60 Minutes archives: How state dinners looked in 1971

President Trump holds his first state dinner this week. In 1971, 60 Minutes got a behind-the-scenes look as President Nixon threw the formal party

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Fifteen months into Trump administration, the White House is throwing its first state dinner in honor of French President Emmanuel Macron. The tradition of hosting foreign heads of state at a formal dinner dates back to 1874, when President Ulysses S. Grant welcomed King David Kalakaua of the Kingdom of Hawai'i.

In the ensuing years, the leaders have changed, but the pomp and circumstance have stayed the same— from the flowers and food, to the guest list and entertainment. In 1971, 60 Minutes got a rare behind-the-scenes look as President Richard Nixon welcomed Italian Premier Emilio Colombo. Correspondent Morley Safer took viewers into the White House kitchen, met the social secretary in charge of planning the event, and spoke with maître d' John Ficklin, who was then celebrating his 25th anniversary at the White House.


"You can't help but wonder whether some of the heads of state wouldn't prefer a little less formality," Safer said. "The European idea of an American party is casual, informal entertainment, and they sometimes wonder why we always, regardless of who is president, put on such a show. The answer may be Alice Roosevelt Longworth's—that we really do wish that we had a royal family."

Below is the transcript of an abridged version of a piece that aired on March 2, 1971.

Mike Wallace: Morley, you're two months back in the United States and already you've been invited to dinner at the White House.

Morley Safer: Yep. It was the State visit of the Prime Minister of Italy. I wore my white tie and tails. Actually, the invitation wasn't for us alone. The President and Mrs. Nixon asked us to bring all our viewers along so that they could see what it was like.

Mike Wallace: What was it like?

Morley Safer: It was like this.

"There's no such thing as being fashionably late for a White House party."

His Excellency, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Secretary of State and Mrs. Rogers.

Not only the high and the mighty but just plain folks are heralded in the grand manner. Everyone treads the same red carpet.

Mrs. David Eisenhower. Miss Tricia Nixon.

There's no such thing as being fashionably late for a White House party. The host, the hostess and the honored guest are the last to arrive. They make their entrance down the grand staircase, while the guests are waiting next door in the East Room.

One impressionable young lady was heard to remark, "It's just like 'Gone With The Wind. '" It's really more like "The Student Prince." Alice Roosevelt Longworth said that when she lived in the White House while her father, Teddy Roosevelt, was President, she was known as "Princess Alice." And she says that deep in its heart, America longs for a Royal Family.


Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States of America and Mrs. Nixon. His Excellency, the President of the Council of Justices of the Republic of Italy.

From the receiving line in the East Room, the guests enter the State Dining Room. Wouldn't you just love to eavesdrop on this conversation? It's almost certain that Italy is not what Melvin Laird and Henry Kissinger are talking about. Familiar faces at State occasions. But on the guest list tonight: Phil Rizzuto, Joe Garagiola, Anna Maria Alberghetti. Mario Procaccino, upper right, defeated by John Lindsay for Mayor of New York. Also the National Commander of the Italian-American War Veterans, the President of the Order of Italian Sons and Daughters of America, and the Grand Venerable of the Sons of Italy.

That is how a state dinner begins. Richard Nixon is probably our most widely traveled President. He also, I suppose, is the best-entertained President we've ever had. Republics and ancient monarchies have feted him in the grand halls of Europe. The Élysée in Paris, and Buckingham Palace in London. And by Commissars too. The People's Republics do not skimp on the champagne and caviar when they entertain the President of the United States.

Well, great nations are not unlike your friends and mine when it comes to social matters. And tonight the Nixons are showing what they can do for a dinner party at their house. Dinner has just commenced and we'll be back for it.

The visit began early this morning with a blare of trumpets. On a day described by the President as being like a Roman spring, the ceremonies begin in the morning with the arrival of Prime Minister Colombo on the South Lawn of the White House.

It isn't all ruffles and flourishes. Real business is discussed on a State visit. At the State Department a few days earlier, Egidio Ortona, Italy's Ambassador to Washington, calls on Secretary Rogers to discuss the agenda for the talks between President and Prime Minister.

Morley Safer: I worked abroad for many years and covered a good deal of your trips when you were a guest and now I am seeing you as a host. Which role do you prefer?

President Nixon: It's easier, of course, to be a guest than it is a host. When you're the host, you have responsibility -- and your wife, of course, has great responsibility, as you will note in your program -- for all of the protocol and the entertainment. And these things don't come off just as smoothly and with clockwork precision by just doing it, as we say, winging it. A lot of planning, days and weeks of planning goes into just a simple procedure like the arrival ceremony.


President Nixon: When you are a guest, then it's all on the other side, and you just go wherever the Chief of Protocol takes you and all you have to do is to be prepared for the talks. When you are a host, you have to be prepared for the talks, and supervise all of the things that go into being a host for a distinguished guest.

Morley Safer: My wife can get very nervous when she is planning a dinner party for ten. What's Mrs. Nixon like when she is planning a dinner party for a hundred and fifty? A couple of times a week, very often.

President Nixon: It is not easy. I think sometimes that when people think of the first lady living in the White House, whoever she may be, they think of that huge staff, and it is a big staff, and all of the military aides, and the rest. But when you finally come down to it, what will the menu be? What kind of flowers should we have? After dinner, what person should talk to what person? How do we keep the party moving? How do we make people feel that they are really welcome? That requires a touch that only a woman can give.

Morley Safer: Do you ever try to lend a hand at that?

President Nixon: Well, my advice is often asked but not very often is it taken.

"Well, Morley, as you know, there is no house like this one."

Morley Safer: Henry Haller, you're the White House chef. Does the President ever come down here, or are you the president of the kitchen?

Henry Haller: I'm not the president of the kitchen because there is only one President. I'm only the chef here.

Morley Safer: At a dinner like tonight's, a state dinner, who decides on the menu?

Henry Haller: I make a menu and I send the menu to the social secretary and the social secretary, Mrs. Winchester, takes the menu up with the first lady and sometimes we do have some changes, but very seldom.

While the salmon and the steaks and the asparagus wait at parade rest, the Marine Corps orchestra is playing for early arrivals. Downstairs in the White House's own flower shop, the White House's own florists are putting the final touches on a floral decoration for the State Dining Room, where the White House's maître d' is making a last-minute check of the tables. John Ficklin is tonight celebrating his 25th anniversary at the White House. By now the menus have arrived from the Government Printing Office.


Morley Safer: In serving six Presidents, you have to serve very, very different men with different habits, customs and tastes. How does Mr. Nixon differ from all the others?

John Ficklin: Well, one thing is different -- the old custom in the White House was to serve the President and the visiting King first, and President Nixon changed that to serve the-- Mrs. Nixon and the distinguished guest's wife before they serve the President and the King or Prime Minister, whoever it might be.

The guests are arriving, each lady is escorted into the East Room on the arm of a social aide, a young military officer stationed in the District of Columbia. Her husband walks a step or two behind. Among other things, a social aide makes sure an unattached guest has someone to dance with or someone to share a glass of champagne with. It's a way to meet the very best people. In the previous administration, one of the aides, a Marine Lieutenant named Chuck Robb, married the boss's daughter.

Morley Safer: Mrs. Winchester, what does it take to be the social secretary in a house like this one?

Lucy Winchester: Well, Morley, as you know, there is no house like this one. So that's a hard question to answer. Here we depend upon guidance from the First Family. The President and Mrs. Nixon establish the ground rules for entertaining here and we simply carry out their wishes.

Morley Safer: Well, how would you describe the tone that they set in the White House?

Lucy Winchester: It depends on what the event is, as to what sort of a tone we try to establish. It may be a very gay evening such as the one we had for Duke Ellington's birthday party. It may be a-- a state occasion, as this one is this evening.

Morley Safer: You're an old hand at this. Do you ever get nervous before an event like tonight's dinner?

Lucy Winchester: We all get nervous before every event here in the White House because here any slight flaw that we might see will be put under the world's microscope and blown up. And everyone will see it as a-- a great problem, whereas if it was something that happened in your own house, it would just be silked over.

Morley Safer: Everything seems to run like magic, beautifully oiled and smooth. Is it—is it as easy as it looks?

Lucy Winchester: It's not easy. You've been here, you've been watching us put the rabbit in the hat. The guests will watch the rabbit come out and they won't know how he got there in the first place.

Between the Vacherin à la Roma and the coffee, the strolling strings of the U.S. Army walk through the glittering hall. It is a night to remember. People will cherish and frame the invitation and menu. A night to be happily blinded by the flash of sequins. A Cinderella night for many of the ladies. Place settings, crystal, and linen will be etched in the mind -- and perhaps emulated -- at their next dinner party.

President Nixon: Because of our affection for the country that he represents, for the people and the tradition that he represents, and also because of our respect and admiration for him as a person and as a world leader, I know all of you will want to join me in raising your glasses to the Prime Minister of Italy. The Prime Minister.

Morley Safer: You can't help but wonder whether some of the heads of state wouldn't prefer a little less formality. You know, the European idea of an American party is casual, informal entertainment, and they sometimes wonder why we always, regardless of who is President, put on such a show. The answer may be Alice Roosevelt Longworth's, that we really do wish we had a royal family.