A little less pomp and pageantry: Obama hosts fewer state dinners

Story highlights

  • White House state dinners have a storied history
  • The fetes are considered an opportunity to strengthen foreign ties
  • State dinners are highly coveted events full of pomp and pageantry
  • Recent Presidents have held fewer dinners than their predecessors

The state dinner is Washington's top fete. And over the years, the Obama administration has weathered the party crashing Salahis — an incident which launched congressional scrutiny of White House security -- and a dinner-canceling snub from the Brazilian President last year after learning the United States was spying on her government.

This White House has preferred to pare the pageantry in favor of quieter dinners with other world leaders. After all, state affairs, like the one set for Tuesday night for French President Francois Hollande, are glitzy and require huge guest lists and stodgier protocols.

In fact, the Obamas have hosted just six state dinners, which is about the same number as George W. Bush. Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush threw more than 20, and Ronald Reagan hosted 35.

Nonetheless, the state dinner, a tradition formalized under Ulysses S. Grant, is still a highly coveted social soiree.

Here's the scoop:

Getting the details right: The White House social secretaries, State Department chief of protocol, first lady's office and others all work together to ensure that everything from culturally appropriate menus are prepared and customs honored.

During the Obama's first state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh guests ate red lentil soup with fresh cheese and a choice of entrees -- roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney, chick peas and okra for vegetarians, or green curry prawns, among other items.

Tables were adorned with magnolia branches -- from species native to both India and the United States. Of course, this is also the party that Michaele and Tareq Salahi managed to attend without an invitation, so sometimes details slip through the cracks.

The attire: State dinners are black tie affairs complete with tuxedos and designer gowns. New York-based designer Naeem Khan created a one of a kind strapless gold and silver gown which first lady Michelle Obama donned during the administration's first state dinner.

For her first state dinner former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy wore "wore a Grecian-style gown of pale yellow silk organza touched with brilliants," according to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Not all of the attendees are fans of formal attire. Nikita Khrushchev, then-leader of the former Soviet Union, famously refused to wear tie and tails to the state dinner thrown in his honor by President Dwight Eisenhower. "My husband would just as soon dress that way, too, if I'd let him," Mamie Eisenhower reportedly said.

The setting: Well, the State Dining Room at the White House, of course. Tables are adorned with fine linen, china from presidencies past are often used, and the room is lit by gilded candelabras and chandeliers. Often, as in tonight's fete, dinners are hosted in a large white tent on the South Lawn of the White House. The event is sort of the wonk world's red carpet event and guests stream past a sea of cameras. The movie, "The Butler," a loosely factual account of the life Eugene Allen, a butler at the White House for 34 years and through eight administrations, shows Allen and his wife attending a state dinner hosted by the Reagans for West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Scoring an invite: If you have to ask, you're probably not on the list.

The list is culled from recommendations from the President and first lady, top government officials, the Pentagon, members of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the State Department. Hollywood stars and community and business leaders are also often asked to attend.

According to the White House website on state dinners, "Behind the festive exterior of the social scene, the important business of government goes on -- information is gathered -- opinions exchanged -- powerful connections made and appearances upheld. For these reasons White House invitations are the most important and the most sought after in the nation's social whirl."

A seat at the table: In the 1960s, Mrs. Kennedy dispensed with the long banquet tables of her predecessors in favor of round tables designed to give all guests an equal opportunity to rub elbows. It is a tradition that subsequent administrations have kept.

The music: During the Obama administration state dinner guests have enjoyed music from such artists as Beyoncé, Rodrigo y Gabriela, John Legend and British folk-rockers Mumford & Sons. On Tuesday night, Mary J. Blige will entertain.