WASHINGTON - Before the silverware is polished, the menu chosen and the flowers arranged, each White House marks its first state dinner with tradition of a different sort: a summit over the guest list.
When President and Laura Bush hold their first state dinner tomorrow, no one will be sitting there by accident - considering that teams adept in all matters political, diplomatic and social have agonized for weeks over the invitations. The event, a banquet in honor of President Vicente Fox of Mexico, features a guest list designed with precision - an evening plotted like a military action, but with cleavage and cocktails.
Over the past weeks, the White House has been hammering out the details concerning potential food allergies, musical tastes and favorite entertainers of the visiting dignitaries, not to mention juggling the not-so-subtle requests for an invitation that some insiders consider a true measure of who's in and who's out in Washington.
Donald Burnham Ensenat, the administration's protocol chief, and other White House staff members have been lobbied by wannabe guests. He knows exactly who wants to be there.
"Everybody," he says. "From members of Congress to my neighbors."
For every White House, the state dinner is a high-stress act. (What to do when a swaggering Robert Goulet began crooning, "All I need is a girl ... " to Barbara Bush, as the singer did, lounge lizard-like, during the Reagan years?) The event brings with it miles of minutiae (best to know beforehand whether any foreign country uses white flowers to signify death) and untold potential for worst-dressed moments (some recall the news photographer who arrived at a state dinner for Margaret Thatcher in a denim tuxedo).
Getting it just right
The first lady's office is juggling last-minute tasks as it prepares for the state dinner, an undertaking demanding so much preparation that the White House put off the first one for months. It was only in late July that Bush announced the official state visit, choosing a friend from his days as governor of Texas to try to take the edge off the high-stakes social occasion.
"It's terrifying," says Ann Stock, the first social secretary for the Clintons, who waited nearly a year and a half before holding their first state dinner, in their case with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan.
"There's a lot of pressure with the first one," she says. "You want to get it exactly right."
Adding to the challenge: The elegant State Dining Room, where the dinner will be held, has a capacity of about 134 people, a fraction of the hundreds who want invitations.
White House veterans have done the math with dismay: After the president, the vice president, their wives, the official visiting party and a handful of Cabinet members and lawmakers have been seated, there is room for just two dozen or three dozen more couples. Among those guests, the White House always provides some Hollywood star power, along with a smattering of prominent journalists.
Campaign donors want seats. So do friends of the president, lobbyists seeking face time with guests, community leaders speaking for ethnic voters and politicians eager for the ego boost.
`Event of the season'
"I want to call this the social event of the season," says Noelia Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the first lady, whose office handles most of the planning for the state dinner. "There have been calls made and lobbying and that kind of thing. No flat-out bribery or anything, but it is a hot ticket."
The decision to make Mexico the center of the first big White House party is not accidental: Bush's first foreign trip as president was to Mexico - he even stopped by Fox's mother's hacienda - and he seems to feel a certain kinship with the charismatic Mexican leader. It doesn't hurt that, with 20 million Latino voters in the United States, many activists are applauding Bush's overtures to Fox as a validation of Mexico's important place on the world stage.
The success of a state dinner tends to hinge on a well-choreographed series of social gestures. Fox will look into the crowd and see faces placed there to make him feel comfortable and welcome. The guests range from a news anchor with the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo to Texans from the halls of Congress.
"My wife bought a new dress," said Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who is delighted that after eight years of being left off the guest lists, he will be back in the State Dining Room.
"I'm looking forward to being there," the senator said. "I don't know why Clinton didn't ask me. As charming as I am, I always wondered."
The White House tries to keep the guest list secret, but among those expected are two Republican governors, Jane Dee Hull of Arizona and Rick Perry of Texas; Rep. Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who heads the Foreign Relations Committee; and the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.