In their book on entertaining at the Reagan White House, Schifando and Joseph write:
"There's no law that says a president must be polite to a foreign diplomat. When British Ambassador Anthony Merry presented his diplomatic credentials to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801, Jefferson greeted him brusquely, wearing a dusty coat and bedroom slippers. Although Jefferson never said as much, his manner and appearance were likely intended to send a powerful message that the new United States had irrevocably separated from England. The boorish behavior, Merry concluded, was, 'from design and not from ignorance or awkwardness.' In part because of Jefferson's snub, Merry would later urge his British masters to pursue the War of 1812. Thus some historians argue that Jefferson's breech of protocol may have prolonged America's first war."
Here are some points of protocol that must be considered in the White House:
All foreign delegations must be treated as equal. The details of an arrival ceremony for a state visit from Ghana should be the same as for the president of France.
A guest of honor must always arrive last and leave first. He or she is always accorded the seat of honor to the right of either the president or first lady.
Seating at White House dinners is determined by "a number of factors, including one's position and length of service in the dipolomatic corps", not necessarily by your rank or power. "One official at the Reagan White House was miffed when a job promotion gave him more access to the president but dropped him several notches in the order of protocol."
"The government pays for the gatherings, but it is the responsibility of the first lady to sign off on the myriad details that ultimately lead to the success or failure of a state dinner, not the least of which is deciding who will attend....The White House is acutely aware that a published list of guests is taken as a barometer of who is in favor and who is out."
Most foreign delegations will inform the White House of any special requirements; for example, when Prime Minister Thatcher of Great Britain visited in 1981, the protocol office was advised that "'Mrs. Thatcher does not like tomatoes, drinks whiskey and soda, and does not smoke.' Her husband Dennis, meanwhile, 'Does not like rare roast beef and drinks very dry martinis, sometimes without vermouth.'"
Many cultures have food taboos, for instance, Arab and Israeli delegations should not be served pork. (Not even Billionaire's Bacon.) Indians should not be served beef. (And I understand, though this is not in the book, the Japanese Imperial family does not eat fruit skins, such as those on grapes or tomatoes.)
Letitia Baldrige, etiquette expert and social secretary to the Kennedy White House, offers this short primer on White House etiquette:
Unless there is a death, illness or marriage in your family, always try to accept an invitation to the White House.
Seek Fashion Advice
Even sophisticates get it wrong. Baldrige recommends a direct call to the White House social secretary for advice on what others will be wearing. Consider a recent White House event at which four women, including the first lady, wore the same dress.
Arrive in Style
Do not attempt to drive your car to the White House. Use a limousine service that knows the routines of White House entertaining, including shortcuts, correct locations to drop off guests and the best place to call for them after the event.
...and On Time
There is no such thing as 'fashionably late" at the White House. This is a terrible lapse of judgement, and rude not only to the president and fist lady but to the visiting dignitary. Arrive five to ten minutes early in order to move swiftly through security, check your coat, and get up to the main floor quickly.
Turn to your Left, Turn to your Right
Talk with equal enthusiasm to the person on your right and left. The person sitting next to you will likely be one of the most prominent people in the country.
Do Not Lobby
"It is the kiss of death to push your agenda at a White House social gathering," says Baldrige. "It's looked upon with disgust."
When in Doubt, Imitate the First Lady
Confronting a gauntlet of flatware or a finger bowl can be daunting. It is advisable to look to others at your table to check manners. John Musante, green grocer to the Reagans, was invited to a state dinner and sat at Mrs Reagan's table next to actress Jaclyn Smith. Both being new to the White House, they decided to simply follow Mrs. Reagan's lead. When the first lady served herself a small portion from a tray, they did the same. When she used a certain fork, they did as well. By the time the Log Cabin cake was served for dessert, however, Mrs Smith attitude changed. "I don't care how much of that cake Mrs. Reagan serves herself," Smith told Musante. "I'm having a big slice."
Do Not Ask for More
It is unacceptable to request second helpings at a White House dinner. The meal has been planned for four courses. It is advisable to serve oneself enough from each tray so as not to go hungry, yet not so much as to appear ravenous.
Chat with the President
After dinner, do no hesitate to approach the president and first lady for a brief conversation. You've been invited to their home, and they will be delighted to speak to you. Do not monopolize the president for more than two or three minutes, however. If one of the military or social aides decides you've overstayed your chat, you will be given a polite invitation to another part of the room.
Protocol dictates that guests should remain until the guest of honor has left a state dinner. In most cases, the president and first lady will remain for a short time before departing up the Grand Staircase to the private quarters in the White House. This will be your cue to have a final dance, a last sip of champagne, and exit through the East Corridor.
Smile. Always, always smile.