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At state dinner, will hoi polloi be served?

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.

* * *

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.

The first lady declared that she would raise up American culture -- dancers, musicians, poets and designers -- and make clear its importance. Might a poet give a reading to open the meal? The first lady's gown for the evening will be scrutinized, in part because fashion makes great water-cooler chatter, but also because her clothes have, in the past, been used to further the theme of an event. When Stevie Wonder received the Gershwin Prize at the White House earlier this year, for instance, she wore an emerald-green dress created by his wife, Kai Milla, who is a designer. Perhaps the first lady will wear a gown by Naeem Khan, a New York-based designer who grew up in India and moved to the United States as a teenager. Or maybe she will choose a dress by Rachel Roy, another designer with Indian ancestry. Or she could select some other designer who has been inspired by India or who capitalizes on the country's expertise in embroidery and who manufactures there.

And the White House Kitchen Garden, that much-discussed vegetable patch, has been the fulcrum for conversations about sustainable farming and healthy eating. Recently harvested produce will, no doubt, have a starring role at Tuesday's dinner -- the prime minister is a vegetarian. And if current restaurant trends are any indication, their illustrious provenance will be revealed with a flourish and in great detail.

The Obamas have decided to eschew the traditional State Dining Room, which holds about 130 people, and even the East Room, which can seat some 200. The dinner for Singh will not technically even be in the White House. Instead, guests will be dining on the lawn under a tent. The new configuration can accommodate about 400 people. And while that is, by no means, the largest state dinner in recent memory -- the Clintons hosted one with well over 700 guests -- it remains a detail that can be, must be, dissected in myriad ways. After all, when the White House hosted a celebration of Latin music -- not exactly a political minefield of an event -- a tent was constructed on the lawn, and host George Lopez ribbed the president for inviting everyone over to his yard.

The Times of India took pains to point out that the dinner was on the lawn, but also noted that it called to mind a shamiana, a decorative circus-style tent used for outdoor weddings.

As for the White House, a spokesperson says the tent is a matter of practicality. It allows the Obamas to accommodate more people. And more people is a good thing because that is a reflection of the administration's desire to make the White House feel more accessible.

Four hundred people down. Only 304,059,324 more Americans to go.

* * *

Does anyone have any fun at these events if every carrot comes under a microscope? Buffy Cafritz, philanthropist, Kennedy Center trustee and woman about town, has been to countless state dinners going back to Gerald Ford. She was a regular on the guest lists during the Reagan and Clinton eras. "There's a little nervousness beforehand," she says, "but you're just proud to be included among the chosen few." Pause.

"Although this isn't the chosen few with 400 people. This is huge." Pause. "But I'm sure it will be beautiful."

Cafritz says that she is not on the guest list for this dinner -- no connection to India, no reason she should be on the list, and there's always a reason for every name on that precious list. But Cafritz attended the celebration for Wonder at the White House and has nothing but raves for that occasion. "It's a young, exciting administration," she says. "We have high hopes."

Those who have attended state dinners agree that the greatest sparks of creativity have come in the choice of entertainment, from Lou Reed to Earth, Wind & Fire to the aforementioned tardy Ms. Houston. In 2008, the Bushes hosted the president of Ghana and opted for a performance by the cast of "The Lion King," an astonishingly provincial decision, the mind-boggling puppets and dancers notwithstanding. Highlighting Disney's version of an African parable seems a bit like asking Olive Garden to cater lunch for a group of Italian diplomats.

If Barry Landau, who seems to have known every modern president, been to countless state dinners and even recalls guests at a Kennedy dinner doing the Twist, had his way planning the upcoming gala, he'd bring the cast of "West Side Story" down from Broadway. "It's appropriate because you show all these racial connections," he says, "and you have wonderful dance music. American dance music."

"You have to plan the politically correct undertones, but you don't want to second guess yourself," says Landau, who wrote "The President's Table: 200 Years of Dining & Diplomacy."

The symbolism, the diplomacy, the danger that political correctness can run roughshod over pleasure, makes Landau think of that scene from "The American President" when Michael Douglas asks Annette Bening to be his date at a state dinner for France and she gets flustered and starts talking about what an honor it would be to represent the American people and how she was up to the task. And just before she practically salutes him, Douglas assures her: I'm just inviting you to dinner.

Well, sort of. Fun, folks say, depends on the administration and the personality of the first couple. Walker Marchant describes state dinners under the Clintons: "I had a ball," she says.

At the Clintons' celebration honoring Mandela, "the dinner was in the East Room and then they put a tent out on the South Lawn. So they had a cabaret-like environment under this tent, which was magical.

"We stayed up all night and danced. Then we went back into the White House after the performances and there was someone playing in the East Room and we danced until 2 in the morning."

Of course, all that late-night frivolity happened after the formal state dinner and the official entertainment had ended. And most of the guests had gone home. "It was the kind of party that happens after the regular event," she says.

The after-party is always the most fun, isn't it? It's also, invariably, the most exclusive.

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