One of the first things the wife of an American president learns is that the White House dinner is an integral part of her diplomatic responsibility. State dinners are an important part of diplomacy, and can strengthen relations between America and other nations. During their eight years in Washington, President and Mrs. Reagan hosted almost eighty White House dinners, as well as hundreds of other special events, both large and small.
Each state dinner required months of planning, and in President Reagan’s first term alone, Mrs. Reagan spent over 450 hours preparing for these events. In addition to choosing and testing the menu items, Mrs. Reagan also oversaw the choice of music and entertainment. The guest list and seating arrangements were also closely supervised by Mrs. Reagan, as were the table settings and floral arrangements.
On February 26, 1981, after only a month in office, President and Mrs. Reagan held their first state dinner in honor of the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, accompanied by her husband, Denis Thatcher. Several weeks later, President and Mrs. Reagan hosted Japan’s Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki, and his wife. They went on to welcome kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, premiers and chancellors.
Perhaps the most momentous of these dinners was held on December 8, 1987 in honor of General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa. Secretary Gorbachev was in Washington for the summit meeting that would ultimately result in the signing of the INF Treaty, and this was the first visit by a Soviet leader to Washington since Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. It was the most significant and highly anticipated of the many state dinners Mrs. Reagan had arranged, and required careful planning. Mrs. Reagan asked renowned pianist Van Cliburn to perform. In 1958, Cliburn had won the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, the first American to have done so. His performance of a Rachmaninoff piece and a rendition of “Moscow Nights” was received with great enthusiasm from the Soviet delegation, especially Secretary Gorbachev. Mrs. Reagan would later say that the dinner was one of the great evenings of her husband’s presidency.