“Now, it’s customary at these dinners to celebrate the values that bind nations,” the president began. “But tonight, we want to do something different. We want to pay tribute to an extraordinary leader who espouses these values and who’s inspired millions around the world, including me. And that’s my friend, Angela Merkel.”
Merkel, the first European leader to be hosted by the Obama White House on an official visit, is one of the few foreign dignitaries to receive the medal (others include Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela and Helmut Kohl, who was the most recent German leader to be honored with a state dinner, in 1995).
“I thank you personally, Mr. President, because you are a man of strong convictions,” Merkel, who grew up behind the Berlin Wall in East Germany, said through a translator. “You touch people with your passion and your visions for a good future for these people, also in Germany. . . . Mr. President, I see the award of the Medal of Freedom as a testimony of the excellent German-American partnership. Our countries stand up together for peace and freedom.”
The calm cordiality of the exchange defined the evening. As Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” lilted through the ground floor of the White House, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and outgoing White House economic adviser Austan Goolsbee breezed past the media with polite smiles and tight lips. The guest list included ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, Cabinet members, elected officials, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and National Symphony music director Christoph Eschenbach.
In a strong indication of the night’s sedate quality, the only guest who caused a stir among the press was James Taylor, perhaps America’s mellowest singer, who was attending his first state dinner and who would perform later in the evening.
Blue was the hue of the night. Taylor’s wife, Caroline; Roberts’s wife, Jane; and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) wore electric blue, and Sawyer and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) wore navy.
“Okay, it cost $170,” said Klobuchar, pivoting to show off her dress. The silver shoes cost $29, she said.
The fashion was rather somber for a late-spring affair — dresses were dark and metallic, with bronzes, silvers and blacks, including Merkel’s long, understated gown. Michelle Obama and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stood out in white. The first lady wore a sleeveless, ivory-and-silver Naeem Khan gown, and Pelosi a dramatic choker and dress by Thierry Mugler.
During a cocktail hour, guests mingled in the Rose Garden on a temperate night, with the sun setting over the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Candles flickered and birds swooped low through the twilight.
The state dinner, the first for social secretary Jeremy Bernard, featured austere, Bauhaus-inspired decor, with an emphasis on white and silver, and floral arrangements in pale greens and yellows. The White House colonnade served as a canvas for projected, slowly changing images of the Rose Garden itself. The event looked and felt like a sophisticated outdoor wedding reception, minus the drunken bridesmaids.
On the menu: healthy helpings from the first lady’s White House garden. Each of the four courses included herbs grown on the property, as well as vegetables from the garden’s first spring harvest. The first course was a chopped salad with a vinaigrette made from White House honey, followed by a tuna tartare (from Hawaii) with carrots, spring peas, shaved ham and gingersnaps. The main course was a version of surf-and-turf: a petite filet and Maryland blue crab ravioli. The meal ended (in a nod to the guest of honor) with apple strudel for dessert.
After dinner, as the moon rose, the National Symphony Orchestra and pianist George Li played Beethoven, Handel and Mendelssohn. And then, for a little Americana, Taylor and his backup singers took the stage.
“They specifically requested ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ ” Taylor said before the dinner. “It’s sort of the theme of the evening.”