Christmas decorations, a state dinner: Glitz makes a triumphant return to the White House
WASHINGTON – In a candlelit pavilion on the White House lawn Thursday night, President Joe Biden raised his glass to French President Emmanuel Macron and proclaimed “Vive la France and God bless America!”
Musician Jon Batiste, the evening's entertainer, had already promised to light up the black-tie soiree.
"It's going to be fire," Batiste told reporters as Cabinet members, congressional leaders, Hollywood celebrities, business titans and others arrived at the White House for Biden’s first state dinner.
And days after the glitzy social gathering, the Bidens are throwing open their doors for the holiday parties that were thwarted by COVID-19 last year.
“We miss having people in the people’s house,” White House social secretary Carlos Elizondo said Wednesday when asked about the long absence of high-profile social events.
The Bidens missed it so much they made it the theme of this year’s holiday decorations: “We the people.”
Holiday decorations in the White House
In the China Room, where the trees and mantels are wrapped with garlands of wooden spoons, measuring cups and rolling pins, volunteer decorators left behind the personal touch of well-worn recipe cards for holiday treats.
The foyer and main hallway are adorned with mirrored ornaments and reflective surfaces so visitors can see themselves in the decor.
“Throughout these halls, from the shining bells to the mirrored ornaments in the Grand Foyer behind me, you will see your own reflection," first lady Jill Biden said Monday when revealing the decorations. “And we are grateful to be able to welcome Americans home.”
About 50,000 visitors are expected during the holiday season.
COVID not expected to be holiday Grinch
While Mother Nature could throw a curve ball, COVID-19 is not expected to be the disrupter that it was last year, according to White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha.
“I feel very confident that if people continue to get vaccinated at good numbers, if people get boosted, we can absolutely have a safe and healthy holiday season,” Jha, who attended the state dinner, told reporters last week.
Still, a negative COVID-19 test was required for the state dinner and will be for the holiday parties.
“As always, we will follow the CDC guidelines,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday.
A gradual reopening of the White House
The White House gradually reopened to public tours this year, starting with a limited schedule in April and returning to full operation in July.
But the tinselly social events that show the White House at its best and put pep in the step of an overworked staff didn’t ramp up until fall – when they came back in full force.
In November, Naomi Biden was the first grandchild of a sitting president to get married at the White House.
"Well, what girl doesn't want to be in Vogue for her wedding?" Anna Wintour, Vogue's editor-in-chief who arrived for the state dinner wearing her iconic black sunglasses and many necklaces, told reporters when asked how Vogue got exclusive photos of the bride.
Biggest dinner yet for Biden
Thursday night’s fete for the Macrons – the day after the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the Ellipse with LL Cool J as the master of ceremonies – was the first state dinner held during the busy holiday season.
“We’re not tired. We’re just full of caffeine,” said Elizondo, the social secretary whose office planned the events.
The dinner, attended by about 350 people, was the biggest hosted by the Bidens in the White House.
An image of the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, was projected onto the walls of the tented pavilion that was decorated in the shared colors of the American and French flags. The red, white and blue theme extended to the 1,200 spun sugar coils that topped the orange chiffon cakes served for dessert.
Watch: First lady previews French state dinner
Red, white and blue for Macron state dinner
Brigitte Macron wore a long ivory dress by Louis Vuitton.
Jill Biden chose a navy floral evening gown by Oscar de la Renta.
Red piano roses on the tables were a nod to Emmanuel Macron’s love of the piano. Guests sipped sparkling wine out of French-forged champagne vessels, each rolled from one piece of silver.
“The pinnacle of our diplomatic experience is the state dinner,” said Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. “It’s the most formal of events and the most rare and the most coveted for that reason.”
That’s true not just for the guests but also for the guest of honor.
Previewing Macron’s visit to the United States, a French official called the state dinner the “highest point” of the trip and a “very important opportunity to meet personalities of the two countries.”
First, however, the Bidens and Macron had an intimate dinner at an Italian restaurant in the tony Georgetown neighborhood Wednesday night.
"First time I’ve gone to dinner – a private dinner in Washington in a long, long time," Biden said the next day.
Star power back in Washington
By contrast, the state dinner is an opportunity for the visiting leader to broaden his reach and develop friendships with other government officials and distinguished guests, said Colleen Shogan, senior vice president of the White House Historical Association.
“The state dinner enables a social interaction that goes beyond the (formal) meetings,” Shogan said.
Jennifer Garner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Legend and Stephen Colbert loaned their star power to Thursday's party.
"It's very exciting," Louis-Dreyfus said as she walked through the White House, declining reporters’ attempts to compare the experience to her show “Veep.”
French fashion designer Christian Louboutin smiled when asked how many people wore his red-bottomed shoes to the affair.
"Let me check," he said.
Making the guest list at a state dinner
State dinner guests don’t have to be celebrities or other VIPs. When Bill Clinton hosted a dinner for Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, he invited the owners of the pizza parlors he’d frequented while attending Yale Law School, said Ann Stock, who was the Clintons’ social secretary.
“He wanted them to see the White House,” she said. “He just loved their pizzas.”
Putting together the guest list for Thursday’s dinner was a “strategy” involving many offices at the White House, according to Elizondo.
“We're trying to sort of bring in all the many supporters and friends of the president and the first lady,” he said.
State dinner menu for the Macrons
Equal care was put into the menu, which is a chance to highlight American products.
The Bidens boldly served American cheese to the French, including the award-winning Rogue River Blue from Oregon.
“I’m especially excited that we are featuring American cheeses,” the first lady said Wednesday when previewing the menu for the news media.
Two hundred lobsters were shipped live from Maine to be poached in butter and topped with American Osetra caviar.
The calottes of beef, served with shallot marmalade, came from farms in Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Stock knows how powerful a White House menu is as a marketing tool.
A few months after serving arctic char – a fish not commonly found on American plates at the time – she was walking around New York City and saw a sign promoting arctic char that read: “As served at the White House dinner.”
“We started a trend,” she said.
Former White House aides like Stock and McBride, who know how much work goes into the social events, also understand how important they are.
“It’s nice,” McBride said, “to see the White House open again and more people being able to access it.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden brings back state dinners, holiday parties to White House