There's a big black-tie dinner at the White House tonight. President Bush will don a tuxedo and might even stay up past 10. This is, as they say in Texas, rarer than hen's teeth.
The dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (technically an "official" instead of "state" dinner because Singh is head of government but not the state) is notable as one of the few grand parties of this administration. The White House has hosted only four state dinners since Bush took office in 2001; the last one was held in October 2003 for the president of Kenya. It's a big deal for India, and for the White House.
"The symbolic and the diplomatic importance of an event like this is inversely proportional to the frequency," says former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott. "The less often they happen, the more important they are."
State dinners were traditionally the most sought-after invitation in Washington, the gold-plated stamp of diplomatic and social approval. World leaders routinely got the red-carpet treatment until 2001, when Bush began substituting informal lunches for black-tie dinners. The first lady hinted earlier this year that she intended to host more stately events during the second term and hired a new social secretary (but no new chef yet). But nothing has changed, and if the next four years look anything like the past four years, formal entertaining at this White House is a thing of the past.
How much this matters to anyone but Washington arrivistes is debatable. From a foreign-policy standpoint, the paucity of state dinners raises their value but slights many world leaders. "It's unfortunate that they're not doing more of them," says Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation. "It's kind of a lost opportunity."
The other question is access to the White House. The guest lists for official state events are typically released to the public. Because this president entertains officially so infrequently, little is known about who enjoys his private hospitality at off-the-record, behind-closed-doors events.
"Back in the years of Reagan, Bush 41 and Clinton, I was a religious reader of the guest lists of state and other White House dinners," says American Enterprise Institute scholar Norm Ornstein. "It was a great source of lots of different kind of gossip."
Analyzing the list -- who's in, who's out -- was an important way of figuring out the priorities of the administration."
The only lists coming out of the White House these days are announcements of world leaders dropping by for a quick chat or, if they're lucky, lunch. This month Bush squeezed in Kuwait's and Singapore's prime ministers before and after his trip to the G8 summit in Scotland. Today, Singh gets the royal treatment, then it's back to short visits: tomorrow with Australia's prime minister and next week with Pakistan's prime minister.
Bush kicked off his post-inaugural diplomacy Feb. 9 with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski before heading off to Europe for a NATO summit, according to CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller, who keeps a day-to-day log of Bush's schedule listing every world leader he meets with and where. Bush returned to Washington just in time to host the nation's governors at what he called "our first state dinner of my second term." Despite a busy travel schedule in the spring, the president welcomed more than 30 world leaders to the White House for short meetings and photo ops.
This is Bush's no-frills diplomacy: No fuss, no muss, just a highly efficient form of revolving door to the Oval Office. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair came to Washington last month, he used an informal, private dinner with the president to lobby for the inclusion of China and India in an emissions agreement.
"The word is out that what you get from the White House these days is a different style," says Roland Flamini, UPI chief international correspondent. The message it sends is, " 'We're a working White House. We're here to do the country's business. We're not here to have fancy dinners.' My impression is that 'fancy' is a derogatory term in the Bush administration."
It's a far cry from the Reagan administration, which hosted more than 50 glittering state dinners over eight years. The president's father held more than 20 dinners in his four years in the White House, and Bill Clinton 30 during his two terms -- although the Clinton dinners in the East Room and tents on the South Lawn allowed them to invite hundreds more guests. The last dinner for India, in September 2000, was the largest official dinner ever at the White House, with more than 700 in attendance.
"During the Reagan administration, we found state dinners to be a very useful tool in furthering our foreign policy objectives," says former Protocol Chief Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt. The Reagans tried to schedule one formal dinner a month -- except during August and December -- with the National Security Council deciding which head of state or government should be so honored. "A state dinner was considered the ultimate hospitality," says Roosevelt. "But every president has his own style, and it's not to say one is better than the other."
The four state dinners of this administration were carefully selected to send specific political messages: The first, for Mexican President Vicente Fox, was held Sept. 5, 2001, to reinforce neighborly alliances. The next two dinners, after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, were awarded to partners of the "coalition of the willing": Poland and the Philippines. The last dinner, for the president of Kenya, was a diplomatic way to make amends after Bush skipped a planned trip to the African nation citing security concerns.
Esther Coopersmith, a Washington fundraiser and advocate for international relations, considers the absence of state dinners a missed chance to create personal ties between nations. "People get so excited -- not only the people from the country you're honoring, but the Americans who are coming to the dinner. It's wonderful for both countries."
The dinner for Singh sends an important signal to the international community, "to underscore the special and growing importance of relations with India," says Talbott. Reducing the number of state dinners makes them more valuable, he suggests.
"The notion that an elegant social evening is an official part of the government's hospitality ought to be an integral part of what it is about," Feulner says, arguing that's why there should be more of them. "It's a sign of esteem and respect. My friends say the Bushes are not formal people. Yes, but it's part of the job."
A head of state rarely makes the trip to Washington without a prearranged meeting with Bush. The status ladder starts with 20 minutes and a photo op in the Oval Office. Next up is the meeting plus a session with administration heavyweights in the Cabinet Room, then a working lunch. Topping the White House honors is a state dinner with all the bells and whistles.
But a state dinner is clearly not the top prize in this administration. Bush puts enormous stock in his personal relationships with world leaders, Ornstein says. "If you're looking for not the sizzle but the steak, there are two things you value more than a state dinner: a visit to Crawford or a weekend at Camp David."
Blair was the first world leader with Bush at Camp David in 2001, and Russian President Vladimir Putin was invited to the president's Texas ranch later that year. A handful make the Crawford cut: This year the only guests have been Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
World leaders aren't the only campers. The White House annually releases the names of friends who stay overnight at Camp David and the White House -- a response to the sleepover scandals of the Clinton administration. Many, of course, are old friends, and many of those old friends are donors to the president's campaigns -- just like Clinton's.
Bob Johnson, BET founder, Democrat and owner of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats, has been to state dinners but scored an even rarer invitation last week. On Friday he joined the president and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez on Air Force One for a quick trip to North Carolina, where Bush urged passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Bush told the audience Johnson was "one heck of an entrepreneur, somebody who has made Carolina a place of business interest."
Says Johnson: "For me, this was an hour down and an hour back with the president of the United States to engage in friendly, carefree conversation. At a state dinner, I would be at Table Whatever. Air Force One is one-on-one at the ultimate."
Since Bush rarely hosts public social events, there is greater speculation now about who gets invited for supper. "Access to the president and White House are major resources," says Ornstein. "A president deserves some privacy. But in a general way, the way in which a White House allocates those resources -- especially involving contributors and other special interests -- is something the public ought to have some access to. I think the White House should, as a matter of routine, release [the names of] who he's meeting with and eating with."
On June 30 the president and first lady hosted a small dinner in their private residence with 11 guests including Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and his wife, Wendy, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported. Vitter took the opportunity to offer suggestions for Supreme Court nominees on what turned out to be the eve of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's announcement of her intention to resign. According to the paper, "a Vitter spokesman wouldn't say whom his boss recommended, only that he urged the president to pick someone with 'a conservative, nonactivist judicial philosophy.' "
It would be revealing to know who else had the president's ear that evening. Vitter did not return repeated calls to his office seeking comment about the dinner. White House social secretary Lea Berman declined to be interviewed for this article.
Protocol states that a "state" dinner is reserved for designated heads of state (royalty or presidents); a dinner is "official" for a visiting head of government (usually prime ministers.) Both are traditionally open to press coverage. The White House classifies "social" dinners as larger parties where a small portion of the event is open to the press -- typically photography and the president's remarks. "Private" dinners have no press coverage, just 12 or fewer close friends of the president and first lady in the residence.
The guest lists for three known White House social events this year -- the June 30 dinner, a March 17 reception for Saint Patrick's Day and the Cinco de Mayo dinner for approximately 200 guests in the Rose Garden -- were requested for this article. But Susan Whitson, press secretary for the first lady, said they were not available at press time. Whitson said she did not know whether the Bushes paid for private dinners out of personal funds or if there is a formula for reimbursing the government.
A partial list for the Cinco de Mayo dinner can be gleaned from the president's remarks at the dinner, which were released. The list included Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Small Business Administration Administrator Hector Barreto, U.S. Treasurer Anna Cabral, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Eduardo Aguirre, the ambassadors to and from Mexico, and Reps. Henry Bonilla and Henry Cuellar.
"Bienvenidos," Bush told the crowd at the dinner. "Laura and I are honored to host so many distinguished Hispanic Americans and Mexican leaders here in the Jardin de Rosa. Welcome to the White House. The way I see it is, mi casa es su casa."