Why were the flower arrangements purple? And why did Michelle choose the Eisenhower china? Anita McBride, Laura Bush’s White House chief of staff, unlocks the mysterious rules of the state dinner. Plus, Rebecca Dana on how the White House went glam.
How do you measure the success of a White House State Dinner? Tradition guides the massive planning required to execute these events but every White House occupant puts her own stamp on diplomatic entertaining. The India State Dinner (let’s remember however that the prime minister of India is not a head of state) is now the standard by which all future Obama state dinners will be measured.
Mrs. Obama, like her predecessors, evidently paid close attention to the details of the menu, décor, floral arrangements, and the symbolism that makes these events special and memorable for a foreign guest.
Click Image to View Fashions from the White House State Dinner
One example is the choice of the Eisenhower State china service as one of the three used for this event—a reminder that Dwight Eisenhower was the first American president to visit India after its independence. The George W. Bush State china service now has its place in dinner history, too, as this marks the first time it has been used for a State dinner.
Some may measure success in the impressive guest list. An inclusive list represents a cross-section of America from business, government, media, the arts, sports, science, labor and of course a president’s friends and supporters. This process can take months and starts the minute the invitation has been extended and accepted by the foreign guest. This final list was too large for the White House state rooms but at least the massive tent on the South Lawn was in view of the White House. Hollywood was there, as was the media. (By most measures, however, leaving the president’s table during a State Dinner to call Larry King Live is bad form).
The executive and legislative branches of our government, with 10 members of the Cabinet and nearly 20 members of Congress, were well-represented. Notably missing, however, was anyone from the third branch of our government, the U.S. Supreme Court.
Others will scrutinize the menu, the décor, and the floral arrangements. For new White House chief florist Laura Dowling, the evening was her own successful “coming out” party. The symbolic use of colors and products that reflect the best of America—including ingredients from the White House garden—all combine to honor the foreign guest. The deep purple flower arrangements at each table that paid homage to the state bird of India—the peacock—in their own way made an important diplomatic statement .
• Rebecca Dana: The White House Goes Glam The entertainment must be stellar, too. And with five distinct performances, it may have made for a long night but there was no shortage of artistic talent at this State dinner.
And of course there is the dress. At this party no matter what anyone else is wearing—the first lady’s dress is like a bride’s—it’s the only one in the room that is eagerly anticipated and the only one that really matters. The proud Indian-American dress designer Naeem Khan, said it took 3 weeks and 40 people to make the dress at the designer’s family factory in India.
But the most important part of these events is the value we place on the relationship and partnership between our country and another nation and the honor and respect we display to that nation’s leader on his or her visit. In this regard, we need to look no further than the gracious words spoken by Prime Minister Singh in his dinner toast. “You do the people of India great honor” he said to the president and first lady, and “we are overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality”.
That is the most important measure of success.
Anita McBride served in the Administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and served as Chief of Staff to first lady Laura Bush from 2005 to 2009.