WASHINGTON (AP) — An invitation to a White House state dinner has always been one of Washington’s most sought-after tickets. There’s the elegant setting, VIP guests in tuxedos and designer gowns and a four-course meal served up by America’s most famous kitchen.
But don’t get your hopes up. President Barack Obama has held the fewest number of state dinners since Harry S. Truman, who left office 62 years ago.
In his first six years, Obama held just seven state dinners. He’ll hold at least two more this year, for the leaders of Japan, on April 28, and China, later in the year.
Truman, who became president in 1945, held six dinners during nearly eight years in office.
Shrouded in pageantry, a White House state dinner is the highest diplomatic honor the U.S. reserves for allies and other countries. It’s also one of the most lavish affairs the government puts on. The State Department pays the entire tab, which averaged about $500,000 each for Obama’s seven dinners, said White House spokesman Patrick Ventrell.
Ventrell and others said cost was a concern when Obama took office in January 2009 amid the worst economic slide since the 1930s. Officials were sensitive to the economic distress blanketing the country and were looking for other ways the president could cement relationships with foreign leaders without spending hundreds of thousands of public dollars on an opulent black-tie dinner.
Obama held his first state dinner toward the end of his first year in office, honoring then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Later dinners were for Mexico, China, Germany, South Korea, Britain and France.
Aides say Obama’s overall level of engagement with foreign counterparts and the different ways he interacts with them is more important than the number of state dinners penciled on his calendar. “State dinners are one tool of diplomacy that can be used and used effectively, and sometimes we use them,” Ventrell said.
Obama has met hundreds of times with his counterparts and other foreign officials in settings as formal as the Oval Office and as casual as a Hawaiian golf course. They also speak by phone.
“There’s no concern that should be raised by the number of state dinners,” said Capricia Marshall, who led the State Department team that oversees visits by foreign dignitaries until she stepped down in 2013.
Lyndon B. Johnson topped the 11 presidents who followed Truman, cramming 54 state dinners into his 62-month tenure in the Oval Office, White House Historical Association data show.
Ronald Reagan, the actor-turned-politician who knew a thing or two about entertaining, held 52 dinners during two terms.
Even Jimmy Carter, who liked to project an image of frugality, managed 28 state dinners in four years as president.
A state dinner for a foreign leader marks the finale of a state visit, which opens with herald trumpets and cannon salutes on the South Lawn of the White House, followed by meetings, a joint news conference with the U.S. president and an elaborate State Department luncheon.
Then comes the state dinner, where a tuxedo-clad president raises a glass and toasts relations between the countries in front of hundreds of invited guests, ranging from Cabinet secretaries and other senior administration officials to members of Congress, business leaders, celebrities and others, as well as the working media.
“Make no mistake about it: every country wants to have a state visit,” said Ann Stock, a White House social secretary under President Bill Clinton.
Obama and recent presidents have used multiple formats and settings apart from a state dinner to forge ties with their counterparts.
In 2013, Obama met Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands retreat in Southern California. Obama returned there the following year to consult with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Obama also took German Chancellor Angela Merkel to dinner at the upscale 1789 restaurant in Georgetown; French President Francois Hollande to the Virginia estate of Thomas Jefferson, a former president and former U.S. ambassador to France; and British Prime Minister David Cameron to an NCAA tournament game in Ohio.
On Hawaii vacations, Obama has shared his golf game with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.
George W. Bush welcomed more than a dozen foreign leaders to his Texas ranch, which became a popular venue for Bush’s brand of casual diplomacy. He even treated then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to a tour of Graceland, the Memphis, Tennessee, home of Elvis Presley, one of Koizumi’s musical idols.
Reagan welcomed Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to his Santa Barbara, California, ranch. Richard Nixon received Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev at his home in San Clemente, California.
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