One knew there was a chance this toast could be different, even when Jimmy Carter stood up and a hush fell over all who basked in the dual glow of crystal chandeliers and California red. But black-tie dinner guests, could not be certain what he might say.
Forget about tradition, the aide had suggested earlier, and talk on a subject presidents rarely discuss with governors -- foreign policy. Even throw it open to a Q&A, he counseled, with the blessings of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and media adviser Jerry Rafshoon.
At first, as the president stood there speaking so softly that his curious cadence of speech was almost inaudible at times, the toast seemed extraordinarily ordinary.
The signal that something more than White House lore was on his mind came after a few minutes.
"I thought tonight in about five minutes I would like to outline for you some of the foreign affairs considerations that affect me as president..."
Instead of five minutes, the toast went on for almost 30, without notes or talking points, but with undisguised frustration over the intractable nature of nations and those who lead them.
It was the latest stage in the continuing metamorphosis of the White House dinner toast. The once innocuous fluff and puff presidents and their honor guests exchange has always been an imperfect mix of jokes, reminiscences, tributes, banalities and pomposity, with an occasional gaffe.
But in recent years, the toast has been turnign into something worth listening to.
Zambia President Kennety Huanda startled 120 While House guests in April, 1975, at a dinner President Ford gave for him when he launched into a 20-minute reciprocal toast that Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state, later unsmilingly called "a foreign policy speech -- I know the position of Zambia quite well."
In March, 1978, Yoguslavia's Marshal Josip Broz Tito took 40 minutes to survey, in Serbo-Croation with English translation, global affairs with his suggestions for solutions. Lest anybody misunderstand, the peppery Tito warned against trying to force unaligned nations to join a bloc.
Three months later, Venezuela President Carlos Andres Perez monopolized a White House dinner spotlight for nearly 45 minutes as he lectured President Carter and his guests on a new international economic order of OPEC. "No one has to fear it," he assured them. "It acts responsibly."
Just last month in Mexico City where Carter and Mexican president Jose Lopez Portillo got off to a shaky start on a state visit that examined differences over oil prices, migrant workers and drug smuggling, a luncheon toast turned into a public dressing-down of Carter by his caustic-tongued host.
Carter's effort to recover seemed to compound the situation when, visibly flustered and reduced momentarily to banalities, he came up with the now-familiar reminiscence about Montezuma's revenge. Nor did any of it get much better as the visit progressed. The next night at a dinner given by the American president, Lopez-Portillo. during his toast, let Carter have it again.
"... there are men who can buy men and there are men who have to sell themselves. And this happens very frequently with our poor people who go to the United States."
In some countries, it is customary for printed copies of the toasts to be placed at the dinner plate of each guest, reducing the shock factor of what's in store for them, if nothing else. In the United States, arrangements have not yet reached that degree of advance planning, although some state visitors, preferring to leave nothing to chance, often provide advance texts to the working press.
"The toasts have always been extra-ordinarily meaningful. They very often dilineate a message," says one White House aide. "Sometimes it is one of the major messages of a state visit."
More often than not, however, it has been a recapitulation of formal discussions during the visit and a reaffirmation of eternal friendship stopping just short of opening the vein.
Although the White House is careful to limit the length of after-dinner entertainment, there is no effort to cut off long-winded toasts.
"You have a later evening, that's all," says Mary Hoyt, press secretary to Rosalynn Carter. "I don't think anybody minds."
Few mind late evenings any more than few expect a White House Dinner to be non-political.
"We governors live with politics," says Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, a Republican. "We'd be the last group to criticize a president for that."
Another Republican, Michigan's Gov. William G. Milliken, says that far from "exploiting" a situation, Carter spoke out of "the fullness of his heart" on a subject that was on his mind.
"It is unusual," says Delaware's Gov. Pierre S. duPont, also Republican. "But then again, Mr. Carter is in a very difficult situation."
White House aides doubt that Jimmy Carter has any intention of turning future black-tie dinners into a question-and-answer period. The circumstances for Tuesday's departure were unique, says a staffer.
At least one Republican governor never realized White House dinners went any other way. As the first two governors to speak up when Carter invited questions, Governor Thompson, attneding his first White House dinner, didn't need any prompting, he said.
Asking Carter if extending Most Favored Nation status to China might pose a political problem concerning the Soviet Union, Thompson found the president interrupting him with "Yes, you are discerning."
Recalling it later, Thompson says Carter "started grinning half-way through my question. He could see what was coming."
There is no longer any question that hard news is being made between the strawberry souffle and the brut champagne.
"We have to cover every dinner," says NBC White House correspondent Judy Woodruff, whose network provided pool coverage that night. "We just can't run the risk."