Comment: In blood-sport town, state dinners throw all off game

For one evening, the dress is formal, politics are put away and there’s room for delight and wonder.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

At a state dinner, no one ever really seems to know what do. The first-timers look shell shocked and slightly embarrassed, but even the veterans fumble, not quite knowing where to cast their gaze.

A White House state dinner remains an event that throws people off balance. They are asked to be nonpolitical when politics is their blood sport. They’re asked to be elegant and formal when they spend no small amount of time boasting of their down-home bona fides. The voluble are rendered mute. They are asked to dress up when the world has embraced an almost selfish degree of informality. They’re asked to be on their best behavior when civility has become scarce.

A state dinner is a test of bonhomie. It puts a pleasant face on geopolitical differences, on all the sticking points and the concerns that must eventually be addressed.

After the guests pass through security and their names are announced, they enter the White House through an area known as Booksellers. For the Biden administration’s first dinner, in honor of France, the building was aglow with holiday decorations, and on Thursday night, most every guest walked across a marble floor, past papier-mâché replicas of the first family pets Commander (the dog) and Willow (the cat). Flags of the United States and France flanked a large French doorway above which hung a grand wreath adorned with white baubles.

It’s akin to a red carpet, but it’s not. In fact, it’s more like a large foyer; one with photographers and reporters and Marine escorts and the ghosts of presidents and first ladies past haunting the room. It’s an entrance without guardrails. And so there arrived Janet Yellen, secretary of the treasury, with her husband George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and she had to gently encourage him onward across the room as if they were wading into the deep. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer turned to pantomime when asked how he was enjoying his retirement as if words had escaped this man of precise language. He clapped his hands to the sides of his face and then scribbled some imaginary rejoinder into the air.

Republicans came to this Democratic president’s state dinner. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., brought his mother, and instead of taking the bait and answering a question about how he was feeling about dining under a South Lawn tent with the president’s son Hunter (who McCarthy’s caucus can’t wait to investigate and investigate and investigate some more), simply pointed out that he was delighted to be out on the town with his mom. This might be a small thing, but at least on this one night, in that one moment, he let an opportunity for hostility slide.

At state dinners, the wealthy don’t walk in like they own the place. The enter like they’re trying to figure out where to go and who they should greet. They look just a little bit overwhelmed and that’s probably a good, humanizing thing. Bernard Arnault, one of the richest men in France, arrived with his wife Hélène. She walked just slightly ahead of him and he strolled behind her as if he was taking in the view of the lights, the ornaments, the room, the moment. “Welcome to the White House,” said the young service woman in the doorway.

At state dinners, celebrities who have won Grammys and Oscars are overwhelmed with awe. They bring spouses, but often, they bring children because somehow the White House is something to be shared with the next generation. Jon Batiste, who was performing after dinner, arrived with his wife and his nephew and an entourage of family members who followed in his wake. Jennifer Garner brought her daughter Violet Affleck, whisking her through the Booksellers foyer and onward to greet the president. “Welcome to the White House.” Everyone gets that greeting. Everyone needs reminding.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been there before. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., couldn’t begin to count the number of state dinners he’d attended over his decades in Congress, but he was happy to announce that it was his daughter Jessica’s first. His wife was home babysitting so Jessica could have her evening at the White House. As her father talked and joked and demonstrated his command of the French language, she just stood by his side in her lovely black evening gown and smiled.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., was practically teary-eyed as she talked about attending this state dinner and bringing along her niece Hannah, who speaks fluent French. “W’e’re just very excited. We don’t know what to expect. Walking in, my niece said, ‘This feels like ‘Bridgerton,’” Rochester said and laughed. “We’re excited to also meet the president of France and his wife. My son was actually born in France 36 years ago.”

Rochester went on to recall how to order a hamburger in her heavily American-accented French and her niece smiled and promised that she’d be doing all the English-to-French translation that evening. And then the two glided onward in their coordinated jewel-tone evening gowns – Hannah in emerald green and the congresswoman in sapphire blue, proof that the politicians in this town still have the capacity for delight and wonder.

A state dinner is a tradition of formal gowns and tuxedos, dignitaries and heads of industries. It’s a formality. It’s high gloss. It throws people off their game. And that might be the necessary wonder of it all.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.

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