It all starts with an engraved invitation that comes in the mail, conveying the coveted offer to attend a state dinner.
By the time guests walk up to the gates of the White House, though, that piece of paper is largely an afterthought, a memento for the scrapbook.
All that matters is who's on The List.
At least that's how it's supposed to work, notwithstanding the curious tale of Michaele and Tareq Salahi. How the northern Virginia couple managed to talk their way into last week's dinner for the prime minister of India without an invitation will be the stuff of Washington finger-pointing, investigating, hearings and conjecture for weeks to come.
"I don't know how anyone could have weaseled their way in," said Charlene Gaynor, one of the guests at the dinner. "There were many, many checkpoints."
"Clearly, this was a glitch," said Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, another guest.
As a rule, those invited to a party at the White House don't just show up with a bottle of wine and give their hosts a peck on the cheek.
Waving a written invitation won't get them in the door.
Invited guests have to RSVP with an anything-but-typical level of detail, providing their full legal names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers.
The Secret Service then runs a background check on every invitee, including non-citizens, and only after that are names added to the list of those cleared for admittance to the White House.
A number of guests who attended last week's dinner said Tuesday their names were checked against the list at three different checkpoints and they had to produce a photo ID before entering the White House. They're perplexed at how someone could have gotten in without a proper invitation.
Gaynor, CEO of the Association of Educational Publishers, said the White House Social Office had called her twice in advance of the dinner to confirm information about her and her husband.
"It was tight as a drum in my view," she said.
Spiritual adviser Deepak Chopra said his office "went back and forth a few times" with the Social Office to firm up arrangements.
Minnesota state Sen. Satveer Chaudhry said he'd called the White House and provided his personal information twice to make sure he'd be cleared in.
Once he and his brother arrived, "they looked at our IDs and looked at the list very closely and then checked it off," Chaudhry said. "Only then did they let us in. Nothing was cursory about it."
Inside the White House, there are more hurdles.
Those wanting to shake hands with the president, first lady and other dignitaries in the receiving line must first pick up an envelope that contains a printed card bearing their names so that they can be announced to the president. And they need a second card that provides their table assignments for the dinner.
Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance in New York, said Mrs. Salahi stood out in the line of those waiting to enter the White House because she was tall and blonde and wearing a striking red sari. Desai said guests at that point were waiting to go through metal detectors inside the mansion after they'd already passed through three identification checkpoints.
Gaynor said that when she cleared the metal detectors, Mrs. Salahi was one of the first people she spotted, having her picture taken with CBS' Katie Couric.
"She seemed like she knew everybody," Gaynor said.
A full week after the dinner, official Washington was still aflutter. A congressional hearing was set for Thursday. The Secret Service was investigating. The State Department was referring questions to the Social Office. The Social Office wasn't returning calls. The president was not amused.
The Salahis appeared on NBC's "Today" show on Tuesday and insisted they hadn't crashed the party, but didn't provide evidence to back up their account.
Don Ensenat, who served as chief of protocol for former President George W. Bush, said standing operating procedure for state dinners during the Bush years called for both Secret Service and Social Office representatives to make multiple checks to ensure that guests had been cleared for admittance.
"There was sort of a triple fail-safe system," Ensenat said. "In eight years, we never had any crashers on that system."