What is a state dinner again? Macron is back for the first post-covid.

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On Thursday, President Biden and the first lady will welcome French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, at the White House for the first state dinner since 2019. It’s the first for the Biden administration and a chance to roll out the red carpet — literally — for a head of state visiting.

While the serious business of state goes on during the day, it’s the glamorous dinner that gets all the attention: everyone is wearing formal dresses or tuxedos; the White House brings out the best food, china and crystal; and guests are treated to impressive entertainment.

An invitation to a state dinner is one of the most coveted in Washington, and the guest list is a snapshot of the administration’s power and priorities.

As it’s been a while since the last one, here’s a little guide to all that glitz and circumstance.

What exactly is the purpose of a state dinner?

In the 19th century, government officials attended official events called state dinners, sometimes with a European prince or duke on the guest list. But the White House state dinners as we know them have begun in 1874, when President Ulysses S. Grant hosted King Kalakaua of Hawaii – who would have been the first sitting monarch to visit the White House. Now, a state dinner is used to honor the relationship between the United States and a specific country. Sometimes it is an emerging democracy that the United States wants to highlight; more often than not, it is a long-time ally. Sometimes it is the celebration of an agreement or a common initiative.

Ronald Reagan’s first state dinner in 1981 was for Margaret Thatcher, a nod to America’s close ties to Britain and its conservative leader. In 1987, he invited Mikhail Gorbachev, a powerful symbol of respect for the leader of the Soviet Union and his liberal policies, to dinner. Bill Clinton paid tribute to South Africa in 1994, just months after Nelson Mandela was elected the country’s first black president and made his first state visit to the United States.

Herbert Hoover hosted the first state dinner for France when he hosted Prime Minister Pierre Laval in 1931. There have been more than a dozen who have graced the country since then.

What happened at the last state dinner for Macron?

Macron and his wife were guests of honor at Donald Trump’s first state dinner in 2018. Macron had been dubbed “Trump’s whisperer” for his ability to get along with the American leader, which some of his European counterparts could not. Trump welcomed Macron into the Oval Office by removing what he called a “little piece of dandruff” from Macron’s shoulder. “We have to make it perfect,” he said. “He is perfect.”

Melania Trump chose a gold and cream theme for the dinner settings; the menu included goat cheese, lamb and nectarine pies. The guest list included Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Henry Kissinger, Tim Cook, Rupert Murdoch, David Rubenstein and Bernard Arnault.

Almost five years later, Macron is being honored again – likely because he is Europe’s most influential leader, following the resignation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2021. The French president arrived in the US on Tuesday evening; his itinerary includes a visit to Pierre L’Enfant’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery, a stop at the Capitol to meet with congressional leaders, and a day in New Orleans.

Macron to promote nuclear energy in the United States, as the industry faces the crisis in France

What details do we know of this dinner?

The first lady unveiled the annual holiday decorations on Monday, so the White House will be festive. But the administration was typically tight-lipped on all other details, until the Wednesday afternoon preview. “This state dinner is a unique opportunity to celebrate the cultural ties and shared values ​​between France and the United States,” White House Social Secretary Carlos Elizondo said in an email last week. .

The menu? Butter-poached lobster and caviar, beef and potatoes, a selection of American cheeses, and an orange chiffon cake with fresh cream ice cream — a fancy take on Biden’s favorite treat. Wines ? American, as is the custom.

The location? A glass and vinyl tent on the South Lawn. Over 300 guests will be transported from the executive mansion to the tent on carts. Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and New Orleans native Jon Batiste will perform after dinner.

Jon Batiste to headline Biden’s first state dinner, serenade Macron

China? White and gold – and praised. It turns out that not all of the historic White House tableware is allowed outside. “The White House presidential china is part of the White House collection, and the curators are against us for taking it out of the house just because of the breakage,” Elizondo explained Wednesday.

What really happens that night?

The evening begins with an official arrival at the North Portico, where the President and First Lady welcome guests of honor and pose for photos. It’s also the big fashion moment of the evening, when the dresses of the first ladies are unveiled, a big boost for the designers. (To wit: Michelle Obama wore an Atelier Versace rose gold chainmail dress to the 2016 State Dinner for Italy; Melania Trump selected Chanel Haute Couture for the 2018 Macron soiree.) Both couples go up then in the private residence of the first family. for cocktails and small talk.

Meanwhile, guests arrive and walk through the White House East Garden Room, nicknamed Booksellers Hall. Military aides announce their names, photographers take their pictures, and reporters beg for interesting quotes. Cocktail hour ends when all the guests have arrived, then everyone is gently guided to their table.

The dinner itself is notable for short but heartfelt toasts, elegant dining and table jumping – the aisles are filled with people chatting and trying to get a close look at the presidents. The meal is prepared by White House chefs, sometimes with celebrities in the kitchen: Marcus Samuelsson created a vegetarian menu for the Obamas’ dinner for India, and Mario Batali designed the meal for Italy. After dessert, the entertainment program lasts about 30 minutes, concluding with short thanks from the host and sometimes dancing.

When the White House calls, the big stars usually show up: Frank Sinatra for Reagan’s 1984 dinner honoring Sri Lanka; Elton John and Stevie Wonder at Clinton’s 1998 dinner for Britain’s Tony Blair; Beyoncé at Barack Obama’s dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderón in 2010.

Who is usually invited?

Administration officials, congressional leaders, corporate bigwigs, political donors, a sprinkling of celebrities and a few guests with ties to the honored country, as well as diplomatic delegations from both countries.

Celebrities often have a connection to the country. British-born actress Angela Lansbury sat at the head table at Queen Elizabeth II’s dinner in 1991. Film star Bradley Cooper, who speaks fluent French, was a guest at the 2014 dinner for the President Francois Hollande. And Michael J. Fox, Sandra Oh, Lorne Michaels, Mike Myers and Ryan Reynolds were all shortlisted for the 2016 State Dinner honoring the country where they were born, Canada.

The guest list takes weeks to come together with input from the president and first lady, the social office, congressional liaisons, the State Department, and the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee. Each guest receives a fancy formal invitation from the White House for that person and one plus one – and everyone must submit their date of birth and other personal information to clear security that night.

The number of guests depends on where the dinner takes place: the State Dining Room – the traditional site of most state dinners in the past – seats around 140 people. The East Room, where guests typically gathered for after-dinner entertainment, can accommodate approximately 260 people for dinner, depending on the table layout.

But a tent can hold… well, as much as you want, depending on the size of the tent. The Clinton administration liked to use big tents for state dinners, so they could invite more people – a guest list numbered 700. While some dinner parties are still held inside the executive mansion, the use of tents has become an increasingly common practice.

Which president has hosted the most state dinners?

Ronald and Nancy Reagan loved to entertain and hosted 56 state dinners during the two terms, according to the Reagan Presidential Library, starting with one for Thatcher in 1981 and ending with one for her in 1988. But their most famous dinner (technically not a state dinner) was in 1985 for Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The iconic moment came towards the end of the evening, when John Travolta twirled Diana – wearing a midnight blue velvet dress – as they danced to a medley of “Saturday Night Fever” songs played by the Marine Band .

Donald and Melania Trump have hosted the fewest state dinners: one for Macron in 2018 and another for Australia the following year. A dinner honoring the King and Queen of Spain was scheduled for April 2020 and canceled due to the pandemic. For the same reason, the Biden administration waited nearly two years before hosting its first state dinner.

The State Department and White House staff spend many sleepless nights trying to anticipate and prevent any possible mishaps. One thing they can’t control: the weather. While the tent will be heated and decorated like a no-cost wedding reception, Thursday’s temperature will be chilly and it’s still difficult to get so many people through security.

Which reminds us of the most infamous state dinner in modern history. The Obamas held their first state dinner, honoring India, in November 2009, with a guest list of over 300 people and a tent on the South Lawn. It was a raw and rainy night, and the pressure to get hundreds of VIPs out of the cold and out of dinner – in addition to some personnel changes by social secretary Desirée Rogers and the Secret Service – led to the infamous crash of the party. by reality stars Tareq and Michaele Salahi, who managed to pass security checks, mingle and cross the reception line before dinner. The violation prompted a congressional investigation and Rogers’ early departure from his job.

The Bidens’ first state dinner will be held in a tent on the South Lawn in December. Nah, don’t even do think on this subject.

This story has been updated.

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