For a White House that lives by the mantra “No Drama Obama,” state dinners have provided enough suspense to fill a “House of Cards” episode.
From the party-crashing Salahis in 2009 to gossip about which girlfriend French President Francois Hollande might bring to a White House dinner next week, some of the events President Barack Obama has hosted have become heartburn-inducing affairs.
“I feel sorry for the protocol office of the White House,” said Erik Goldstein, an international relations professor at Boston University who has studied state dinners. “They have to come up with every contingency, and this is one they probably couldn’t have anticipated,” he said, in a reference to the scandal involving the French president’s love life. Hollande is coming stag, French officials said this week.
State dinners have been a staple of the White House since 1874 when Ulysses S. Grant hosted the monarch of the Sandwich Islands, which later became Hawaii, Obama’s home state.
There’s something about the gowns, toasts, elegant table displays, fine wine and entertainment that captures the imagination. It’s about as close as American politics gets to a royal affair or Cinderella’s ball, with a Hollywood feel that helps explain why Ronald Reagan was so comfortable in the milieu that he hosted 35 of them.
Last year’s “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and 1995’s “The American President” capitalized on the public’s fascination with the state dinner as an avatar of prestige and power.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement that state visits and dinners “are reserved for celebrating our most important relationships around the globe,” and “there are few partnerships older or more important than the one between the United States and France.” White House officials declined to discuss Hollande’s personal situation or how it affected dinner planning.
Anita McBride, former first lady Laura Bush’s chief of staff, offered this advice to the White House for the Feb. 11 dinner: “They have to focus on why they invited Hollande to dinner in the first place, which had nothing to do with the females in his life.”
For all the carefully cultivated symbolism of these dinners, and months of preparation by the State Department, first lady’s office, National Security Council and Secret Service, things can go awry -- and they have for Obama.
When the president chose India as his first state dinner in 2009, it reflected his administration’s planned pivot to Asia, an effort to counterbalance China.
Those global strategic messages were promptly forgotten when Tareq and Michaele Salahi, aspiring reality TV stars who have since divorced, managed to slip, uninvited, into the dinner and be photographed with Obama.
The incident triggered an investigation and changes by the Secret Service, and criticism of then-White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers, who resigned months later.
A state dinner for China in 2011 spurred criticism of the administration’s lavish spending on wine and extravagant entertainment to honor an economic rival so soon after the worst recession in seven decades.
A 2005 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley from Washington State, one of the wines poured that night, was $115 a bottle at release. The wine earned a rare 100-point rating from critic Robert Parker. By the time of the White House dinner, it listed for as much as $399 per bottle, according to wine websites.
The Obama administration had followed past practice by listing the year and appellation of wines on the dinner menu. That stopped after the China dinner and has yet to resume.
“An American wine will be paired with each course,” menus since then have said.
Dinners with leaders from Germany, South Korea and the U.K. went more smoothly. Then what would have been the only state dinner of 2013 never happened.
Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff refused to attend a dinner planned for October amid the furor over Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. spying on foreign leaders. Among those under U.S. surveillance were Rousseff and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Obama is still seeking to repair relations with foreign leaders because of the program.
Now comes Hollande, 59, who last month went through a messy split with his long-term girlfriend and France’s de-facto first lady, Valerie Trierweiler, amid reports he’d fallen for Julie Gayet, 41, an actress.
A photo spread purportedly showing Hollande slipping out to meet Gayet, and Trierweiler’s hospitalization in emotional distress, fueled the tabloid-style coverage.
The tryst isn’t on the agenda for next week’s event, whose attendees are expected to include Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
“We’re engaged with France on so many issues,” from pressure on Syria to nuclear negotiations with Iran, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy center.
A state dinner for France is overdue since President Bill Clinton hosted President Jacques Chirac in 1996, said Conley, a former State Department official in the Bush administration.
The event can give leaders a chance “to better understand the needs of the market and raise the visibility of France” as a place to do business, said Jean Marc Gaultier, president of the French American Chamber of Commerce.
With the automotive industry booming in France, Gaultier said, he expects many of the guests to represent the automobile, aerospace and information technology sectors.
While some business may be conducted, attendance is mostly about the food, wine and highbrow company.
State visits are “one of the oldest forms of diplomacy, and it’s really about atmospherics,” said Goldstein. “The state dinner, in particular, tends to be the visual moment.”
Attendees can expect a thousand camera clicks when Hollande bows to give First Lady Michelle Obama the customary Gallic kiss on the hand.
The first visit of a ruling monarch for a dinner at the White House was in 1874 with King David Kalakaua of the Sandwich Islands as the honored guest. It wasn’t until President Dwight D. Eisenhower that the modern protocol of the state dinner was established, with the visit of South Korea’s president in 1954, Goldstein said.
Obama’s last dinner, in March 2012 for U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife, Samantha, illustrated the protocol for such events, while there’s some flexibility on the details.
There’s a formal dinner arrival ceremony, toasts by the president and the foreign leader, an elaborate menu featuring produce from the White House garden, and fare representing the country being honored.
Some winemakers reflect a symbolic tie to the country being honored, through ethnic heritage or exports. Ulises Valdez, of the Valdez Family Winery and Tasting Room in Sonoma County, California, had come without papers to the U.S. from Mexico, worked at picking grapes and received amnesty during the Reagan era. His 2008 Chardonnay was poured at the 2010 state dinner for his native country.
A reported record 362 guests attended the U.K. dinner in a tent on the White House South Lawn. The event got a “state dinner” designation even though Cameron’s attendance was categorized only as an “official” visit because the queen, not the prime minister, is head of state.
The Obamas and Camerons sat at a large head table that also had chairs filled by actor George Clooney and billionaire Warren Buffett. Other guests included a British architect designing a U.S. museum, Obama campaign fundraisers, corporate executives and gay rights advocates.
That the players in this drama are relatively young and glamorous adds to the focus on the Obamas’ events.
“When there’s youth and beauty involved,” said historian and author Sally Bedell Smith, “there is always more attention.”