U.S.-African Leaders Summit dinner: Not exactly a state dinner but lots of pomp and circumstance

Tuesday night’s formal function at the White House might not have been a state dinner – that apex of entertaining at 1600
Pennsylvania Ave. that traditionally sends chefs and protocol experts and social secretaries into a tizzy of calligraphy and
honing of guest lists.

Yet the event – held in honor of more than 50 African-nation dignitaries and their spouses – was just as challenging to pull
off.

The usual headaches of diplo power-dining were increased greatly: Seating charts accounted for regional tensions in Africa.
In advance, staffers identified the guests whose faith makes wine taboo. And which wife was the King of Swaziland bringing
anyway?

The fete bore many of the hallmarks of a state dinner. There was an elegant menu and a famous entertainer (pop icon Lionel
Richie) and a white tent on the South Lawn.

But small touches, nearly imperceptible to anyone but protocol wonks, distinguished the event from a traditional state function:
Guests were greeted by Chief of Protocol Peter Selfridge, for example, rather than the president and the first lady. And most
of the men wore sharp suits or traditional garb instead of tuxedoes.

Unlike so many state dinners of late, there were few glitzy celebrity imports on the guest list – in part because the presidents
and their spouses alone made up a large chunk of the invitees.

So for a change, the foreign dignitaries were the stars. And they didn’t disappoint.

The guest arrivals turned the White House’s stately North Portico into a catwalk of sorts, with brightly colored gowns offering
a welcome change from the usual parade of safe black dresses. Chantal Biya, the dramatically coiffed first lady of Cameroon,
sported her signature crimson bouffant, which clashed merrily with a lollipop-pink ensemble.

(The King of Swaziland brought Inkhosikati LaMbikiza, his third wife, for the record.)

The evening was the centerpiece of this week’s summit of African leaders in Washington, a historic confab aimed at highlighting the possibilities of greater economic ties between the United States and the continent.

On Tuesday night, though, business talk was mostly put aside.

Follow more of the big dinner’s news here from Lionel Richie’s pseudo-African song lyrics to what 1600 Penn. will have on the menu.

More from The Reliable Source:

Lionel Richie will perform at the Africa ‘state dinner’ at the White House

A playlist in honor of this week’s Africa summit in D.C.

The first lady of Cameroon and her hair have touched down in D.C.

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Emily Heil is the co-author of the Reliable Source and previously helped pen the In the Loop column with Al Kamen.
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