The White House state dinner: Diplomacy through flowers, food and fun

A state dinner is often referred to as the hottest ticket in town in Washington, D.C.

The black-tie events are only thrown for the most important of foreign visits. It’s a tradition that dates back to 1874, when President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant hosted King David Kalakaua of Hawaii (known then as the Sandwich Islands).

Today, the highly orchestrated evenings are often accompanied by plenty of pomp and circumstance, and take months of planning.

The Trumps will get their first chance to host a state dinner Tuesday, when they welcome French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, to the White House.

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U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron and Brigitte Macron have their picture taken on a visit to the estate of the first U.S. President George Washington in Mount Vernon, Virginia outside Washington, U.S., April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC126C16DC10

President Donald Trump, first lady Melania Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, have their picture taken on a visit to the estate of the first U.S. President George Washington in Mount Vernon, Va., on Monday.  (Reuters)

“Usually it’s reserved for a country where the relationship is strong, is important, is of strategic importance to our country and to theirs,” explained Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. “That really does convey to both countries, both Americans and in this case the French, that this is a relationship that is so important, you are our first foreign guest to be hosted on a state visit.”

Before the state dinner, the guest of honor joins the president for a series of meetings at the White House. According to McBride, a board member of the White House Historical Association, the topics of those meetings set the tone for the rest of the evening.

“You try and really utilize members of your administration who are involved in this particular visit,” McBride said. “They generally do become hosts at tables. They’re hosts for American guests and the foreign delegation seated as well.”

And the diplomacy efforts continue well into the night, but with a glass of wine in hand. For President Macron's visit, Mrs. Trump has chosen wines that are American and French collaborations, as a nod to the historic friendship between the two countries. And the menu the Trumps have chosen for the dinner will "showcase the best of America's cuisines," but with "nuances of French influences," according to the first lady's office.

state dinner menu closeup reuters

Guests at the state dinner will dine on goat cheese gateau, rack of lamb, jambalaya, and a selection of American/French wines.  (Reuters)

“It’s always easier to get the tough things done when you have good relationships with people,” McBride said. “They’re a little nicer with a glass of wine, with entertainment, with beautiful flowers, and with people hopefully on their best behavior when they’re in the White House. Civility and etiquette goes a long way.”

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT TRUMP'S FIRST STATE DINNER

While every tiny detail of the menu and decor are planned, the trickiest and most crucial element of the party is the guest list. The first couple gets recommendations from all over Washington — including the State Department, the National Security Council, and the Legislative Affairs office — about who should make the cut. With sometimes less than 150 seats available, the president and the first lady have to make a very tough final call on who they think will be the most interesting and influential party guests.

“At the end of the day, it’s their decision,” McBride explained. “The President and the first lady pick who the guests are, what the final seating arrangement is, what the menu is, the entertainment. There’s not a detail about that event they don’t know about and are not influencing.”

But with such a big event comes plenty of help, including lots of research from the Office of Protocol. According to McBride, their research is invaluable help for planning a premier foreign visit. Making sure every detail will be enjoyed by the visiting delegation and won't cause any international faux pas.

state dinner 1 reuters

“The President and the first lady pick who the guests are, what the final seating arrangement is, what the menu is, the entertainment. There’s not a detail about that event they don’t know about and are not influencing," says Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.  (Reuters)

“They will have information between the working teams in both governments, McBride said. “Are there allergies of a leader? Are there certain flowers they don’t like? Are there colors that are not in keeping with the customs of a particular country? A lily for one country may be beautiful, for another it may not be appropriate.”

It’s input like that, and from other agencies, that help state dinners go off without a hitch. McBride, who worked in the White House during the Reagan and both Bush administrations, recalled a time when the White House felt particularly compelled to deliver perfection: the state visit of Queen Elizabeth.

“There was an added pressure to make sure it was particularly perfect,” McBride said. “Here’s a woman who has lived through 14 American presidents. We wanted to be on our best behavior.”

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The queen’s visit is one of many examples Mr. and Mrs. Trump have to draw on for the French Prime Minister’s official visit. But even with centuries of tradition in place, McBride says the Trumps could take their first state dinner in a different direction.

“Like everything else with this administration, we could be in for something completely new,” McBride said.

First lady Melania Trump has announced her color scheme will be gold and cream, and she'll be using the Clinton and Bush china for the dinner service.