The first big social event for the Trump White House is this weekend
Typically, the president gives a welcome speech and toast at the black-tie gala
While many Americans watch the Academy Awards on Sunday, governors of the United States will be reveling in a different kind of glamor – in person, at the White House.
The first big social event of President Donald Trump’s administration, the annual Governors Dinner, will take place Sunday evening. What does it entail? And will the White House be ready?
The highlight of the National Governors Association’s annual meeting in Washington, the dinner is considered one of the year’s “major events,” says Jeremy Bernard, President Barack Obama’s social secretary from 2011 to 2015.
“It is referred to as a gala, and it’s black-tie,” Bernard said. “There is a receiving line in the Blue Room during the reception. The dinner takes place in the State Dining Room, with the president, the first lady, the vice president, the second lady and all of the guests.” Typically, the president gives a welcome speech and toast.
Laura Dowling, who served as chief White House floral designer under Obama for six years, echoes Bernard.
“The Governor’s Dinner is one of the most important social events held at the White House each year,” she said. “In terms of scope, style and planning requirements, it is just one step below a state dinner in organizational complexity.”
The White House appears to understand the need to make a solid first impression on its guests come Sunday; press secretary Sean Spicer earlier this week told reporters that First Lady Melania Trump was deep into the planning.
“Mrs. Trump looks forward to putting on a phenomenal event, and the First Lady has put a lot of time into this event that’s going to occur in welcoming our nation’s governors to the Capitol,” he said. “And I have a feeling that that’s where the President and the First Lady are going to be focused on Sunday night, and so we’ll go from there.”
Spicer’s remarks were confirmation that there is activity in the East Wing, which more than one month into Trump’s presidency still has just two official staff members in the office of the First Lady.
Lindsay Reynolds, the chief of staff, and Rickie Niceta Lloyd, the social secretary, have been on board a handful of weeks; and the acting senior adviser to the First Lady, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, is reportedly splitting her time between New York City and Washington.
One of the First Lady’s longtime friends and confidants, Winston Wolkoff was previously been the events director at Vogue magazine, orchestrating high-wattage events like the Met Gala.
Bernard, who currently resides in Los Angeles and is co-authoring a book with George W. Bush’s former White House social secretary Lea Berman, agrees that planning for the Governors Dinner has likely been well underway since January 20, or even prior, as was the case during his tenure as head facilitator of White House events.
“The majority of the decisions had been decided by now, probably still working on table seating with some last-minute changes,” recalls Bernard. “On Saturday, or Friday afternoon, depending on what is occurring at the White House, the decor was put into place and the entertainment rehearsed on Saturday or Sunday for the post-dinner reception.”
Under the Obama administration, entertainment for the Governors Dinner ranged from Hall & Oates one year to Earth, Wind & Fire, who kicked off the very first dinner in 2009.
Bernard added that Obama particularly liked singer Sara Bareilles, who performed at the dinner in 2014: “He mentioned it to me several times in the next week.”
The current White House hasn’t yet revealed entertainment details about Sunday’s extravaganza; requests for comment by CNN have gone unanswered
Bernard speculates from his experience that the first big dinner will be, and should be, an all-hands-on-deck situation, especially for White House residence staff, who stay on from administration to administration, only leaving if they are officially let go.
“Though I’m not certain how much staff is in place now, considering how late the hires have been for the East Wing, I would assume a great deal of the work has probably fallen to the White House ushers, especially the chief usher, Angella Reid, the florist, the calligrapher’s office, the Military Office, which provides social aides, and White House Intergovernmental Affairs staff,” Bernard said.
“They probably would need volunteers, due to lack of staff, for check-in at entrances,” he said. “An event designer might be assisting in the event. This would seem likely considering the constraints.”
“Because the dinner honors the country’s highest elected state officials, the governors of the 50 states, the event has a definite air of pomp and circumstance,” says Dowling, who oversaw the design and preparation of the flowers and incorporating them into the décor. “I would start thinking about concepts, color schemes and story themes to present to the First Lady. My process involved developing a concept or overarching theme, a color palette for linens, flowers and table décor that would carry out the First Lady’s vision of making it a warm and welcoming place for all of her guests.”
Dowling, author of the recently released book “Floral Diplomacy at the White House,” also dipped into the historic elements available to her, things that only the White House has at its disposal.
“One year we used the Johnson china, with its symbolism of Lady Bird Johnson’s ‘wildflowers across America’ motif, to underscore the all-American theme,” she said. “In general, I always tried to incorporate special pieces from the White House collection in my décor presentations – the Jackie Kennedy vermeil bamboo centerpieces, the engraved 1939 World’s Fair glassware, the King Charles flatware – since these were the things that made an evening at the White House unique and memorable,” she said.
The current chief White House floral designer is Hedieh Ghaffarian, an Iranian-born florist who for many years owned her own floral business in California.
It is the First Lady, ultimately, and the President, who make the final decisions on an event of this size, says Bernard, who worked closely with Michelle Obama weeks in advance of the governors dinners.
“Mrs. Obama was very active in the planning,” he said. “I would usually bring her three theme options for her to review. Usually in January, I would have three tables set up – sometimes four – each a different design example, and she would often mix and match what was proposed. So she might switch the chairs from one design to the one she chose. She would often change the flowers from one to another. The review of the options was set up in the Diplomatic Room or Family Dining Room, whatever was free at the time.”
Melania Trump’s arrival in Washington is anticipated this weekend; she has spent the past two weekends in Palm Beach at the first couple’s “winter White House,” Mar-a-Lago, which already has the distinction of being a Trump brand. The White House, however, is very much a clean slate, and the event will set the tone for what could be to come.
“The Governors’ Dinner is an opportunity for the new first lady to usher in a new era of elegant White House entertaining,” says Dowling. “I think it’s an exciting time.”