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Lots on the plate when Trudeaus visit White House for state dinner

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau arrive for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Valletta, Malta November 27, 2015.

POOL/REUTERS

In a city that never runs out of elite gatherings, the White House state dinner is the most sought-after ticket of them all – with guest lists featuring the most powerful people in the world.

Next Thursday in Washington, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, will be the guests of honour at the first state dinner for a Canadian leader in almost two decades.

And it is kind of a big deal.

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have hosted only nine state dinners in two terms, most recently in September for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The hours-long black-tie affair is as glitzy as any awards show red carpet. Ms. Obama's dress choices are awaited and analyzed – her last outfit was an off-the-shoulder black Vera Wang gown – and the same sartorial anticipation is building for Ms. Grégoire-Trudeau, quickly becoming a style icon in Canada.

It is reminiscent of the attention paid to the wife of another prime minister, also named Trudeau.

When fashion critics panned Margaret Trudeau's above-the-knee knit dress at a 1977 state dinner, according to the White House Historical Association, Ms. Trudeau told the Evening Post: "Look, I just don't care what the American designers thought. What I wear is nobody's business but my own."

State dinners feature meticulously prepared food, diverse entertainment and, most of all, socializing – a chance for two important leaders and their entourages to really get to know each other.

They also include a two-way toast, in which gentle jabbing is encouraged.

Think of it as a dinner party with paparazzi, featuring 120 of your closest friends, if your closest friends included the vice-president, the CEO of Netflix and Oprah Winfrey.

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"It really is the highest honour we can give," Ann Stock, who was White House social secretary between 1993 and 1997, when Bill Clinton was president, told The Globe and Mail.

"It becomes a very, very special invitation."

To observers, Mr. Obama's decision to hold a dinner for Mr. Trudeau makes sense. For one thing, they seem to like each other.

"You can see already that these two men struck a very good, friendly tone in their exchanges," said Raymond Chrétien, Canada's former ambassador to the United States and nephew of former prime minister Jean Chrétien.

"The fact that President Obama has offered such a visit even though he is in his last year in office … it's a friendly gesture."

During her tenure, Ms. Stock helped organize all of the White House events, including in 1997, the last state dinner for a Canadian prime minister: Mr. Chrétien, who was even spotted crossing the White House lawn for an unscheduled private drink with Mr. Clinton.

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A dinner takes more than two months to plan, Ms. Stock said, and involves officials in the White House, national security advisers, the state department, and counterparts in the visiting county.

One of the first things to consider is the guest list.

The White House state dining room has only 120 spots, and most are taken up by high-ranking U.S. officials, such as the secretary of state or the Speaker of the House.

"The list is controlled by the White House and there are only 20 tickets for the state dinner for [the Canadian delegation], and that includes staff and ministers," a Canadian official told The Globe and Mail on background.

That leaves about 40 spots for non-political guests and their plus-ones, who can be anyone: movie stars, musicians, business people or journalists.

In 1997, this group included Canadian guests such as actor Dan Aykroyd, jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, and photographer Yousuf Karsh.

"Short of some unbelievably extenuating circumstance, no one will [send their regrets for] this dinner," Ms. Stock said.

"They're going to change everything that they've got to make sure that they're there."

The guest list for next Thursday is being kept under wraps. The first rule of the state dinner, it appears, is not to talk about the state dinner.

"These details have not gone out yet," the White House Press Office said in a terse e-mailed response to a question from The Globe.

Ms. Stock said the entertainment portion of the evening could feature a Canadian artist.

The meal, usually four or five courses, will be something to behold. Menus conceived by White House executive chefs for past prime ministers have included Rock Cornish game hen and horseradish soup for John Diefenbaker, Alaskan king crab for Pierre Trudeau, and pineapple champagne sorbet for Brian Mulroney.

Everyone from singer-songwriter James Taylor to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to Beyonce have provided entertainment over the years. The Canadian-American Business Council is organizing an after-party at Washington's ultra-modern W Hotel.

But do not think of it as just fun and games.

"It's all beneficial in terms of the relationship-building," said Art Eggleton, now a Liberal senator, who attended the 1997 dinner as trade minister.

"That is a very significant part of it. That's where a lot of the focus should be, not on just having a good time."

Raymond Chrétien said the dinner is significant because it is a "public manifestation" of the President's interest in Canada's Prime Minister.

"It is our most important diplomatic relationship," he said.

"So when the President of the USA invites our Prime Minister, it is important, because it's usually a catalyst for discussions in the months that will follow."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Laura Stone is a reporter in The Globe's Ottawa bureau. She joined The Globe in February 2016. Before that, she was an online and TV reporter for Global News in Ottawa. Laura has done stints at the Toronto Star, Postmedia News and the Vancouver Province. More

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