Ooh la la! Biden's first state dinner brings out glamour and guests galore

Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

A glass pavilion on the South Lawn. A White House decked out for the holidays. A live performance by Grammy- and Oscar-winning musician Jon Batiste. Tables of Napa Valley wine and award-winning American cheeses. And 200 lobsters from Maine.

They all awaited the more than 300 black-tie guests who descended on the White House grounds Thursday for a state dinner honoring France, the United States’ oldest ally. It was a jubilant tribute to President Joe Biden’s French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, but also a throwback to a more glamorous and carefree time before a global pandemic brought much of society to a halt.

Biden’s first state dinner comes nearly two years into his first term, after Covid put such pageantry on pause. The president’s selection of France as the guest is a testament to Biden and Macron’s close relationship — on full display Thursday as the two leaders referred to each other as “friend” in their chummy interactions, which included the French president frequently patting his U.S. counterpart on the back and referring to him as “Dear Joe.”

The ritzy affair comes after a long day of diplomatic discussions, in which the foreign leaders held a lengthy bilateral to discuss thorny subjects like the energy crisis in Europe, the Inflation Reduction Act’s impact abroad and Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

But Thursday night, any growing tensions got set aside in favor of bottles of bubbly with notable French Americans, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, and big names from the business and arts worlds.

Early arriving guests included late-night TV host — and Batiste’s former boss — Stephen Colbert and “Veep” actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who was asked by reporters as she was walked by whether she had ever attended a state dinner before. (She had!)

Celebrity power couple John Legend and Chrissy Teigen also were among guests, and so was Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour — who declined to comment when asked about her magazine’s wedding photo spread featuring Biden’s granddaughter, Naomi Biden. Actress Jennifer Garner brought her daughter, Violet Affleck.

Batiste arrived with his wife and numerous family members. Asked about performing in front of the crowd, he said: “It’s gonna be fire!” Others on the guest list included Academy-Award winner Ariana DeBose and director Baz Luhrmann.

The evening brought out power list lawmakers, too, including House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who was asked how he felt about attending a dinner with the president's son, Hunter Biden, whom Republicans have promised to investigate when they take control of the House next month. He simply noted he was there with his mother.

The woman McCarthy hopes to replace, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also attended the dinner, bringing her daughter, Alexandra. The pair was asked about the Democratic leader’s successors, and Pelosi said she was “happy and relieved,” while her daughter chimed in with “free at last!”

Administration officials like Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, were spotted entering the White House.

The guests dined on butter-poached Maine lobster, caviar and beef with shallot marmalade — among other menu items. The spread also included an “American Artisanal Cheeses” course and finished with an orange chiffon cake and crème fraîche ice cream — a fancier spin on Biden’s favorite dessert.

Biden raised a glass and toasted his guests of honor, declaring: “Vive la France and God Bless America.”

It was Macron’s second state dinner in a four-year span — he was also the guest of former President Donald Trump’s first one in 2018. Trump, who wasn’t as keen on holding such events, only hosted two state dinners during his presidency. He had a third planned for April 2020 to honor Spain’s king and queen, but the event was canceled due to the pandemic.

But at this point in Barack Obama’s presidency, there had been six state dinners.

One such high-profile dinner during the Obama administration was also the stage for a highly-publicized security stumble. A Virginia couple, both aspiring reality TV stars, managed to crash Obama’s first state dinner and meet the then-president in 2009, leading to a flood of D.C. social criticism and a full review of the breach.

Olivia Olander contributed to this report.