Dinner at America’s table: How a White House rite evolved

The arrival ceremony, the good china, the wonk mixed with the pomp (the womp!), the Sensible Shoe People mixed with the Famous Celebrity People mixed with the people who are at these things because they are always at these things, who know better than to try to wear a hanbok, elegant as the garment might look.

It must be time for a state dinner.

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Heralding a visiting friend and some rare bipartisanship at home, President Barack Obama welcomed South Korea's president to the White House on Thursday as a valuable world partner. (Oct. 13)

Heralding a visiting friend and some rare bipartisanship at home, President Barack Obama welcomed South Korea's president to the White House on Thursday as a valuable world partner. (Oct. 13)

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On Thursday, President Obama will host South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the White House. It’s Obama’s fifth such dinner — Germany was in June — and so there’s the usual speculation over who will bring whom, wearing what, and how one knows if something is a state dinner or an official dinner. (One is for heads of state. The other is for heads of government.) It’s all painstaking protocol, an elaborate cultural production disguised as a nosh.

Can’t we do this via Skype?

The American state dinner is a relic: one of the remaining events at which everyone still puts on a ball gown. It’s ceremonial courtship conducted by a casual country; it’s a chance to show the world that we get it. We get what the salad fork is for. We get the handshake. Regardless of what one wears at one’s own kitchen table, one wants a president who knows how to wear a tux.

“The whole purpose of protocol and ritualized behavior is to avoid conflicts, because everyone knows how to behave,” says Judith Martin, better known to the world as Miss Manners.

And if protocol is abandoned?

“That’s how wars start.”

But how did state dinners start? Like the country itself, the concept is old, but not that old. It has gone from being a malleable supper to an immovable feast.

Having the neighbors over

For most of the 19th century, there were no state dinners, because there were no visiting heads of state. The ocean was big. The travel was long. No one wanted to visit America much, anyway, because in addition to being a really long sail, we didn’t even have the Statue of Liberty.

There were, however, “state dinners.”

Through the 1800s, lacking foreigners to entertain, the U.S. government entertained itself. The Washington social season launched every New Year’s Day with a White House open house, and throughout the winter, when the president hosted government types — which he did around four times a year — it was referred to as a state dinner. Supreme Court justices? State dinner! Members of Congress or the Cabinet? State dinner! A band was brought in, as were tropical plants or mosses, which were the height of aesthetic sensibility at the time. One newspaper account praised such a dinner for its “magnificent floral decorations and elaborate toilets,” which probably meant something different then.

Then, in February 1874, the Sandwich Islands elected a new monarch. King David Kalakaua decided to take a trip around the world, starting with the United States. He arrived in December. There was — because this is what official food consumption was now called — a state dinner. You can see an etching of the event: King Kalakaua in white tie and tails, appraising a long banquet table.

There was official business, too: Shortly after this visit, a trade treaty was signed, and then English speakers began calling the Sandwich Islands by their proper name of Hawaii. But to a member of the general public, surely what the king signed was less interesting than what the king scarfed. Trade agreements are nebulous. But Americans have always understood eating.

This might be why, when Ulysses S. Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, hosted his only foreign dignitaries in 1877 — two sons of a Russian czar — news accounts noted that Mrs. Hayes did not approve of alcohol but had been persuaded that Europeans could not dine without it.

She abstained, the president abstained, the Russian grand dukes drank, the Marine Band played and everyone had a lovely time.

Hot dogs and Hitler

And then?

And then nothing — not for years! President Chester A. Arthur had a dinner for 22 when the president of Guatemala visited in 1882, and President William McKinley hosted President Sanford Dole of Hawaii in 1898, but other than that, foreign dignitaries didn’t come. If they had, there wouldn’t have been anywhere to put them. The White House’s State Dining Room was not very stately; it could hold only about 36 people, which goes beyond “exclusive” and just becomes “cramped.”

It’s strange to think of the White House this way, just as it’s strange to think of America this way. Our country’s bootstrap mentality celebrates the fact that we became a superpower on our own merits; it forgets the fact that we were once barefoot.

In 1902, renovations to the White House made it a more inviting place for important guests (Teddy Roosevelt hosted a stag party for a German prince) and enlarged the State Dining Room. But the next truly important state dinner didn’t happen until 1939.

“Americans were very much isolationists in the 1930s,” says David Woolner, a senior fellow and historian at the Roosevelt Institute. They weren’t all that interested in getting involved in Britain’s encroaching Hitler problem. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt learned that King George VI was planning to visit Canada, he asked the monarch to come to the United States as well — the first visit of a reigning British king. Roosevelt took the king and queen on a Hyde Park picnic and served them hot dogs, which the queen had never had before. Americans loved it.

Then, because the British government said it would be a good idea to also go to Washington, Roosevelt brought the royal couple to the White House and had a formal state dinner.

“Within three months, the Nazis would attack Poland,” Woolner says. “This dinner was important because it opened the door for the public to be sympathetic and supportive of Great Britain.”

Now here’s something interesting.

The State Department’s Office of Protocol has a lovely list of every time a foreign head of state has stepped on American soil. It does not, however, have a complete list of whether we fed him when he got here. The White House Historical Association doesn’t have such a list, either. Bill Bushong, the historian there, says records regarding state dinners have been curated piecemeal. We don’t know when, for example, “state dinners” began to refer predominantly to foreign visits rather than domestic gatherings. (Many of the dinners mentioned in this story were discovered in old newspaper archives rather than through official collections).

It’s a very studious, staid approach to history-keeping — all nuts and bolts, no nuts and crudites — but it overlooks what President Roosevelt knew, and the British government knew, and the king and queen of England knew: The places where we understand each other are often not in Oval Offices but at round tables, engaging in that universal bread-breaking tradition that allows people to see one another as people, not just figureheads. Give the queen a hot dog.

Finally, cleared for takeoff

“Aviation.”

The renowned historian Douglas Brinkley has been e-mailed, asked to discuss how the concept of the state dinner has mutated over the decades. He calls back and leaves an excited, detailed phone message:

The state dinner really settled as an American tradition by the time of Eisenhower, Brinkley says, but it’s all related to aviation. Transatlantic flight led to world leaders jetting into the greater Washington area.

For all of the perception of state dinners as a centuries-old practice, the current version is a modern one — something that really became codified only in the post-World War II era.

“The global problems meant the world got a little bigger after World War II,” says former White House chief curator Betty Monkman. The United States got a little more important, and everyone needed to come to Washington.

Enter President and Mrs. Truman, who gamely took state dinners over to Blair House when the White House was damaged in a fire. Enter Jackie Kennedy and her chic sense of chic, which meant that menus for American state dinners were printed in French.

When the bicentennial approached, everyone wanted to pay their respects. Betty Ford found herself without a social secretary when she learned that Emperor Hirohito — the leader of Japan during the attack on Pearl Harbor — would be received at the White House. She planned the dinner on her own, opting for an increasingly rare white-tie dinner, and organizing the tables in an ultra-formal U shape to respect Japan’s honor-bound society.

“Mrs. Ford just loved the empress,” says Maria Downs, the social secretary who was ultimately hired by the first lady just a few days before the dinner. “She kept being very protective of her.”

The dinner was perceived by many to be a final healing, permanently setting the fracture that had existed between the two countries. Emperor Hirohito gave a toast: “I wish to extend my official gratitude to the people of the United States for the friendly hand of goodwill and assistance their great country accorded us for our postwar construction, immediately following that most unfortunate war, which I deplore.”

The next year, the Ford administration hosted Queen Elizabeth. The evening began with the queen accidentally walking in on the president’s son, Jack, while he was shoeless and open-shirted in the Yellow Oval Room, during a private residence tour with Mrs. Ford. It progressed to the White House staff learning that the evening’s entertainment, Bob Hope, had not brought along Bing Crosby as requested, but rather the Captain & Tennille. Later, the president and the queen got up to dance, and the Marine Band struck up a song: “The Lady Is a Tramp.”

Throughout the tiny mishaps — in an otherwise marvelous evening — Downs says the queen showed a fantastic and unexpected sense of humor.

A month later, Downs had occasion to ask the president whether he realized what the band was playing while they danced.

“Oh, yes,” he said.

And did he think that the queen also knew?

“Oh,” he said. “Yes.”

America’s dinner

And isn’t this America?

Isn’t this it, all of it, the striving for posh and the embracing of pedestrian, the ability to put our best foot forward while simultaneously sticking it in our mouth?

The state dinner is all about symbolism, which is why each event is so stage-managed. Some presidents have opted to hold dinners only in the 135-ish-seat State Dining Room; others have rigged elaborate tents on the grounds in the spirit of expanded guest lists. Every foreign dignitary must have a special dinner that is precisely as special as the previous foreign dignitary, lest feelings get hurt.

“It’s about the symbolic value of the White House,” says Lea Berman, a social secretary under President George W. Bush. “It stands for something bigger than the home of the president. It stands for the home of the American people.”

In recent years, state and official dinners have produced some of our more memorable cultural images: Princess Di dancing with John Travolta in 1985. Mikhail Gorbachev. Michaele Salahi. (In the sari! Long before anyone knew she would run off with that guy from Journey.) World leaders mingling with Frank Sinatra and Willie Mays and Jackie Chan.

“The dinner showcases America,” says Mary Mel French, who was President Bill Clinton’s chief of protocol. “Not only from the diplomatic viewpoint, but artists and writers and actors and scholars and other people in America that all have a part in the country.”

It shows that the country can sit down and eat elegantly.

At the end of World War II, President Truman had apparently put a temporary halt on state dinners, but at a 1946 news conference, a reporter asked him if they were coming back again, and if that meant that tuxes and tails might also make a resurgence.

“The president,” he said, delightfully referring to himself in the third person, “will wear tails.”

 
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