will challenge them to stop us. They never did and I have to believe they were relieved of the burden and that we just did what we needed to do. We saw Michael Phelps win every gold medal, we saw our beach volleyballers win theirs, we organized a special exhibition baseball game between China and the U.S., we saw the U.S. women’s softball team practice, we attended a U.S. basketball game and President Bush rode his mountain bike on the Olympic Mountain Bike Course. Most importantly, he and Mrs. Bush met every U.S. Athlete and wished them well. We did many other things too. It was the trip of a lifetime.
Q: With the Tokyo Summer Games underway, do you believe the Olympics have the power to bring us together behind Team USA in the type of shared experience we all seem to be craving?
I do, 100%. We need it. The Olympics are not political. We need to rally around a common cause and support our team and our flag. Every American can be proud of our country and our great Olympians during both the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. I always look forward to both the Summer and Winter Olympics every two years.
Q: You recently transitioned back to Washington, D.C. for a new opportunity with Susan Davis International. Can you tell us about the company and the work you’ll be leading?
Susan Davis International is a woman-owned and award-winning communications, public relations and events firm that has been in business for over 30 years. SDI was named in the “Top Five” Public Affairs Agencies in the U.S. We offer global public relations services through a network of 100 partner agencies. We serve an extensive range of clients from U.S. government agencies, foreign governments, multi-national corporations, trade associations and nonprofits. We are the leader in producing and executing dedication ceremonies and high- profile events at many of D.C.’s most noteworthy sites such as the WWII and WWI Monuments and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to name a few. We are heavily involved in veterans and military programs and initiatives. I am pleased to be serving as the Vice President for Events and Business Development. Coming out of the pandemic, I am very excited for what this next year will bring as it relates to live events.