“he shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers”

-United States Constitution, Article II, Section 3

Acting in close conjunction with the Chief Diplomat power, the President is also appointed to serve as the Ceremonial Head of State. The framers of the Constitution quickly realized that foreign leaders could not be received by Congress, a large and often politically divided governmental body. Therefore, they bequeath the President the duty of receiving ambassadors and other public ministers on the behalf of the United States Government. President Clinton filled this role each time he received foreign leaders or attended events like state dinners or exchanges of state gifts.  

Hosting State Dinners

Beyond direct negotiations with other nations and their people, the President of the United States acts as Ceremonial Head of State through holding and attending state dinners. These meals serve as an occasion for the President to showcase the hospitality of the United States and forge closer bonds with leaders of other nations. This was the case in 1994 when Nelson Mandela, the newly elected President of South Africa, visited the White House for a state dinner. 

President Clinton greets President Mandela
President Clinton and President Nelson Mandela of South Africa walk together on the South Lawn for the State Arrival Ceremony for President Mandela.


President Mandela’s visit to the White House began with a ceremony on the South Lawn at 11:00 AM where President Clinton and the First Lady received him at his vehicle. After speeches, the playing of national anthems, and introductions, the party moved to a reception inside the White House and a meeting in the Oval Office before retiring to their own quarters until evening. 

President Clinton's schedule
Click the document above to take a closer look at President Clinton's schedule while he hosted the state dinner. (Page 10-15). 


Later that evening, President Clinton and President Mandela, accompanied by their wives, ascended the stairs of the North Portico as they were announced to the dinner’s guests. Once seated for dinner, both Presidents offered toasts to one another that spoke to the beneficence of their counterpart and dinner was served. 

Mandela State Dinner Menu
The dinner menu from Nelson Mandela's state dinner in 1994. 


The food served during a state dinner is as important as the speeches and ceremony that it accompanies. The menu for these meals is selected in order to dually recognize dishes popular in the guest’s home country and showcase ingredients and preparations that are unique to the United States. For President Mandela’s state dinner, the inclusion of red curry and halibut were nods to South African cuisine while American products like a wild ripened cheese from New York showcased American ingredients. 

Click the player above to see selected moments from the state dinner of President Nelson Mandela. Arrival Ceremony (00:00-15:30). Speeches (15:30-32:00). Dinner arrival and reception line (35:00-1:02:10). Toasts by President Clinton and President Mandela (1:02:13-1:16:00). Entertainment by Whitney Houston (1:16:15-1:22:00). 

Following the decadent meal, the evening was capped off with entertainment as Whitney Houston sang several of her most famous songs in the Rose Garden for both presidents, their families, and assembled guests. 

Receiving State Gifts

When world leaders meet with the President of the United States, it is common for them to exchange gifts on behalf of their nations. This type of gift is referred to as a state gift. The President, in their capacity as Ceremonial Head of State, receives the gifts of foreign nations on behalf of the American people.

Often, the gifts exchanged are representative of the gifting nation's culture, the relationship between the two nations, or the relationship between the two leaders. Below, you can explore several gifts that President Clinton received during his eight years in office.

Roman Coliseum
Glass Mosaic gifted to President Clinton titled Roman Coliseum. Photo courtesy White House Historical Association.


The Roman Coliseum, a glass mosaic depicting the ruins of the famous Roman structure, was gifted to President Clinton by Pope John Paul II during a visit to the Vatican by President Clinton in June of 1994. In this case, the emphasis on glass art and Roman ruins is representative of the culture of the Vatican and greater Italy.

Shamrock Presentation
President Clinton receives a crystal bowl of shamrocks from Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds on St. Patrick's Day. Read President Clinton's remarks here.


In a Saint Patrick’s Day tradition, the Prime Minister of Ireland presents the President of the United States with a crystal bowl filled with shamrocks in a small ceremony referred to as the “Shamrock Ceremony”. During a speech following the presentation in 1994, President Clinton said that “these shamrocks, represent the values and rich heritage our nations share. From the earliest days of this republic, the American dream has so often been a story of Irish American achievement.”

Robben Island Stone
Quarried limestone from Robben Island. Presented to President Clinton by Nelson Mandela during a 1998 visit to Cape Town, South Africa.

This piece of stone, quarried from the Robben Island Maximum Security Prison in South Africa, was gifted to President Clinton by Nelson Mandela in 1998 during a state visit to Cape Town, South Africa. Nelson Mandela, was imprisoned at Robben Island from 1964-1982 on charges of treason for his opposition to the system of racial apartheid that ruled his nation. During that period, Mandela would have engaged in grueling manual labor quarrying away stones like this one.

[Return To The Powers of The Presidency Home Page]