It’s a privilege to be invited for dinner in anyone’s home. When that person is the leader of the free world, it’s a bit more special.
The “state dinner” is an honor bestowed on a select few world leaders at the White House. It’s a glitzy black-tie affair for hundreds of celebrity guests, with no expense spared—a manifestation of diplomatic “soft power.”
The last state dinner a president gives is even more momentous, the end of an era. Barack Obama’s last supper (as it were) was with Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi last night. Ever the diplomat, the president said “we save the best for last” when receiving Renzi with full fanfare at the South Lawn.
It’s a welcome turn of events for the embattled prime minister of a stagnant economy who may lose his job in a few months if a controversial referendum goes against him. It’s also telling that Obama picked Renzi to join him on his last hurrah. The Italian is an idealistic, young, left-leaning leader who rose to power promising change but quickly found himself bogged down by an entrenched system resistant to reform. Sounds, er, familiar.
Or perhaps we’re reading too much into it? Judge for yourself, by looking at whether past presidents have made any sort of statement with whom they invite to their last big dinner at the White House—a likeminded leader, a geopolitical partner, royalty—and what they serve them.
Date: Oct. 18, 2016
Guest of honor: Matteo Renzi of Italy 🇮🇹
Main course: Beef braciole pinwheel with horseradish gremolata and broccoli rabe (prepared by Mario Batali, of the global Italian-food emporium Eataly)
Notable quotable: “I mean, look at him,” Obama said in a toast of Renzi, who was just 39 when he became prime minister two years ago. “He’s young, handsome. He’s put forth a vision of progress that’s not rooted in people’s fears, but rather in their hopes.” The president then noted the contributions Italians have made to the US over the years, adding, “sometimes, our presidential campaigns can seem like Dante’s Inferno.”
George W. Bush
Date: Oct. 13, 2008
Guest of honor*: Silvio Berlusconi of Italy 🇮🇹
Main course: Rosemary-crusted Elysian Farm lamb with crispy eggplant and swiss chard
Notable quotable: “I’m a hundred percent confident that we’ll be friends forever,” Berlusconi said in a toast, after he accidentally broke the podium when he got up to speak.
* Although dubbed an “Official Dinner” for arcane diplomatic reasons, the event had all of the trappings of an official White House state dinner.
Date: Sept. 17, 2000
Guest of honor: Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India 🇮🇳
Main course: Wild Copper River salmon with red kuri squash and rice bean ragout
Notable quotable: “Americans have fallen in love with Indian novels,” Clinton said during a toast. “I’m told that Prime Minister Vajpayee, when he’s not writing Hindi poetry, actually likes to read John Grisham.”
George H.W. Bush
Date: June 16, 1992
Guest of honor: Boris Yeltsin of Russia 🇷🇺
Main course: Roast loin of veal with wild mushroom sauce, Duchess potatoes, asparagus, and baby carrots
Notable quotable: The Soviet Union had been dissolved barely six months earlier, and Yeltsin was now the first president of an independent Russia. Future relations between the two Cold War superpowers were still uncertain. “I am very pleased with the arrangements that we were able to work out with President Yeltsin today,” Bush said at the start of his toast. “I think it’s good for mankind.”
Date: Nov. 18, 1988
Guest of honor: Margaret Thatcher of the UK 🇬🇧
Main course: Roasted saddle of veal perigourdine and asparagus with hazelnut butter
Notable quotable: Reagan’s first-ever state dinner was also with Thatcher, his transatlantic political soulmate. In her final tribute to her American ally eight years later, Thatcher quoted Reagan’s words back to him: “I can do no better, Mr. President, than repeat your own favorite verdict on a film script. ‘That story,’ Sam Goldwyn once said, ‘is wonderful; it is magnificent; it is prolific!’ So, too, Mr. President, have been the Reagan Years.” At the end of the evening, the two danced together to “Hello Dolly!”
Date: Oct. 7, 1980
Guest of honor: Shehu Shagari of Nigeria 🇳🇬
Main course: Roast stuffed saddle of lamb, eggplant Niçoise, broccoli in butter
Notable quotable: Africa had lately become a new front in the Cold War, and Carter may have wanted to highlight the relationship with Nigeria, which had returned to democracy the year before after a civil war and more than a decade of military rule. Shagari had a slightly delayed arrival to the White House, according to Carter’s ice-breaker joke. “Mr. President, we are delighted to have you here. We appreciate your patience in opening the automobile door. [Laughter] We hope that this delay in getting out of the car will be matched by your delay in leaving our country.”
Date: Dec. 6, 1976
Guest of honor: Giulio Andreotti of Italy 🇮🇹
Main course: Supreme of Rock Cornish hen, wild rice croquettes, zucchini with mushrooms
Notable quotable: “You have worked intensely and with great courage and determination on the difficult issues facing your nation and your government,” Ford said to Andreotti. It’s an equally valid sentiment 40 years later, for a different Italian leader at the White House.
Date: Dec. 4, 1973
Guest of honor: Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania 🇷🇴
Main course: Unclear, but there was no soup; Nixon had it banned from state dinners
Notable quotable: As the burgeoning Watergate scandal loomed large over Nixon’s presidency—he resigned eight months later—he invited America’s “favorite communist” (thanks to his supposed independence from Moscow) to the White House one last time. In proposing a toast to one of the Eastern bloc’s most brutal dictators, Nixon praised the Romanian who, he said, “stands for a principle that we Americans believe in so deeply, the right of every nation, large or small, to its independence, to its freedom.”
Lyndon B. Johnson
Date: Dec. 11, 1968
Guest of honor: Sabah al-Salim al-Sabah of Kuwait 🇰🇼
Main course: Unclear, but LBJ was partial to barbecue
Notable quotable: “Our two countries, sir, are separated by great distances and they do differ somewhat in size,” LBJ said, matter-of-factly, during his toast.
John F. Kennedy
Date: Oct. 15, 1963
Guest of honor: Seán Lemass of Ireland 🇮🇪
Main course: Filet mignon with bernaise sauce, dauphine potatoes, creamed spinach
Notable quotable: In his toast, the Irish prime minister relayed a message from “a little old lady” in County Mayo who wanted to thank JFK for setting an example of “a fine Christian gentleman.” Kennedy was assassinated less than six weeks later.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Date: Oct. 11, 1960
Guest of honor: King Frederick IX of Denmark 🇩🇰
Main course: Roast beef tenderloin, salted nuts, string bean vinaigrette, thin corn crusts
Notable quotable: “Many of you no doubt visited the Castle of Hamlet,” Eisenhower noted during a toast, “and for my part at least, I was astonished to find out that Hamlet never lived in Denmark.”
Harry S. Truman
Date: April 2, 1952
Guest of honor: Queen Juliana of the Netherlands 🇳🇱
Main course: Fried spring turkey with cranberry sauce, steamed rice, green beans, and candied sweet potatoes
Notable quotable: “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the fact that we have with us what I like to refer to as the fairy Queen,” Truman toasted.