White House Hosts Governors at Obamas' First Formal Dinner

President and Mrs. Obama make their way to the East Room to hear the evening's entertainment, Earth, Wind & Fire.
President and Mrs. Obama make their way to the East Room to hear the evening's entertainment, Earth, Wind & Fire. (Kevin Lamarque - Reuters)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 23, 2009

The govs have been fussing all weekend. Stimulus this. Stimulus that.

But when the first couple laid out the grass-fed Wagyu beef and the Nantucket scallops for the heads of 40 or so of these United States, oh did they come a-calling with smiles on their faces. Even the Republican governors who have been turning up their noses at piles of federal cash rolled in for the first of what social Washington is betting will be an active round of White House formal dinners.

Why, there was South Carolina's Mark Sanford, looking snazzy in his tux, strolling in just a few hours after comparing President Obama's economic plan to "the Soviet grain quotas of Stalin's time" in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday." And fellow Republican Bobby Jindal of Louisiana (also in town for the National Governors Association Winter Meeting) popped over for some grub after spending the morning claiming that his state will have to raise taxes if it takes all of Obama's stimulus payouts, given the strings attached.

The president, though, sounded as though he wasn't in a fighting mood. Looking sharp in a fitted tuxedo, he welcomed the governors and their spouses by praising their fashion sense.

"Even Axelrod has cleaned up pretty well," he quipped about his famously rumpled adviser David Axelrod.

Moments later, Obama raised a glass of white wine and delivered his first formal dinner toast: "To the nation's governors, to the United States of America, and to the certain hope that despite our current travails, we will all emerge more prosperous and united."

It was Oscar night on the opposite coast, and the walk up to the White House had a bit of a celebrity glow. Nearby searchlights traced lines across the sky. The movie star governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, sauntered in with his celebrity wife, Maria Shriver, adding to the cinematic feel -- could he really have chosen stuffy Washington over the Hollywood red carpet? Apparently so, at least for the beginning of the evening. Somewhere backstage, the night's entertainment waited to boogie: Earth, Wind & Fire. "The governors wanted to dance," a White House insider whispered.

Even if the searchlights and the Hollywood governor hadn't been there, it would have been obvious all day that this was a mega-big night, a coming-out performance for a city eager to see how the new occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. party. So, a bit of nerves could only be expected. Earlier, first lady Michelle Obama and White House social secretary Desirée Rogers invited six star pupils of the L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg to the White House kitchen to preview the menu, which included citrus salad and huckleberry cobbler. Rogers told the giddy group that everyone was excited about that night's "inaugural dinner."

The first lady smiled and gently said, "We already did that."

A few minutes later, Mrs. Obama joked that the students should be careful sampling the desserts on the delicate Truman china that would be used that evening. Rogers, who'd just been set straight by her boss, now had her turn: It was the Woodrow Wilson State Service, she whispered. Oh, well, nobody really seemed to care, they were just thrilled to hang with a first lady who charmed them the moment she entered the kitchen.

By the time the governors arrived, everything was well in order, including two more sets of china for Mrs. Obama's "mixed" table setting: the World's Fair Service -- used at the U.S. Pavilion during the 1939-40 World's Fair in New York -- and the State Department Service, which typically does duty in diplomatic reception rooms of that department, according to the White House.

Governors Sonny Perdue (Georgia) and Rick Perry (Texas) clomped up in their cowboy boots, and Montana's Brian Schweitzer sported his ever-present bolo tie. The first lady of Utah, Mary Kaye Huntsman, drew oohs and aahs from the perpetually unimpressed press corps when she sashayed by in black pumps festooned with outsize bowties. Ooh-la-la.

But the first lady with the home-field advantage was the scene stealer. Mrs. Obama arrived in a glittering, off-the-shoulder gown by Chicago designer Peter Soronen and a multiply-looped faux-pearl necklace by Tom Binns. She settled into her head table seat with Schwarzenegger on her right and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire on her left.

At a neighboring table, the president was flanked by Florida first lady Carole Crist and Pennsylvania first lady Marjorie Rendell. Over his shoulder hung the image of a bearded man who lived in this house during another time of crisis -- Abraham Lincoln. The guests raised their glasses and toasted in hopes that things will get better, but Lincoln's brow was frozen in stoic contemplation.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company