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An Elegant Evening May Signal a More Social Second Term

By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, March 16, 2005; Page A18

When Jim Nicholson was ambassador to the Holy See last year, he had a memorable conversation with a Polish archbishop, introduced to him as "Secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints." Intrigued, Nicholson asked: "So what do you do?"

"I make saints," quipped the archbishop, describing his function as researching and proposing candidates for sainthood to the pope. "How do I get on your good side?" Nicholson wanted to know. "You can start with a miracle," the church official suggested with a smile.

Macedonian Ambassador Nikola Dimitrov and his wife, Maja, were among almost 400 guests hosted by President and Laura Bush on Monday at the annual White House reception for the diplomatic corps. (Mannie Garcia -- Reuters)

Read Nora Boustany's previous Diplomatic Dispatches columns.

On Monday evening, as Nicholson wandered the elegantly decorated halls of the White House during its annual black-tie reception honoring the diplomatic corps, he seemed daunted by his current role as secretary of veterans affairs -- one that might seem to require an almost saintly amount of self-sacrifice and miracle-making.

Nicholson had been visiting service members wounded in Iraq at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital, accompanied by his wife, Suzanne. The couple said they were touched by the families waiting in the hospitals with special treats from home for their sons and daughters. The Department of Veterans Affairs arranges such visits to help wounded vets recover.

Nicholson noted that he had quite a bit of support in his mission to take care of the country's 25 million veterans. The department has 15,000 doctors, 58,000 nursing professionals, 158 hospitals, 850 clinics and 800 lawyers.

Hovering near one of two massive buffets, Archbishop Gabriele Montalvo, the nuncio or papal ambassador to the United States, informed anyone who asked that Pope John Paul II was on the mend and had warm words about the press. He was not sure, however, whether physicians would allow the ailing pontiff to publicly celebrate Easter Mass.

About 365 guests nibbled on herb-crusted lamb chops, shrimp, lobster bits, chicken roulades and smoked salmon. For the sweet-toothed, there was an array of desserts by pastry chef Thaddeus DuBois, such as miniature strawberry shortcakes, brownie pistachio rolls and apple strudel.

President Bush, smiling and tuxedoed, and first lady Laura Bush, resplendent in a beaded lemon-colored gown by a Texas designer, spent the evening posing for pictures and making ambassadors and their spouses feel at home.

Such grandiose receptions became a rarity at the White House after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the rigorous work schedule that came with the war in Afghanistan and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But Laura Bush's new press secretary, Susan Whitson, said her boss would entertain more during the president's second term. "This is an important part of that, both on the professional and interpersonal level," Whitson explained as she introduced herself to diplomatic couples.

A harpist and flutist played as guests were ushered into the oval reception hall, where a U.S. Marine band alternated among classical themes, Latin tunes and favorites from the 1940s. Diplomats mingled, munched and approached key Bush aides, including senior adviser Karl Rove and the president's chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., to exchange pleasantries and promote agendas.

Floral arrangements in pink, peach and yellow decked the dining halls and foyers. Azalea topiaries, tulips, daffodils, forsythias and dragon lilies cascaded out of gigantic vases and urns -- a springlike backdrop to the vibrant mix of national dress floating around the rooms.

Mevhibe Logoglu, the wife of the Turkish ambassador, stood out in a vivid period costume adorned with fox trim, weighted down with real gold and worn in royal palaces at the time of Mehmet, the Ottoman conqueror of Istanbul.

Dato Sheikh Abdul Khalid Ghazzali, Malaysia's ambassador, ranked second in sartorial splendor, wearing official baju melayu garb with a navy sarong threaded with precious gold. Hanayo Kato, wife of Japanese Ambassador Ryozo Kato, shimmered in an aqua satin kimono.

France's ambassador, Jean-David Levitte, was full of life. Putting his right hand on his heart, he gushed about the bonhomie between French President Jacques Chirac and Bush during a recent dinner in Brussels. "This makes my job so much easier," he said, beaming as he compared the current detente with the grueling tension that reigned during many months of transatlantic acrimony over the Iraq war.

Other guests had reasons to celebrate as well. Denmark's ambassador, Ulrik Federspiel, had just been named deputy foreign minister. Swedish Ambassador Jan Eliasson said he and his Norwegian counterpart, Knut Vollebaek, whose nation celebrates its 100th anniversary of independence from Sweden this spring, would hold a joint seminar April 12 to show how "you can part without war" or "divorce amicably," to quote the Norwegian.

In one corner, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley held court with ambassadors from the Middle East. He chatted with Kuwait's Salem Abdullah Jaber Sabah about the administration's expectations from the recent stirrings of democracy in Arab countries. "The first thing that must happen in Lebanon is for Syria to be totally out and to have elections," Hadley said later.

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