Transparency in government is a public good, because it helps us understand what government is doing, including what favors its officials dole out to private citizens. Being invited to a state dinner is of no small significance. For the hundred or so citizens not in public office who are invited, it is not only a memorable event but a boost to one’s reputation and an advertisement of one’s proximity to power. But for the rest of us, learning who goes is one way to understand what the President cares about and who his core supporters are.
President Obama’s guest lists are sadly much less transparent than those of President George W. Bush. Other than government officials they list the affiliations only of journalists. Compare the guest list to President Obama’s state dinner for Francois Hollande to George Bush’s list for the dinner for Queen Elizabeth II. (I have not studied the lists of all state dinners, but I have no reason to believe these are atypical).
What could be the reason for this selective information? Unfortunately, only cynical explanations are plausible. Obama wants to downplay the many rich business people who are invited, most of whom are likely donors or indeed bundlers for his campaign or his party. A state dinner where such invitees bulk large on the guest list is out of keeping with his image of being a tribune for the people against the interests of the one percent. But trumpeting the ample representation of the fourth estate advances the administration’s agenda, because the press influences the success of that agenda.
And this cynical ploy has worked. Most press stories about the guests emphasize the names members of the press would likely quickly recognize, like actors and other celebrities. Such coverage provides an aura that the President does like, that of a celebrity surrounded by other celebrities—one who is above the grubby business of politics. These stories do not mention the business people or donors or make any invidious comparisons to President Clinton and the sleepovers at the Lincoln bedroom.
Here is a modest proposal: The press should show it cannot be bought off and instead do its basic job by finding the affiliations of all members of the guest list for any state dinner. In this internet age, it is the work of an hour or two. Then add in italics the affiliations of all of those that the White House has chosen not to identify. Others could then use the data to make charts and help the public understand the connections that move this administration and others in the future. Whom I invite to dine with me shows where my heart is. It is no different for the President, except that his business is our business.