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Trudeau in Washington: State visits a source of memorable moments — and mishaps

A look back at memorable moments from past State Dinners
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will attend a state dinner at the White House on Thursday. It's a tradition that dates back nearly 100 years. And since the very first one, the lavish event has led to some memorable moments. Aarti Pole reports.

WASHINGTON — The United States hosting lavish soirees for world leaders is a tradition dating back nearly a century.

While state visits are full of pomp and ceremony, they’re also a time to discuss hot button issues.

Trade, national security and environmental policies are expected to be on the agenda when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits U.S. president Barack Obama this week.

But the visit is a symbol of America’s relationship with the country being honoured.

READ MORE: White House says Obama developing ‘special relationship’ with Trudeau

“Canada and the United States have a very, very close relationship,” says historian Doug Weade. But, the US has not hosted a Canadian Prime Minister since 1997, when former president Bill Clinton invited Jean Chretien and his wife, Aline, to the White House.

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President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton pose with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his wife Aline at the North Portico of the White House on April 8, 1997.
President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton pose with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his wife Aline at the North Portico of the White House on April 8, 1997. Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo

The coveted invitation was not extended to former Prime Ministers Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.

But less than two months after Justin Trudeau was elected, the White House confirmed it would roll out the red carpet for the new leader and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.

“Your prime minister is a celebrity, so President Obama would like to meet him and would like his daughters to meet him. So, I think that’s partly what’s driving it,” says Weade. “But of course it’s long overdue.”

READ MORE: Four former ambassadors advise PM: ‘Don’t get involved in American politics’

One of the main attractions of the visit is the official state dinner.

The guest list could include more than 200, with officials and dignitaries from both countries.

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“The guest list will probably have a lot of Americans who have some specific interests in business in Canada,” says Washington Post Lifestyle reporter Roxanne Roberts.

“Usually, the guest list is sprinkled with celebrities from the country. I don’t think we’ll see Justin Bieber, but there may be a few other Canadian celebrities.”

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State visits have documented some extraordinary moments in America’s diplomatic history, ever since President Hoover welcomed the King and Queen Prajadhipok of Siam (now Thailand) back in 1931

But, the events have grown considerably since the 1930s.

During the first wave of “Trudeaumania,” 121 guests were invited to welcome Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. He was the first world leader to be hosted by President Richard Nixon.

Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and President Richard Nixon wound up two day of conferences with a handshake at the White House on March 25, 1969 in Washington.
Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and President Richard Nixon wound up two day of conferences with a handshake at the White House on March 25, 1969 in Washington. Henry Burrough/The Canadian Press

While it’s believed the elder Trudeau embodied some star-like qualities, state dinners became particularly star-studded affairs during Ronald Reagan’s administration.

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Both he and First Lady Nancy Reagan, who passed away Sunday at the age of 94, held careers in Hollywood before entering politics.

As a result, the guest lists would often include silver screen legends.

Crooners Frank Sinatra and Perry Como were the entertainment when they hosted Italian Prime Minister Alessandro Pertini in 1982.

In 1985, a famous magical moment at a gala dinner by the Reagan’s in honour of the British royals when Princess Diana was whisked to the dance floor by John Travolta.

The late Princess famously showed off her dance moves with Saturday Night Fever king John Travolta.
The late Princess famously showed off her dance moves with Saturday Night Fever king John Travolta. Rex Features/The Canadian Press

But, perhaps one of the most noteworthy in recent years, was a state visit from South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela in 1994.

“You just think about what that example of freedom that represented,” says Anita McBride, former chief of staff for Laura Bush. “President and Secretary (Hillary) Clinton referred to that state dinner as one of the most special and significant in their time.”

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In his toast to Mandela, President Clinton noted:

“As you well know, Mr. President, your presence here has special significance for Americans. We have been especially drawn to the problems and the promise of South Africa. We have struggled, and continue to struggle, with our own racial challenges. So we rejoice, especially, in what you have accomplished.”

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The toasts are an important aspect of the state dinners. But despite the extensive planning that goes into these events, mistakes can and have happened.

During the 2008 visit by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, that warm exchange between the leaders got, what some might say, out of hand.

“He’s so passionate about his love for the United Sates and the bond for our two countries,” remembers McBride, who was at the 2008 affair.

“He’s grabbing onto the podium and, the next thing you know, he pulls the podium right off. The eagle and all, right off the stand. And he continues to do his toast as the wire is hanging and the podium is in his hand.”

Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi holds the top portion of the podium as he walks over to President George W. Bush to thank him during an Official Dinner in the State Dining Room Monday, Oct. 13, 2008. The podium came apart during Berlusconi’s remarks to the President.
Prime Minister of Italy Silvio Berlusconi holds the top portion of the podium as he walks over to President George W. Bush to thank him during an Official Dinner in the State Dining Room Monday, Oct. 13, 2008. The podium came apart during Berlusconi’s remarks to the President. Martinez Monslvais/AP Photo

White House staff learned to better secure the podium in future.

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There was also an important learning moment in 1976 when the White House hosted Queen Elizabeth II.

The planning for the event was excruciatingly detailed. But when President Gerald Ford and Queen Elizabeth took to the dance floor, the U.S. marine band enthusiastically started to play an American classic that was an unintentionally poor song selection — “The Lady is a Tramp.”

READ MORE: Washington D.C. prepped for Justin Trudeau’s arrival

Certainly, that a faux pas but not the worst mishap to occur during a state dinner.

That honour goes to the White House crashers of 2009.

Tareq and Michaele Salahi were uninvited guests who maneuvered their way into the first state dinner held by the Obama’s.

Not on the guest list. This is the moment when socialite couple Michaele and Tareq Salahi met President Barack Obama having bypassed the world’s most stringent security service and gatecrashed a 2009 State Dinner at the White House.
Not on the guest list. This is the moment when socialite couple Michaele and Tareq Salahi met President Barack Obama having bypassed the world’s most stringent security service and gatecrashed a 2009 State Dinner at the White House. Rex Features/The Canadian Press

The administration was hosting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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Dressed in a traditional Indian dress, Michaele Salahi and her then husband cleared multiple security checkpoints and even met with the president.

The security breach launched a formal investigation and a congressional hearing.

The Obamas and their staff are far more practiced at state dinners now, so it’s unlikely someone will crash on the Canadians Thursday night.