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State Dinners at the White House

Today’s post comes from the National Archives Office of Presidential Libraries.

King David Kalakaua of Hawaii was the first head of state to be honored with a White House state dinner on December 12, 1874, by President and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant. In the years that have followed, state dinners have come to signify the utmost respect for visiting heads of state. Each state dinner is a historic event with the power to cement friendships with allies and foster cooperation.

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Invitation to the state dinner for President Giscard d’Estaing of France, May17, 1976.

Months of meticulous planning go into a state dinner. The guest of honor’s country, culture, and favored preferences are thoroughly researched. The First Lady often chooses the décor and entertainment to highlight a certain aspect of American culture. Together, these considerations are translated into invitations, menus, guest lists, and entertainment. The results can be a form of diplomatic dialogue between the host and guest cultures.

In 1976, First Lady Betty Ford chose “light” as the theme for the state dinner honoring French President Giscard d’Estaing. The theme was inspired by France’s Bicentennial gift to the United States, a sound and light show staged at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Centerpieces were designed for each table using early American lighting items loaned from the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. These included a period lanterns, candelabra, and candlesticks made of tin, pewter, brass, and wrought iron.

The floral arrangements featured anemones, the favorite flower of Mrs. Giscard d’Estaing. The tableclothes featured reproductions of an original French textile dating from around 1775 from the Textile Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the exchange of state gifts following the arrival ceremony, President Giscard d’Estaing presented President Ford with an antique 18th-century printing press that was set up to print copies of the Declaration of Independence.

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Presidents Ford and Giscard d’Estaing view the state gift from France, an antique 18th- century printing press set up to print copies of the Declaration of Independence, May 17, 1976.

The White House took into account that the French had indicated that they would serve lobster and duckling at the reciprocal dinner at their embassy the following evening. Mrs. Ford approved a menu of Columbia River salmon, sauce verte, filet of beef, artichokes Saint Germain, mushroooms Provencale, bibb lettuce salad, brie cheese, basket grand marnier, petits fours, and demitasse.

Although state dinners are watched closely for the glamor and protocol on display, the evenings also serve the serious diplomatic function of solidifying strong international alliances. When Franklin D. Roosevelt invited England’s King George VI for a visit to the United States, the significance of the invitation did not go unnoticed. No reigning British monarch had ever set foot on American soil, not even in colonial times.

FDR’s invitation to the King signified the dawn of a new era in American and British cooperation. With Europe poised on the brink of war, FDR realized the necessity of fostering closer ties between the two democracies. FDR believed so strongly in the need for cooperation that he pursued this change in foreign policy at the risk of losing domestic support from the very strong isolationist and anti-British segments of the electorate. FDR planned every minute detail of the visit to ensure the King’s success in winning over the sympathy and support of the American people.

At the state dinner held on June 8, 1939, a concert of American music was chosen for the entertainment including spirituals, cowboy ballads, and folk songs. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited African American opera singer Marian Anderson to perform in a program that included “Ava Maria” for the royal audience.

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Seating arrangements for the state dinner for George VI of the United Kingdom, hosted by President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 8, 1939.

Ultimately, President and Mrs. Roosevelt’s hospitality paid off. George VI’s visit to the United States was a key component in developing a stronger political and social alliance between the United States and Great Britain. In President Roosevelt’s toast to the King, he expressed a wish that still captures the spirit of the state dinner tradition, saying, “May this kind of understanding between our countries grow ever closer, and may our friendship prosper.”

We’ve put together a gallery here of White House state visit images from the holdings of the Presidential Libraries of the National Archives. We also have a Tumblr blog on the state dinners hosted by President and Mrs. Ford, where you can explore invitations, menus, state gifts, and photos: http://fordlibrarymuseum.tumblr.com/.

Learn more at http://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/.

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King and Queen Prajadhipok of Siam at the White House for a state visit with President Hoover, April 30, 1931.

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President and Mrs. Truman and President Eurico Gaspar Dutra of Brazil at a state dinner, September 5, 1947.

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President and Mrs. Eisenhower at the state dinner for President and Madame de Gaulle of France, April 22, 1960.

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State dinner for President Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast. From left to right, President and Madame Houphouet-Boigny, President and Mrs. Kennedy at the Grand Staircase, May 22, 1962.

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President and Mrs. Nixon and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR en route to the Blue Room to receive dinner guests, June 18, 1973.

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Sarah Vaughn and Dizzy Gillespie entertain guest at the state dinner for the Shah of Iran, November 15, 1977.

11_RR_State Dinner_Turkey in Rose Garden 1988

State dinner for President Kenan Evren of Turkey, hosted by President and Mrs. Reagan in the Rose Garden, June 27, 1988.

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A florist works on arrangements for the state dinner for King Hassan II of Morocco, September 26, 1991.

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President and Mrs. Bush escort Prime Minister Mazowiecki of Poland at a state dinner, March 21, 1990.

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Table setting and decoration for the state dinner for President Jiang of China, hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton, October 29, 1997.

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State dinner menu for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mrs. Gursharan Kaur of India, hosted by President and Mrs. George W. Bush, July 18, 2005.

 

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Comments

Comment from DEREK NESBIT
Time March 15, 2014 at 12:17 pm

HI CAN ANYONE ME IN 1976 I WENT TO THE USA WITH HM THE QUEEN AS A YOUNG QUEENS GUARDS MAN AT STATE DINNER AT THE WHITE HOUSE ON 07/07/1976 AND GOT MY PHOTO TAKEN WITH PRESIDENT FORD AND DR HENRY KISSENGER I HAVE BEEN TRY FOR MANY YEARS TRY TO FIND THIS PHOTO TO SHOW MY GRAND KIDS IF ANYONE CAN HELP PLEASE CONTACT ME MANY THANKS

Mary Reply:

I directed your question to the Ford Library, and someone there will be contacting you with advice.