President Barack Obama and visiting French President Francois Hollande will be joined by more than 300 notable guests in a tentlike heated pavilion on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday for a dinner whose menu includes caviar, rib-eye steak, chocolate cake and cotton candy.
Who picks up the tab? Taxpayers, sure, but specifically a special fund overseen by the U.S. State Department’s chief of protocol. Now, thanks to Mark Knoller of CBS News, the peerless White House press corps' authority on presidential data, we for the first time have a sense of just how much such dinners cost.
Here’s what Knoller squeezed out of the State Department’s Office of Protocol 13 months after submitting a Freedom of Information request:
The 300-guest November 2009 dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — best remembered for Michaele and Tariq Salahi’s ability to crash the party — cost $572,187.36.
It was the president’s first state dinner and also the most expensive of the five state or official dinners Obama has given about which costs are now known. (The cost of the March 2012 dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron remains shrouded in mystery, and the Hollande dinner was arranged after CBS made its request for the information.)
The least expensive state dinner was the October 2011 one for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, which cost $203,053.34 to entertain more than 220 guests.
The cost of state dinners — like the price tag for presidential vacations — is a frequent target of partisan criticism, usually under the guise of high-minded cost-cutting. But like embassy security, which often feels the slash of the congressional budget ax, the dinners amount to a drop in the bucket of federal spending, and partisans quickly forget their concerns when their party holds the White House.
Obama frequently draws inside-the-Beltway criticism according to which he does not do enough to schmooze with lawmakers. White House aides dismiss the charge, saying no amount of presidential cocktails and banter would win over Republicans.
When it comes to entertaining foreign heads of state or government, Obama’s total is in line with George W. Bush’s. Bush hosted just six state dinners over eight years. Bill Clinton? 23. George H.W. Bush hosted 21. And Ronald Reagan seemed to relish such events, hosting 35.
The meals are often the most desirable invitation in Washington — and the guest lists are a blend of powerful D.C. figures and officials from the guest’s home country, celebrities, and campaign donors (and, later in a president’s term, folks who might open their wallets to fund a presidential library), as well as a small sprinkling of people from the media. The tradition dates to December 1874, when then-President Ulysses Grant hosted King David Kalakaua of Hawaii.