President Obama and His Diplomats Check Out of the Waldorf

When the U.N. General Assembly debate kicks off in a few weeks, the landmark hotel will house Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping — not the U.S. officials who have stayed there for decades.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 27:  A general view of the exterior facade of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on March 27, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 27: A general view of the exterior facade of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on March 27, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images)

In a break with tradition, President Barack Obama and his legion of American diplomats will not be bedding down at the Waldorf Astoria hotel during the annual United Nations’ talkfest later this month.

But with more than 160 kings, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and ambassadors heading to U.N. headquarters in New York to mark the U.N.’s 70th Anniversary, the landmark Park Avenue hotel has had little trouble finding replacements.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, making his first trip to the United Nations in 10 years, has booked a suite at the Waldorf Astoria for his stay while attending the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is making his first U.N. visit as China’s leader, and his delegation will also camp out in style at the Waldorf Astoria. Saudi Arabia’s royal family will hold a gala reception there on Sept. 22 to mark their kingdom’s national day.

The arrival of the new guests ends an era of American diplomacy at the iconic Art Deco midtown hotel. U.S. presidents from Herbert Hoover to Obama have stayed here. Hoover, who lived at the Waldorf Astoria during his retirement, said the luxury hotel’s opening in 1931 “marks the measure of a nation’s growth in power.”

Most U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations have resided in a penthouse apartment on the 42nd floor of the Waldorf Astoria Towers since 1947. In the 1960s, Adlai Stevenson, Washington’s envoy to the U.N. during the administration of former President John F. Kennedy, turned down an offer to live in a Georgian-style home on Sutton Place, because he “apparently [prefers] room service in the Towers,” Bill Richardson, who served as U.S. ambassador during Bill Clinton’s administration, wrote in his book Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life. The Sutton Place home now serves as the U.N. secretary-general’s residence.

Richard Holbrooke, the late American troubleshooter and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, never lived in the U.S. residence at the Waldorf. But he frequently hosted parties that drew a broad range of celebrities, dignitaries, journalists, and Republican stalwarts, from Robert De Niro to Sergey Lavrov and Paul Wolfowitz.

The U.S. mission to the United Nations would not comment on American plans to move the delegation out of the hotel. Neither would it say whether the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who presently lives there, will depart. The U.S. lease on the residence expires at the end of 2016.

But a spokesman for the U.S. mission, Kurtis Cooper, said: “While the United States permanent representative to the U.N. has resided at the Waldorf since 1947, we constantly evaluate our security protocols and standard operating procedures to ensure the safety and security of our information and personnel, and we will continue to do so.”

The Waldorf Astoria was grand central for American presidents and diplomats seeking to hobnob and negotiate with foreign leaders even before the U.N. headquarters building was built in 1952. Each year, hundreds of State Department officials have piled into the hotel for a couple of weeks of intensive U.N. diplomacy. “The best thing about the Waldorf is that you could just park yourself in the check-in section and have a feast of sources you could buttonhole and talk to,” recalled Glenn Kessler, who served as the Washington Post‘s chief State Department reporter for nine years.

“I have less fond memories of making a trek to the 23rd floor every evening at 10 or 11 p.m. to receive a virtually useless briefing from the State Department about that day’s meetings,” said Kessler, who now writes the Post’s “Fact Checker” column. “There was almost never any news provided, but you felt compelled to go there in case there was a tidbit you might have missed. For many reporters, that briefing was simply a respite from bar-hopping, so everyone was rather eager to wrap it up quickly.”

It was not much more exciting for some of the diplomats, who had to endure marathon meetings with countless foreign counterparts. “Only stayed there four times,” recalled P.J. Crowley, who served as State Department spokesman during the Clinton and Obama administrations. “I am not sure I have that much to tell you that was unique to the Waldorf. Lots and lots and lots of bilateral meetings.”

The hotel has perhaps lost some of the glamour of its earlier years, when movie stars including Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra kept suites there. And some foreign delegations tried to avoid the hotel when Obama was there to skirt the massive security lockdowns that precede the American president’s movements, according to foreign delegates.

The U.S. decision to move, which was first reported by the Associated Press, comes nearly one year after a Chinese firm, Anbang Insurance Group, purchased the Waldorf Astoria in October 2014 for nearly $2 billion. After forming a partnership with Hilton Worldwide Holdings, which will manage the hotel for another 100 years, the company announced plans to renovate the building. A spokesperson from Hilton said that the deal received a green light from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a federal office that assesses whether foreign investments jeopardize the United States’ national security. Still, the purchase has prompted fears Chinese officials might install surveillance equipment to allow them to eavesdrop on confidential talks among the U.S. president and his advisors.

A spokesperson for the hotel chain emailed a statement to FP indicating that the Hilton hopes the Americans return. “It is always a privilege to host the President of the United States and the U.S. Department of State representatives and we hope to have the occasion to welcome them back to the Waldorf Astoria New York when the opportunity presents itself,” according to the statement.

Asked to comment on the risk of espionage, the spokesperson said: “The discretion for guest privacy that has been the policy throughout the iconic history of the Waldorf Astoria New York will remain sound as privacy of all of our guests continues to be our top priority.”

Some observers say the U.S. has overacted.

“It is absurd to think that the Chinese purchase of a New York hotel is something other than an investment,” Winston Lord, a former U.S. ambassador to China told CBS News. “There are sectors of the economy where the U.S. has legitimate concerns, but it is laughable to think that a Chinese buyer of a New York landmark hotel is some kind of a plot.”

For the U.N. meeting this year, the State Department plans to run its diplomatic operations out of Madison Avenue’s Lotte New York Palace, which was recently acquired and renamed by the hotel division of Lotte Group, a conglomerate from South Korea — a close U.S. ally. Obama will host a dinner of heads of state and other senior dignitaries at the Palace hotel on Sept. 28, according to a diplomat whose leader got the invitation.

The move has prompted at least one of Palace’s previous guests, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to look for another hotel. He is now taking his delegation to the Waldorf Astoria.

Maybe the Presidential Suite is available.

Photo credit: Ben Hider/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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