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Speaker Boehner Declines Third Straight Obama State Dinner

4 years ago
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In May 2007, then-House Minority Leader John Boehner and his wife, Deborah, attended a glittery White House state dinner for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip hosted by President and Mrs. Bush. The dress for men was white tie and tailcoat, more formal than the customary tuxedo.

Cabinet members, business leaders, diplomats and politicians -- Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, a Republican, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat -- were also there, along with former First Lady Nancy Reagan, golfer Arnold Palmer and jockey Calvin Borel, who rode the 2007 Kentucky Derby winner.

Fast forward to November 2009, May 2010 and this week.

The same John Boehner who toasted the queen in 2007 has since refused all three state dinner invitations from Democratic President Barack Obama for key U.S. allies: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Mexican President Felipe Calderon and, on Wednesday night, President Hu Jintao of China.

"Speaker Boehner will have a substantive meeting with President Hu later this week," his spokesman, Michael Steel, told me by e-mail. (It's set for Thursday on Capitol Hill.)
But the speaker's press office did not address questions of why Boehner declined all three Obama state dinners, or whether he believes nothing meaningful can be achieved by spending social time with world leaders and their delegations.

He "doesn't necessarily believe in all the pomp and circumstance of Washington," former Republican National Commitee spokesman Doug Heye told Politico, which broke the 3-for-3 state dinner boycott story.

To be fair, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent regrets to that 2007 dinner for the queen because "his office said he didn't have white tie," recalled Anita McBride, then-chief of staff to Laura Bush.

But in the world of protocol and etiquette, "You really have to be sick, dead or dying to regret a state dinner invitation," McBride noted.

"I hate to think it would be pettiness: 'I don't like the president so I am not coming,'" said a former social secretary in a Republican White House, who requested anonymity. "I think you can assume that the administration, when they have a state dinner, wants to show a bipartisan face" to foreign leaders. Some lawmakers "might be uncomfortable in black tie or white tie, they might be uncomfortable with the positions of the administration."

They may also object to the policies of the visiting head of state, or not want to be seen as part of the Washington establishment, said the former social secretary. "There is not Republican who couldn't benefit from sitting next to a Vernon Jordan," one of the city's Democratic power brokers and political wise men.

On the other hand, it is important for every White House to invite the opposition, she said. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was not among the chosen, his office confirmed.

Forgetting partisanship for an evening has its advantages for everyone, said McBride. "I don't want to second-guess the speaker but one of the things I have learned is that those parties historically are a very important part of a diplomatic effort. There is a lot of work that gets done in social situations, a lot of work on the part of government and business leaders . . . This is one thing where I say I'd take a page out of the Nancy Pelosi book. She never regretted an invitation with President Bush, with whom she had major policy differences."

Turning down such invitations, especially by someone who is third in line for the presidency, is a big mistake, says Letitia Baldridge, who was President Kennedy's social secretary. "I think it's short-sighted and a failing of his duty." Yes, there were Democrats and Republicans who brushed off Kennedy state dinners without explanation, but Baldridge, who says she's given protocol advice to five first ladies, called such behavior "so conceited of the person." Not attending a state dinner "is his loss because he is losing out on a very special moment in history."

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