As part of an official state visit, the White House State Dinner is an opportunity for the President and First Lady to honor a visiting head of state. In addition to expressing goodwill and hospitality, the state dinner showcases global power and influence and sets the tone for the continuation of dialogue between the President and the visiting head of state.
The tradition of state dinners originated in 1874, when President Ulysses Grant hosted King David Kalakaua of the Sandwich Islands (modern-day Hawaii). In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt expanded the State Dining Room as part of a larger White House renovation, allowing for larger gatherings. While the White House underwent a complete interior reconstruction from 1948 to 1952, President Truman lived at Blair House and state dinners took place in local hotels.
The current traditions and formalities of state dinners were solidified during the 1950s and 60s. The First Lady and her staff are responsible for the elaborate planning and attention behind the ceremony of the state dinner. The event involves the creation of invitations and carefully selected guest lists, menus, flowers, table settings, seating arrangements and entertainment for the evening. The First Lady works closely with her social secretary, the executive residence staff and the State Department to coordinate every detail of the night.
Notable State Dinners:
- June 1939: A state dinner hosted for King George VI, the first visit to the United States by a British monarch.
- During World War II, President Roosevelt used State Dinners to recognize leaders of Allied-recognized exiled governments controlled by Axis powers, such as Greece and Yugoslavia.
- September 1959: Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev was a guest of honor hosted by President Dwight Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie Eisenhower during the height of the Cold War.
- December 1987: State dinner between General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union and President Ronald Reagan after the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, decreasing the Cold War buildup of intermediate range missiles.
- May 2007: President Bush hosted a white-tie state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
- January 2011: President Barack Obama hosted a dinner for President Hu Jintao of China as part of his final trip to Washington as China’s leader.
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About the white house historical association
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy envisioned a restored White House that conveyed a sense of history through its decorative and fine arts. She sought to inspire Americans, especially children, to explore and engage with American history and its presidents. In 1961, the White House Historical Association was established to support her vision to preserve and share the Executive Mansion’s legacy for generations to come. Supported entirely by private resources, the Association’s mission is to assist in the preservation of the state and public rooms, fund acquisitions for the White House permanent collection, and educate the public on the history of the White House. Since its founding, the Association has given more than $45 million to the White House in fulfillment of its mission.
To learn more about the White House Historical Association, please visit WhiteHouseHistory.org.
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