President Obama's first state dinner is a test of commitment to public outreach

Few honors rival that of being invited to dine at the White House. Through the years, presidents have used state dinners as a means of bringing dignitaries, celebrities and -- most important -- countries together.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009

The history-making Obama White House can't say enough about how it's more open, more adventurous, more of-the-people than administrations past.

So its first state dinner Tuesday evening will be a test of how its promised outreach to the commoner will dovetail with an event that is, by definition, an opportunity for muckety-mucks, insiders, stuffed shirts and fancy pants to schmooze with the biggest VIP of them all.

Wee citizens, get thee behind the wrought iron fence and hope someone throws you a distant wave.

The White House refused to comment on its bourgeois bona fides. But girls from the East Wing mentorship program will be in attendance Tuesday afternoon when the first lady traditionally previews the dinner's place settings and floral arrangements. The girls will get a lesson in state dinner history and diplomatic protocol. Might one lucky young lady get a seat at the dinner table as well?

From the beginning, this administration pledged to give more than a cursory nod to the notion that 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was the People's House, assuring the country it would welcome regular folks in, not just those with significant bank accounts and the president's secret BlackBerry number. It distributed tickets for the annual Easter Egg Roll via the Internet, so families from outside the Washington area could participate. For Halloween, students from the area were invited to trick-or-treat at the White House.

And back in February, White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers, who once ran the Illinois Lottery, mused about holding a sweepstakes so average Americans could win a seat at a state dinner. Did we miss the Twitter alert on some secret lotto?

The president and first lady will host their first state dinner for the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh. The 77-year-old former economist was born in Punjab province, is married to Gursharan Kaur and has three daughters. He also has a Facebook page -- Dr. Manmohan Singh -- on which he lists countless interests and has 13,796 supporters at last check.

The relationship between the two countries, which academics describe as having recently come of age, is defined by issues including nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, counterterrorism, trade and immigration. So like so many big-deal parties at rarefied addresses, a state dinner is a party with a purpose, and that purpose is not merely pleasure. It comes freighted with meaning, both cultural and political.

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Let's say there are 250 seats available at a dinner, then there would likely be some 1,000 names submitted from the State Department, the National Security Council, the domestic policy adviser and so on. "Everyone with a vested interest, everyone will submit a list of names," says Ann Walker Marchant, who runs her own public relations firm, worked in the Clinton White House and attended her share of state dinners.

For the East Wing, tasked with the job of organizing this complex event, the pressure is on. Not just the usual state-dinner worries about international protocol (already India is miffed about some seemingly innocuous remark that Obama made on his recent Asia trip). Not just the obsessing over who sits where, what's on the menu and, for heaven's sake, whether the entertainment shows up on time. (Back in the Clinton years, singer Whitney Houston, scheduled for a dinner honoring Nelson Mandela, arrived much later than expected, did not seem fully focused on the job at hand and nearly gave no small number of staffers massive anxiety attacks.) The Obama administration, from the very beginning, proclaimed its use of culture and style as a way of selling Brand Obama -- and thus, its policy agenda. And when making that marketing and sales pitch, Rogers has said publicly, the White House itself serves as one of the brand's most valuable assets.

The Obamas have set the bar high on matters of culture, aesthetics and political philosophy. The first couple has attempted to engage the world in a broadly catholic way. When the president travels internationally, he regularly emphasizes his personal story of meager beginnings and his United Nations-of-a-family. Michelle Obama, the girl from the South Side of Chicago, wears her working-class background as prominently as her many brooches. She chooses an international wardrobe on state occasions, for formal portraits, to visit a school. Her very person serves as evidence of a worldview in which creativity trumps nationalism, and opportunity is the currency of success.

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