The Washington Post

How much do state dinners cost, and are they worth the expense?

1.) Why is a state dinner worth the money? President Obama and French President François Hollande have already spent a lot of time together on this visit. What’s the extra benefit of staging a huge dinner?

Well, the first thing to know is that the dinner isn’t really for them. It’s mainly for you.

The state dinner is a flourish of diplomatic pantomime, designed to impress the public in both leaders’ countries. “It’s a useful way to signal a close relationship, reinforce it, [or] mark a new phase in the relationship,” said Erik Goldstein, a Boston University professor who has written about the politics of state dinners.

The dinner, Goldstein said, is the show that signifies the substance of a broader state visit. “It is theater. A state visit is diplomatic theater,” he said. “This [dinner] is the punchline.”

And that theater matters, both here and abroad. Only a fraction of visiting leaders are honored with an official state dinner — this dinner will be Obama’s sixth, in five years in office — so the event is a kind of certification of the visiting leader’s own power.

Donald Ensenat, who was the Chief of Protocol under President George W. Bush, recalled heads of state who quietly inquired about the possibility of having this honor for their country.

“‘We haven’t had one in a long time,’ is the way they put it,” Ensenat said.

2.) So how much does it cost?

CBS News published the costs of President Obama’s first five state dinners, given from 2009 to 2011. On the low end was a 2011 dinner for South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak, which cost $203,053, according to CBS. News reports indicated there were about 200 guests, which put the per-head cost at about $1,000.

The most expensive dinner reported by CBS was a 2009 event for the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It cost $572,187, according to CBS. That was more than $1,700 per head. Which must have made it extra-aggravating when the whole thing was overshadowed by a pair of party-crashers, the infamous Salahis.

“I never viewed ‘em as terribly expensive, in terms of the incremental cost. The White House is kinda set up for this kind of stuff, with a permanent staff” to cook the food and organize the events, said Ensenat, the Bush administration protocol chief. His flashiest gesture at any state dinner was to book an appearance by one of the Australian prime minister’s favorite country artists, Kenny Chesney.

In Congress, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) — who chairs the House oversight committee — wrote a letter to the State Department in 2012 to complain about reports of high costs at Obama’s state dinners. “During these tough economic times, Americans are reining in their spending whenever possible,” Issa wrote. “The Executive Branch should be mindful of this.”

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.

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