State dinners have several elements, including a VIP guest list, delicious cuisine and high fashion. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look.
President Joe Biden offers a toast during a State Dinner with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the White House in Washington, D.C. on June 22, 2023. (© Susan Walsh/AP Photo)
White House state dinners offer the most glamorous American hospitality. Served when a U.S. president hosts another leader during a state visit, the formal dinners also put diplomacy on the menu. “It isn’t just about food and entertainment, but about keeping America’s alliances together,” says Matthew Costello, senior historian at the White House Historical Association.
The dinners bring allies and even adversaries closer. They celebrate triumphs too, such as in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter hosted the leaders of Israel and Egypt after they signed a peace treaty.
The first state dinner was served in 1874, when President Ulysses S. Grant hosted the last king of Hawaii, David Kalākaua. There have been more than 300 since. Ronald Reagan takes the prize for hosting the most—59 during his presidency. Not all state dinners hosted by the White House are served there. For instance, the Reagans hosted a state dinner (according to Reagan’s diary) at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco, and the Kennedys once hosted at Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington.
Are you ready to experience a state dinner? Throughout, you will respond to questions that many a White House staffer or VIP invitee contemplates leading up to one of these historic events.
How will you help?
When the White House holds a state dinner, it’s all hands on deck. Staff from several agencies handle everything from selecting flowers to planning transportation. Every decision is made keeping the social customs of a visiting leader in mind. On the evening of the dinner, military social aides escort invited guests and answer their questions.
A woman with a flower arrangement pushes though the State Dining Room on January 19, 2011, as she prepares for a state dinner in honor of China’s president. (© Carolyn Kaster/AP)
White House florist: Not easy! You’ll need to choose blooms that marry qualities of the United States and the visitor’s home. The flowers for the March 2016 state dinner honoring Canadian President Justin Trudeau were inspired by the scenic lands between the U.S. and Canada and the colors of spring. “We have incorporated some yellow, which is the first color of spring, and it’s the color of friendship,” chief floral designer Hedieh Ghaffarian told the media.
White House Social Secretary Deesha Dyer speaks to the media during a preview of the state dinner to honor Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife in the State Dining Room in October 2016. (© Carolyn Kaster/AP)
White House social secretary: Can you multitask like a pro? Start by building good relationships with the president, the first lady and their staffs. They are “whose vision you have to execute,” says Deesha Dyer, former social secretary (2015-2017). She is detail oriented (arranged invitations, seating charts and entertainment) and also a people person. “You have to love and want to work with people, because the White House is a place that’s open to everyone,” Dyer says.
Chief usher: Hospitality pro? The usher decides whether dinner will be in the State Dining Room or on the South Lawn. (If the latter, he or she gets tents set up and hires trolleys to bring guests from the South Portico to the tables.) The usher also checks the presidential china for chips, reviews decorations, collaborates on wine pairings and calligraphy, organizes a coat check area, manages the construction of outdoor ramps, and makes sure all workers at the event, including carpenters, wear formal attire. Afterward, the team works into the morning to return the White House to its normal state. They find items left behind—an earring or scarf—and return them to their owners via the social secretary.
U.S. Marine Band director: Talented! The Marine Band comes to state dinners ready to play music favored by the president, first lady and their guests of honor. The evening kicks off with a rendition of “Hail, America,” which is often followed by popular tunes of the day. Colonel Jason K. Fettig, the band’s current director, remembers playing on the White House roof at the 2019 dinner for Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. “It was the strangest perspective to be conducting and to turn around and see 300 guests in the Rose Garden below me,” he says. “It was a miracle that it did not rain.”
High fashion is often on display at state dinners. The first lady, in particular, dresses to make a statement, often in support of U.S. fashion designers.
At the 2022 dinner honoring French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte , first lady Jill Biden wore a dress by Oscar de la Renta, an American fashion house that has dressed first ladies since Jacqueline Kennedy. Young American designers Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim custom-made Jill Biden’s dress.