On Thursday, President Biden and the first lady will welcome French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, to the White House for the first state dinner since 2019. It’s the first for the Biden administration and an opportunity to roll out the red carpet — literally — for a visiting head of state.
While the serious business of state takes place during the day, it’s the glamorous dinner that gets all the attention: Everyone wears formal gowns or tuxedos; the White House pulls out the best food, china and crystal; and the guests are treated to some impressive entertainment.
An invitation to a state dinner is one of the most coveted in Washington and the guest list a snapshot of the administration’s power and priorities.
Since it’s been a while since the last one, here’s a short guide to all this pomp and circumstance.
What exactly is the purpose of a state dinner?
During the 19th century, government officials attended formal events called state dinners, with the occasional European prince or duke on the guest list. But White House state dinners as we know them began in 1874, when President Ulysses S. Grant hosted King Kalakaua of Hawaii — reportedly the first sitting monarch to visit the White House. Now a state dinner is used to honor the relationship of the United States and a specific country. Sometimes it’s an emerging democracy that the United States wants to showcase; more often, it’s a longtime ally. Occasionally, it’s a celebration of a joint agreement or initiative.
Ronald Reagan’s first state dinner in 1981 was for Margaret Thatcher, a nod to the United States’ close ties with Britain and its conservative leader. In 1987, he invited Mikhail Gorbachev to dine, a potent symbol of respect for the leader of the Soviet Union and his liberal policies. Bill Clinton honored 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 welcomed Prime Minister Pierre Laval in 1931. There have been more than a dozen honoring the country since then.
What happened at the last state dinner for Macron?
Macron and his wife were the guests of honor at Donald Trump’s first state dinner, in 2018. Macron had been nicknamed “the Trump whisperer” for his ability to get along with the U.S. leader, which some of his European counterparts could not. Trump welcomed Macron to the Oval Office by brushing what he called a “little piece of dandruff” off Macron’s shoulder. “We have to make him 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 tarts. 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 — probably because he’s the most influential European leader, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel resigned in 2021. The French president arrived in the United States Tuesday night; his itinerary includes a visit to the tomb of Pierre L’Enfant at Arlington National Cemetery, a stop at the Capitol to meet with congressional leaders and a day in New Orleans.
What details do we know about this dinner?
The first lady unveiled the annual holiday decorations Monday, so the White House will be festive. But the administration was characteristically tight-lipped about any other details, until the preview Wednesday afternoon. “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 last week in an email.
The menu? Butter-poached lobster and caviar, beef and potatoes, a selection of American cheeses and orange chiffon cake with creme fraiche ice cream — a fancy version of Biden’s favorite treat. The wines? American, as is the custom.
The location? A glass-and-vinyl tent on the South Lawn. More than 300 guests will be transported from the executive mansion to the tent on trolleys. Grammy Award-winning singer-composer and New Orleans native Jon Batiste will perform after dinner.
The china? White and gold — and rented. Turns out all the historical White House dishware is not allowed outside. “The Presidential White House china is part of the White House collection, and the curators are against us taking it outside of the house just because of breakage,” Elizondo explained Wednesday.
What actually happens that night?
The evening begins with a formal arrival on the North Portico, where the president and first lady greet the guests of honor and pose for photographs. That’s also the big fashion moment of the night, when the gowns of the first ladies are revealed — a big boost for the designers. (To wit: Michelle Obama wore a rose-gold chain-mail Atelier Versace gown for the 2016 state dinner for Italy; Melania Trump selected Chanel Haute Couture for the 2018 Macron night.) The two couples then go up into the first family’s private residence for cocktails and small talk.
Meanwhile, guests are arriving and go 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. The cocktail hour ends when all the guests have arrived, then everyone is gently guided to their tables.
The dinner itself is notable for short but heartfelt toasts, an elegant dinner and table-hopping — the aisles are crammed with people schmoozing and trying to get a close look at the presidents. The meal is prepared by the White House chefs, with occasional 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 Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón in 2010.
Who usually gets invited?
Administration officials, congressional leaders, corporate bigwigs, political donors, a sprinkling of celebrities and a few guests with ties to the country honored, plus the diplomatic delegations from both countries.
The celebrities often have some connection to the country. British-born actress Angela Lansbury was seated at the head table at the dinner for Queen Elizabeth II in 1991. Movie star Bradley Cooper, who speaks fluent French, was invited to the 2014 dinner for President François Hollande. And Michael J. Fox, Sandra Oh, Lorne Michaels, Mike Myers and Ryan Reynolds all made the cut for the 2016 state dinner honoring the country where they were born, Canada.
The guest list takes weeks to assemble 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. Every invited guest receives a fancy formal invitation from the White House for that person and a plus-one — and everyone must submit birth dates and other personal information to clear security that evening.
The number of guests depends on where the dinner is held: The State Dining Room — the traditional site for most state dinners in the past — seats about 140 people. The East Room, where guests typically gathered for after-dinner entertainment, can squeeze in around 260 for dinner, depending how the tables are arranged.
But a tent can hold … well, as many as you want, depending on the size of the tent. The Clinton administration loved to use big tents for state dinners, so they could invite more people — one guest list boasted 700. While some dinners are still held inside the executive mansion, using tents has become an increasingly common practice.
Which president threw 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 the 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 near the end of the evening, when John Travolta twirled Diana — wearing a midnight-blue velvet gown — while they danced to a medley of “Saturday Night Fever” songs played by the Marine Band.
Donald and Melania Trump held the fewest state dinners: One for Macron in 2018 and another for Australia the following year. A dinner honoring Spain’s king and queen was scheduled for April of 2020 and canceled due to the pandemic. For the same reason, the Biden administration waited for almost two years before hosting its first state dinner.
What could go wrong?
The State Department and White House staff spend many sleepless nights trying to anticipate and prevent any possible mishap. One thing they can’t control: the weather. While the tent will be heated and decorated like a no-expense-spared wedding reception, Thursday’s temperature will be chilly, and getting so many people through security is always tricky.
Which reminds us of the most infamous state dinner in modern history. The Obamas hosted their first state dinner, honoring India, in November 2009, with a guest list of more than 300 people and a tent on the South Lawn. The night was raw and rainy, and the pressure to get hundreds of VIPs out of the cold and into the dinner — in addition to some staff changes by Social Secretary Desirée Rogers and the Secret Service — led to the infamous party crash by reality stars Tareq and Michaele Salahi, who managed to get past security checks, mingle and go through the receiving line before the dinner. The breach sparked a congressional inquiry and Rogers’s early departure from the job.
The Bidens’ first state dinner will be in a tent on the South Lawn in December. Nah, don’t even think about it.
This story has been updated.