A day of pomp & ceremony

January 20, 2011

It's the mantra of Washington these days: Can't we treat each other with civility and respect?

Wednesday night's state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao was international diplomacy's version of playing nice: gracious words, bipartisan patriotism and hardly any mentions of those uncomfortable issues that put a damper on a good party (although a hardy crowd of protesters outside the White House greeted arriving guests). The evening's theme was all-American, with elegant nods to Chinese culture; the guest list of 225 mixed politicians, business leaders, celebrities and a number of prominent Chinese Americans including Olympic skater Michelle Kwan, movie star Jackie Chan, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and designer Vera Wang, wearing - you guessed it - Vera Wang.

And Barbra Streisand, who oddly quipped that she was invited because, once upon a time, "I worked in a Chinese restaurant."

The serious business having been completed earlier in the day, the evening was devoted to fine food, wine, camaraderie and generous toasts.

"While it's easy to focus on our differences of culture and perspective," President Obama said in his dinner remarks, "let us never forget the values that our people share: a reverence for family; the belief that, with education and hard work and with sacrifice, the future is what we make it; and most of all, the desire to give our children a better life."

And the best warm fuzzy of all, Obama broke some news. "Under a new agreement, our National Zoo will continue to dazzle children and visitors with the beloved giant pandas." The guests, of course, broke into laughter and applause.

Hu was equally magnanimous in his response: "In recent years, particularly over the past two years since President Obama took office, China-U.S. relations have made strong headway, thanks to the joint efforts of both sides. . . . I am confident that with joint efforts, a China-U.S. cooperative partnership will yield bountiful fruits for the greater benefit of our people, and make new and bigger contribution to the noble cause of world peace and development."

This state visit - a coveted symbol of respect - was years in the making: The last official state dinner for China was held in 1997, when Bill Clinton hosted Jiang Zemin. When Hu came to Washington in 2006, George W. Bush hosted a lunch for the leader, not a dinner, and did not designate the occasion a state visit, although the Chinese claimed otherwise.

Making this guest list was not a simple matter. Guests included former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and prominent Chinese American government officials and politicians: Energy Secretary Steven Chu; Commerce Secretary Gary Locke; Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress; Jean Quan, mayor of Oakland, Calif.; Edwin Lee, interim mayor of San Francisco. Also on hand were two rising GOP stars: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. Among the business set was John Chen, chairman of the Committee of 100, a group of Chinese American business leaders. Washington old-timers included Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Not in attendance was House Speaker John Boehner, who created quite a buzz when he declined - once again - to show up, the third time he has said no to Obama's invitation to a state event. (House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accepted the invite and sat next to David Axelrod.)

With the recent call for respect and for civility in Washington, said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), it is "up to individual senators and members of Congress to tone down the rhetoric and find compromise. You can't come here with a scorched-earth policy and expect to do the nation's business and serve our greater interests."

Embodying that bipartisan spirit was Christie, one of the few Republicans at the dinner. "It's a great night for our country," the governor said. "It doesn't matter if you're a Republican or Democrat tonight. You're an American tonight. We're honored to be here."

Of course, some things transcend politics. Outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had only one comment: "Go Bears!" (The president has promised to attend the Super Bowl if the team wins the NFC championship.)

For all his dozens of visits to the White House, Yo-Yo Ma said he was "very excited" to be here again. "Law & Order" actor B.D. Wong admitted he was a little overwhelmed to be invited - and ended up with a seat at the head table. Wong brought his mom and photographed the press pack snapping pictures of him.

Jackie Chan walked in carrying a huge camera ("I just want to take some photos") and said, half joking, that he'd like to talk to Hu about . . . a special trade issue. "I've been listening the whole morning, but they never mention about movies. I'm very disappointed. What about the movie business: how many American movies go into China, how many coming to America, those kinds of things." But he promised none of his trademark moves. "Not today," he said with a grin.

Everyone has been on their best behavior since Tuesday, when Vice President Biden welcomed Hu in a red-carpet arrival ceremony. To underscore the importance of the trip, the Chinese leader was treated to a rare private dinner Tuesday night at the White House, where Obama hosted a small off-the-record gathering - just Hu, national security adviser Tom Donilon, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and two Chinese officials - in the Dining Room in the residence.

The official pomp and pageantry started at Wednesday's arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn, complete with honor guards, patriotic tunes and a 21-gun salute.

After the two leaders went inside for meetings, Michelle Obama used Hu's visit to encourage students to become part of the global community during a forum at Howard University on studying abroad. "Studying in countries like China isn't only about your prospects in the global marketplace. It's not just about whether you can compete with your peers in other countries to make America stronger," she said. "It's also about whether you can come together and work together with them to make our world stronger. It's about the friendships you make, the bonds of trust you establish and the image of America that you project to the rest of the world."

China is one of the top host countries for American students abroad. In 2009, President Obama announced the "100,000 Strong" initiative in China, a program aimed at increasing the number and diversity of American students who travel to and study there. On Wednesday, the first lady announced $2.25 million in private-sector money to support the initiative.

"We need you out there taking some risks and doing some really hard things," she said.

A few hours later, the first lady appeared on the North Portico wearing a flame red gown by the late British designer Alexander McQueen. The president wore a tux, but Hu opted for a black suit and blue tie. (Hu's wife did not accompany him on this trip.)

Other fashion standouts: Vogue editor Anna Wintour, in a short white Chanel suit, who said she hoped to talk business with Hu, specifically about the rag trade: "Will he invest in Chinese fashion?" Michelle Kwan wore a matte gold Herve Leger sequined cocktail dress, Wendi Deng Murdoch wore apple-green satin, and Mona Locke picked a form-fitting gray satin dress by Seattle-based designer Luly Yang that flattered her curves. Streisand, who last attended a state dinner in 1998, wore a pinstripe jacket, skirt and vest of "my own design." Another joke? Unclear.

This was the first state visit for the first lady's revamped staff, including White House social secretary Julianna Smoot, new chief of staff Tina Tchen and new communications director Kristina Schake. For the third state dinner, they put on a "quintessentially American" evening, at the request of the Chinese delegation. As a nod to the visiting country, yellow, the national color of China, was sprinkled throughout the downstairs, where guests enjoyed cocktails.

Upstairs, the dinner decor was inspired by John James Audubon: Tables were set with jewel-toned linens with pheasants (a symbol of nobility in China), topped with the gold-rimmed Clinton china. For a traditional look, there were pedestals of opulent rose bouquets, berries and flowering branches, and for a modern touch, Lucite chairs with peach and blue cushions.

This time, the White House did not use a celebrity chef; instead, executive chef Cristeta Comerford and pastry chef Bill Yosses created a menu of pear salad with goat cheese, poached Maine lobster, rib-eye and old-fashioned - how American - apple pie with vanilla ice cream. The menu included honey and herbs from the White House garden as well as produce from the Chef's Garden in Ohio, a family-run business specializing in fresh food.

After dinner, another dose of Americana: jazz. Entertainers included Herbie Hancock, trumpeter Chris Botti, singers Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves, and classical pianist Lang Lang, all backed by musicians from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. Ain't that America?

hendersonn@washpost.com robertsr@washpost.com

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