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Trumps Will Hold First State Dinner 15 Months Into His Presidency


All right. Tonight, the Trump White House is going to be hosting its first state dinner. This dinner will honor French President Emmanuel Macron. These dinners date back to the late 1800s. And they are not just about fine china and glamorous gowns. They're also a part of American diplomacy. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, they also give first ladies a chance to make a statement.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Fifteen months into the Trump presidency, this first state dinner will be a big moment for first lady Melania Trump, who has kept a lower profile than many of her predecessors.

KATE ANDERSEN BROWER: It's much more than just a dinner.

KEITH: Kate Andersen Brower is the author of "First Women: The Grace And Power Of America's Modern First Ladies."

BROWER: Laura Bush said she wasn't nervous before her own wedding. But she was nervous before the first state dinner with the Mexican president. I think it's a lot of pressure.


SUSAN SWAIN: Good evening. For the first time since entering the White House in January, President and Mrs. Bush are hosting a state dinner.

KEITH: C-SPAN provided coverage of that dinner on September 5, 2001.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The president of the United Mexican States and Mrs. Fox.

KEITH: And it went off without a hitch. But the Obama's first state dinner for the Indian prime minister in November 2009 wasn't quite so flawless. The menu was prepared by a celebrity chef. Jennifer Hudson provided the entertainment. The decorations were lush. But it was all overshadowed by news of gate crashers, as reported here by ABC News.


DAVID MUIR: The Secret Service is acknowledging a huge security blunder tonight after news that a socialite couple trying out for a reality show managed to crash the White House affair.

LEA BERMAN: There are cautionary tales from every administration, and no one escapes.

KEITH: Lea Berman was White House social secretary in the time of George W. and Laura Bush. And she's co-author of a book called "Treating People Well."

BERMAN: The first of anything and, particularly, the first of a state dinner after so long without having one - and this is not the first administration to wait an unusually long time to try a state dinner - makes it a little bit - the stakes are higher, let's say.

KEITH: And she argues the stakes should be high.

BERMAN: It's important because it's a courtesy, and it's an expression of goodwill on the part of America. And so you have the president and first lady extending not just their personal hospitality but American hospitality. And it should reflect the best of what America has to offer.

KEITH: Berman says this dinner in particular is important because of the growing friendship between presidents Trump and Macron and the recent military strikes in Syria, which were conducted by both countries along with the U.K. Berman says she's confident the team in the first lady's office, which includes Bush administration veterans, will be able to pull off the dinner. But there are some things that you just can't plan for, like the time President Ford was dancing with the queen of England at a state dinner in 1976.

BERMAN: And as they began to dance, the Marine Band struck up "The Lady Is A Tramp." And afterward, the social secretary, Maria Downs, said to the president, I was so embarrassed about that, sir. Do you think she noticed? And he looked kind of grim and said she noticed (laughter).

KEITH: It seems the Ford administration may have been star-crossed when it came to state dinners. In October 1975, Berman says Johnny Cash was supposed to provide the entertainment for a dinner honoring Egypt's Anwar Sadat.

BERMAN: And he didn't show up. And at the last minute, literally the day of the event, they had to find a new entertainer. And they got Pearl Bailey.

KEITH: A Broadway performer who had provided the entertainment at another state dinner earlier that year. Every modern administration has approached state dinners differently, reflecting the tastes and styles of the first lady at the time. The Eisenhowers used long tables connected end to end in the shape of a U. But that didn't work for the Kennedys, says Brower.

BROWER: And Jackie Kennedy came in and said, look, I want smaller cocktail tables so that people can actually talk.

KEITH: The Reagans, Clintons and Obamas had more celebrities in attendance than other administrations, though Nancy Reagan preferred small, intimate gatherings, while the Obamas went big, often with the dinners held in tents on the South Lawn. This dinner hosted by the Trumps, says Brower, will be the first major chance to see how they entertain in the people's house.

BROWER: Melania - I mean, God, everyone's going to be watching to see her expression and what she's wearing. And we just know nothing about her. She's such a cipher.

KEITH: Well, in 1999, when she was dating Donald Trump, the future first lady told The New York Times that if they were to wind up in the White House, she would be very traditional, quote, "like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy." Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIGHTMARES ON WAX'S "CALLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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