Tuesday night’s state dinner in honor of French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, will be a lot of things. A fancy shindig? For sure. A tangible example of the first lady Melania Trump’s “amazing taste”? Apparently. Most importantly, the diplomatic soiree will serve as a symbol of the Trumps’ social agenda as a whole. See, a party — or at least this level of party — is never just a party.
In administrations past, the first diplomatic dinner has been a sign of how the first couple interpret their role as America’s brand ambassador, whether intentionally or not. The starting bell of the White House’s official party scene has historically been the opening note of a larger symphony.
For the Obamas, that note was famously off-key.
At their first state dinner, honoring Manmohan Singh, then India’s prime minister, and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, the Obama White House went big. Like, really big. So big, in fact, that two social climbers and would-be reality stars, Tareq and Michaele Salahi, sneaked in to the 2009 affair uninvited. The faux pas, caused by a perfect storm of bad weather and branding gone wrong, led to a congressional hearing and eventually cost White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, who coined the unfortunate term “the Obama brand,” her job.
The event featured 400 guests on the South Lawn, instead of the much more intimate State Dining Room. It was a bold affair that starred Hollywood’s A-list, Chicago-born pop singer Jennifer Hudson and the first lady’s strapless silver Naeem Khan gown. It was an exclamation point that said the Obamas had arrived — but the security breach prompted a look inward at the purpose of the so-called “people’s house,” a philosophy the first lady touted throughout her time at the White House.
For subsequent official dinners, milestone birthdays and private concerts — they hosted them all — the Obamas’ strategy was to find a balance between special and overblown. They liked to party (with Beyoncé, no less) but somehow made all that glitz seem accessible — a pointed goal after their first misstep.
The Bushes made it a point to celebrate the intimate and formal while not appearing flashy. Their first official state dinner in 2001, in honor of Mexican President Vicente Fox, was held in the colonial State Dining Room, which seats about 130 VIPs. The event, held less than a week before the Sept. 11 attacks, had been in the works since the spring. First lady Laura Bush was leaving nothing to chance. The first couple had even sampled the Tex-Mex menu that July. Instead of a high-end frock, Mrs. Bush wore a red gown by Arnold Scaasi, a designer who was a favorite of her mother-in-law, former first lady Barbara Bush. The tone — special, traditional and intimate — was set.
At the time, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer described the event as “more stately.” More stately than whom, you ask? That would be the Clintons, who became known for grandiose affairs featuring foie gras and famous faces.
President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton regularly hosted official state dinners in the larger East Room — which can pack in almost twice the number of big names as the State Dining Room — or the vast South Lawn, which can accommodate hundreds. The couple’s first diplomatic sit-down (not an official “state dinner”), in honor of South Korean President Kim Young-sam and his wife, Son Myung-soon, was just a small taste of the glitz the Clintons had in store.
“We love entertaining,” Hillary Clinton told the Chicago Tribune while on her way from the dinner to a post-meal concert by soprano Jessye Norman. “The more the merrier, as far as we’re concerned,” she added. The Clintons would go on to host more than 20 official state dinners, and they might still hold the record for the largest such affair — 700 guests attended the couple’s final state dinner, in honor of India.
So the Trumps, who enjoy a good party at Mar-a-Lago, the family-branded “winter White House” in Palm Beach, Fla., most likely have more than just menus on their minds in the lead-up to Tuesday’s party. While hosting is fun (and apparently Melania Trump’s favorite part of the gig), a bar will be set for parties to come.