White Tie and Tiara
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
The most elegant Washington evening in a decade, last night's state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, took place on a velvet-smooth night that made Washington appear more beautiful, a little softer around the edges, than it might actually be.
President Bush, who his wife said had to be talked into hosting his first white-tie dinner, appeared to love it.
He stepped onto the front portico of the White House in the early dusk, jovial and laughing, the first lady at his side. A casual man, bedeviled by the lowest presidential approval ratings in a generation, he appeared, for once, to revel in the pomp and ceremonial trappings of the office.
He came down the red-carpeted steps to welcome the queen as she stepped from a black Chevy SUV. It has been 56 years since her first state visit to Washington (when Harry S. was running things), and the monarch, without a word, showed how it's done:
She wore a white gown with a beaded bodice and chiffon skirt, but what you really noticed was the tiara given to her by her grandmother (Queen Mary), plus a three-strand diamond necklace, a diamond bracelet, a pearl watch, three brooches on a formal blue sash, diamond drop earrings and a silver purse.
Suffice it to say it glittered.
Downstairs, the 134 guests who had snagged one of the exclusive invites were arriving. The biggest star of the night was also one of smallest: Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel.
"It's awesome," he said, as reporters clustered around him.
"I'm more nervous than I was at the race!" said Lisa Funk, his fiancee.
Nancy Reagan stewed behind them in the entry line. The former first lady could only wait for the cameras to turn to her.
Tricia Lott, wife of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, was on her way in when asked if she had gotten a new dress for the occasion -- she was, after all, seated at the president's table.
"About two hours old," she smiled, indicating her dress.
Ashley Manning, wife of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Peyton Manning, looked fabulous in a black Monique Lhuillier gown that was all the more striking for being precisely the same dress that Robin Roberts of ABC was wearing -- albeit Roberts's was a lovely shade of milk chocolate.
All the stately gowns proved to be a hazard for the menfolk. Oil kazillionaire T. Boone Pickens kept stepping on his wife's train. "I tell ya, that dress is driving me crazy," he said with a laugh.
At this party there was no duplicate of Laura Bush's gown: The embroidered turquoise silk faille with a matching embroidered bolero was created just for her by designer Oscar de la Renta.
For a glamorous evening in America, the guest list was striking for its omissions. The glitterati weren't movie stars but athletes: jockey Borel, Indianapolis Colt Manning, golf legend Arnold Palmer, former NFL star -- and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's escort -- Gene Washington.
From television, there were newscasters and hosts -- Jim Nantz of CBS Sports, David Gregory of NBC News and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, co-host of ABC's "The View." From the classical arts, pianist Rohan De Silva; Marta Domingo, wife of Placido Domingo; and violinist Itzhak Perlman, who provided the after-dinner entertainment.
Leonore Annenberg, wife of the former ambassador to the Court of St. James's -- and who once set off a controversy by curtsying to the queen (which Americans aren't supposed to do) -- came in, oxygen tank in tow, determined not to miss the event. "I'm just so thrilled to be here," she said.
The dinner was held in the State Dining Room. At the head table, the queen was seated on Bush's right, Nancy Reagan on his left. To the queen's right was Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.; Alma Powell, wife of former secretary of state Colin Powell; Arnold Palmer; Ashley Manning; Nantz, Tricia Lott; and former secretary of state George Shultz.
The first lady sat next to Prince Philip. Her table also included Rice and first brother Jeb Bush. Colin Powell was seated nearby, across from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reportedly turned down the invite).
The toasts, if predictable, were heartfelt. The president raised a glass to the queen and the "valiant people of the United Kingdom." In her response, Queen Elizabeth harked back to her youth. "My generation can vividly remember the ordeal of the Second World War. . . . For those of us who have witnessed the peace and stability and prosperity enjoyed in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe over these postwar years, we have every reason to remember that this has been founded on the bedrock of the Atlantic Alliance." She then cited problems facing this generation: Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change and poverty. But, she said, "together with our friends in Europe and beyond, we can continue to learn from the inspiration and vision of those earlier statesmen in ensuring that we meet these threats and resolve these problems."
The White House was at its most elegant, everything in colors of cream, gold and ivory. The 13 tables were covered with cream damask tablecloths and vermeil centerpieces of 60 white roses. The china was the Clinton set, ivory with a gold rim and a gold depiction of the White House in the center. The dinner, instead of the usual four courses, was a five-course affair, starting with spring pea soup and caviar, proceeding to Dover sole, saddle of spring lamb, arugula salad and a dessert of petits fours, and a spectacular presentation dubbed "Rose Blossoms," an elegant creation of meringue and spun sugar.
During the after-dinner entertainment, 76 guests were invited to join the festivities in the East Room, where Perlman nodded to the royal couple and said, "Thank you for coming to our concert." After the laughter, he performed five "musical bon bons." At the end of his set, the crowd erupted in applause, begging for an encore. "Tell me what to do," he said, looking at the president. "Everything is protocol."
Alas, Bush leapt up and led him off the stage so that the U.S. Army Chorus could boom out "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The queen and prince left shortly thereafter, about 11 p.m., but the evening ended with dancing. No political battles this night. The last thing we saw was Nancy Pelosi cutting the rug with George Shultz to "In the Mood."