White House state dinners are Washington's quintessential social events and a way to practice classy diplomacy. The dinners can honor a good relationship with a foreign leader, like Thursday's dinner for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and first lady Kim Yoon-Ok, or they can be an attempt to patch over a bad one.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle's fifth official state dinner followed Congress's approval of free-trade agreements with Korea, Columbia, and Panama, which had been languishing since they were introduced in 2007 under President George W. Bush.
The visit also apparently inspired Republican Sen. John Kyl to, at the last minute, stop blocking the nomination of the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Sung Kim. The Senate confirmed Kim—who will be the first Korean-American ambassador to Seoul—minutes before President Lee addressed a joint session of Congress.
Past dinners have also been a way to further U.S. foreign policy. In September 2001, for example, Mexico's President Vicente Fox marked his growing relationship with Bush during a state visit. The two were looking for ways to cooperate on the fight against drug trafficking and find a solution to illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States. Experts close to the issue believe some kind of path to citizenship was imminent, but the 9/11 attacks changed everything, pushing the immigration discussion immediately to enforcement.
During the Cold War, there were a few visits by Soviet leaders, which kept up the delicate diplomatic dance the two countries practiced. In 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa visited with President George H.W. Bush. Gorbachev disregarded the black-tie dress code and wore a business suit, as he had done during his previous state dinner with Reagan in 1987.
In 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was the first Soviet leader to visit the United States. During the state dinner, he and President Dwight D. Eisenhower talked openly about the tricky relationship between the two nuclear powers. Eisenhower said, "Because of our importance in the world, it is vital that we understand each other better."
Khrushchev agreed, acknowledging the need "to come to an agreement on the improvement of our relations, because our two countries are much too strong and we cannot quarrel with each other. ... If we quarrel, then not only our countries can suffer colossal damage but the other countries of the world will also be involved in a world shambles."
The dinners have also marked cultural events close to the heart of the American people, like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Kennedys had scheduled a state dinner for West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, but after Kennedy was shot a month before the dinner, the responsibility fell to President Lyndon Johnson. Since the nation was still mourning Kennedy's death, Johnson moved the state dinner to his Texas ranch for a less formal barbecue.