White House state dinner for South Korea has sparkles amid the rain

October 13, 2011

An idea for the next White House renovation: mudroom.

In an evening that progressed from muggy drizzle to thunderous downpour, guests attending Thursday’s state dinner honoring South Korean President Lee Myung-bak arrived in various states of disarray. But hey — the weather is always a great topic to bond over.

“So much for the hair salon,” sighed ABC News’s Juju Chang as she slogged past reporters.

So it was that President Obama and the first lady welcomed Lee and 224 other guests for an evening of otherwise undampened spirits. It was the administration’s fifth state dinner, and it was beautiful — once people dried off.

“I’m going to be brief because President Lee has had a very full day — and a very wet day,” Obama said in his pre-dinner toast.

The South Korean president, who Obama revealed is known by the nickname “Bulldozer,” told a story of being a young boy and longing for American blue jeans. He also spoke, through an interpreter, about the “everlasting friendship” between his country and the United States: “We are gathered here to reaffirm our friendship and to renew our common commitment towards our shared goals.”

Bless the state dinner. Approval ratings can be down, the economy can be dank, but when a president puts on a tux, he looks good. Official. Presidential! The entire evening is crafted to showcase the Diplomat in Chief engaging on the international stage, which is especially good for an administration, such as this one, whose recent claims to fame have been foreign triumphs: Osama bin Laden felled, Iranian assassination plots foiled.

And for the rest of you: pretty dresses.

Michelle Obama selected a purple, one-shouldered gown by Doo-Ri Chung, a Korean American designer known for her draping. The first lady also sported a sparkly belt, a style she so often favors.

The biggest fashion treat came from the musical entertainment: R&B singer Janelle Monae wore an incredibly chic satin tuxedo with a teeny-tiny bow tie, towering heels and her trademark pompadour. A few women wore navy or silver, but most opted for black and more black — a safe choice that also turned out to be the best hue for hiding soaked hems.

Chang wore a purple dress chosen by voters — “The crowdsourcing was right,” she said, as she joined the slow parade of guests headed to the East Room for dinner.

The guest list was short on glitz, heavy on political clout. For the fifth time in a row, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) declined the president’s invitation for a state dinner. But an unusual number of administration officials got the nod: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chief of Staff Bill Daley, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, national security adviser Tom Donilon, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, press secretary Jay Carney and Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen. Also, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and several senators and members of Congress, including John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

In keeping with traditional state-dinner protocol, it was a politics-free zone, especially regarding messy domestic issues. “We put those types of differences aside,” said a dapper-looking Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), escorting his new bride, Melodee Hanes, was all smiles. “I think the president and the Senate get along just fine.”

International politics? Sure. “I was reading a lot on Korea today,” said President’s Fitness Council member Billie Jean King (in fancy tennies and ball-shaped earrings). She’s happy about the trade agreement. “Anything that helps the job situation.”

Surprisingly, there were few Korean American celebrities. Actor John Cho (Harold!) was there, looking lonesome without Kumar. (Kal Penn, of course, left his White House job, for the second time, this year.) But Daniel Dae Kim? Sandra Oh? Oh, no. Both were missing. Another thought-we’d-see-her: Though there were two Rhees on the guest list, neither of them had the first name Michelle.

We keep an eye out for guests wearing traditional hanboks: one — in pink and lavender, aside from the gown worn by Korean first lady Kim Yoon-ok.

How many minutes before someone makes the inevitable “South Korea has Seoul” pun? It shan’t be us.

The theme of the dinner was “fall harvest.” Apples, lots of them. And chrysanthemums, which are Korea’s autumn go-to symbol. The guests dined on tables covered in orange, green and gold tablecloths set with the gold-rimmed 2000 Millennium china. The mirrors were framed with a variety of apples; the tables held centerpieces constructed of them; and images of fall leaves were projected onto the ceiling. The seats were covered in gingham, and the candlesticks were wooden. It was a little bit country. All of this came from the brain of Bryan Rafanelli, the Boston-based event planner — he also designed Chelsea Clinton’s wedding last year.

The menu was apple-free (also kimchi free, alas), but very autumnal — much of it harvested from the White House garden: butternut squash bisque, a green salad, Texas wagyu beef and a chocolate cake with pears. Nods to Korea included daikon sheets and rice pearl crispies in the salad, and Korean pears in the dessert.

After dinner, guests crossed the grand foyer into the State Dining Room — which is where the eating usually occurs — for the evening’s entertainment. First, the Ahn Trio, the photogenic Korean American sister act whose classical music has achieved mainstream success and whose faces have achieved spots on People magazine’s “Most Beautiful” list. The headliner was Monae — who is known both for her old-school soul and her propensity to perform as a robot alter ego.

And then guests were sent back into the night, where the rain had settled into puddles.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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