FP Explainer

Who Decides Who Gets a State Dinner?

The president.


On Nov. 24, the White House threw open its doors for its first official state dinner of the Obama era, given in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. This week, U.S. President Barack Obama is hosting French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ex-supermodel wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. But the French leader is not being fêted in such grand style, instead dining alone with Barack and Michelle in their private quarters. Why?

Because that’s how Obama wanted it. Scores of world leaders visit Washington yearly, but very few receive the whole official shebang. State dinners are a highly sought-after honor, and they are given at the discretion of the president on the recommendation of his top foreign-policy advisors, his chief of staff, and the State Department, among others.

Over the past two decades, they have become less and less frequent. During his two terms in the White House, George W. Bush gave just six state dinners, while Bill Clinton gave 29, George H.W. Bush gave 24 (in his one term), and Ronald Reagan gave 57.

Why? One reason is that they are extraordinarily expensive, costing upwards of half a million bucks apiece, and time-consuming for the White House staff to organize. Foreign dignitaries and their delegations more often receive "official dinners," one step down but still plenty lavish. Official dinners are generally four-course black-tie affairs, but tend to have less fuss, lower-profile entertainment, and smaller guest lists than state dinners — 100 to 200 guests, as opposed to 300 or more. And then there are "working dinners," where a much smaller group of around eight people per side continues doing business while they eat.

But much depends on the personality of the president. George W. Bush didn’t care much for pomp and circumstance and preferred to show his affection for other world leaders by inviting them to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, or to Camp David for a working session with no distractions. For instance, former Danish Prime Minister and current NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a close ally, received the high honor of a bike ride with POTUS.

Heads of state generally receive just one white-wedding-style state dinner during their tenure, if they get one at all. Those lucky enough to receive an invitation — ambassadors, high-ranking government officials, emissaries from the arts, letters, and legal communities — are asked to wear white or black tie. They are met at the White House by an all-military color guard. The president and the first lady greet each guest in an arrival line, introducing him or her to the visiting dignitaries. Then, the party sits for a multi-course dinner (served on dishes from the White House’s enormous fine china collection) and serious entertainment. In November, famed chef Marcus Samuelsson cooked up Indian-inspired fare before R&B singer Jennifer Hudson took to the stage. The whole affair was televised on C-SPAN.

Most of the responsibility for planning the dinners falls to the White House social secretary — currently Obama fundraiser Julianna Smoot, after the ouster of Desirée Rodgers, under whose watch some uninvited guests infamously gate-crashed the Singh dinner. The State Department’s Office of Protocol advises the White House in extraordinary detail on the guest of honor and his or her dietary, social, and political conventions, while regional National Security Council directors closely supervise how all aspects of the visit will affect bilateral relations.

Last week, the White House announced its next state dinner, honoring Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife, Margarita Zavala, on May 19. But tonight, Sarkozy et épouse dine with the Obamas. Interestingly, the French media have played up the fact that it is the first time this White House has held such an intimate dinner for a visiting foreign leader.

Thanks to the State Department’s Office of the Chief of Protocol, Damon Wilson of the Atlantic Council, and Stephen Flanagan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Annie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.