Print Project Proposal: Analysis of Presidential State Dinners and their Impact on Foreign Policy

The role of the President of the United States has been to lead the American people in domestic and foreign policy. Beginning in the twentieth century and continuing to present day, American presidents have taken on larger and larger roles in foreign policy. To name just a few examples, FDR and Harry Truman’s role in World War II, the disastrous Vietnam War, Jimmy Carter’s bid for peace in the middle east with the Camp David Accords, and the continuing War on Terror have demonstrated the importance of a President’s foreign policy. In handling these complex situations Presidents have many meetings all over the globe with world leaders, diplomats, military and government officials. They also frequently host these events on their own turf at the White House. The White House has become an important site for these meetings and Presidents regularly host formal State Dinners to celebrate long-standing relationships, build upon fractious ones, and to display formal ceremony and decorum. Despite this long-standing tradition dating back to the very beginning of this nation, President Trump has declined to host a single State Dinner a year into his Presidency, citing exorbitant cost as a factor. This has created a question of historical precedent and the value of State Dinners.

In order to evaluate the value of State Dinners and their role in foreign policy, I propose a project that would compare the official records of State Dinner speeches, meetings, and toasts with news coverage of these events. UC Santa Barbara has launched an important digital platform called The American Presidency Project which seeks to compile thousands of documents related to the Presidency in one location for researchers to use. It currently boasts 128,921 documents in its rapidly expanding archives and contains papers from every Presidency. The records from more recent administrations are quite robust and contain transcribed copies of speeches, toasts, and meetings that occurred at State Dinners.

For this project, I will use The American Presidency Project to collect all records related to State Dinners from FDR’s administration forward and use Voyant Tools to create a corpus. This corpus will allow analysis of the words and phrases most used during State Dinners. It will look to analyze the most used words and phrases to address the following: Do State Dinners seek primarily to strengthen, maintain, or build relationships? And, are State Dinners valuable to addressing foreign policy concerns or are they simply ceremonial events lacking function and value?

In addition to the official presidential papers, I think it is also important to use news articles from both domestic and foreign newspapers to further analyze the benefit of the dinners. They would provide a point of context for this study. These could also be consolidated into a Voyant Tools corpus and the frequently used words and phrases would help provide a comparison point.

With this project, I think context is important to consider. As we pondered last week in our discussion of Jocker’s Macroanalysis, there is often a fear that digital macroanalysis tools can strip a project of context. I propose an additional point to this project that would involve close reading and analysis of a few selected State Dinners. This would allow an evaluation of State Dinners through more traditional historical methods which could then be compared with the macroanalysis.

One Reply to “Print Project Proposal: Analysis of Presidential State Dinners and their Impact on Foreign Policy”

  1. Working to distant read State Dinners is a neat concept. My sense is that one of the primary challenges in this project is going to be getting enough like documentation from these events to model this in a way that can give you meaningful comparisons. That is, there is likely going to be so many different kinds of documents in differing amounts that knowing when you are mapping trends relating to the events and when you are mapping trends in either the production of particular documents or in the appraisal decisions that went into choosing which documents to keep is going to be challenging.

    That said, I think there is a lot of potentially compelling material to work form in here. Just something like tracking the text of all the toasts down and analyzing those, or looking at documentation of costs over time, getting at the frequency of the events, looking at the scale of them over time in terms of guests, etc. There is a lot of potential things to count and compare and I imagine much of that will offer potentially interesting results.

    I would suggest changing a bit of the focus of your questions. You suggest that you will explore “Do State Dinners seek primarily to strengthen, maintain, or build relationships? And, are State Dinners valuable to addressing foreign policy concerns or are they simply ceremonial events lacking function and value?” My sense is that you are going to get a good bit further by moving to less evaluative questions and to more open ended ones that are also open to change over time. That is, if you wanted to know about what the objectives are behind hosting state dinners then you would likely do better going to the papers of presidents to look to see what the stated objectives for these events were. Similarly, the second question focuses on the aspect of “Do state dinners work?” which is likely something that would require looking elsewhere to identify the results of these events.

    With that noted, if your approach focuses on simply identifying trends and fashions in the history of state dinners and then using those as a basis to explore how they have developed and changed over time my suspicion is that you would surface a series of intriguing trends and nuances that would be of general interest to lots of folks.

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