Marking first state dinner, Obama welcomes Indian prime minister

President Obama welcomed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the first state visit of Obama's term. The two leaders discussed building future relationships between their countries and celebrated with a state dinner at the White House.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It might be that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has ruined the White House forever. In the warm and golden fictional world he envisioned in "The American President" and "The West Wing," events at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. were always grand, glorious and utter perfection. The amount of pomp was just enough to give rise to goose bumps but not discomfort. Every speech was spot-on eloquent, not just one for the history books but also one that mesmerized the ear with its musical cadence. And Mother Nature most certainly never rained on Sorkin's White House. Not on the day of a state dinner.

But bad weather is what the Obama administration had to deal with on its first test of playing host on an international scale. The Tuesday morning sky was gray, the air was cold and the rain trickled down. And so the arrival ceremony for India's prime minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, was moved indoors at the last minute. What was imagined to be a stately ceremony for some 1,000 people under crisp autumn skies turned into a fast welcome -- about 15 minutes total -- in an East Room crowded five deep with about 200 guests holding their cellphones aloft, hoping their cameras would capture what they could not actually see.

Obama told the assembled crowd that he had chosen India for his first state dinner to reflect "the high esteem in which I and the American people hold your wise leadership. It reflects the abiding bonds of respect and friendship between our people, including our friends in the Indian American community who join us here today," the president said. "But above all, your visit, at this pivotal moment in history, speaks to the opportunity before us -- to build the relationship between our nations, born in the last century, into one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century."

Then Singh spoke briefly, noting that "India and America are separated by distance, but bound together by the values of democracy, pluralism, rule of law and respect for fundamental human freedoms. Over the years, we have built upon these values and created a partnership that is based upon both principle and pragmatism."

"I've come today to build upon these successes and to strengthen our multifaceted relationship," Singh said.

The two leaders spoke in front of a crowd of VIPs that included Kaur, dressed in a green traditional Indian sari and first lady Michelle Obama, wearing a pumpkin belted coat over a print dress by Isaac Mizrahi. Also standing by were Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who greeted a familiar face in the Indian delegation with her hands pressed together in a namaste gesture, Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill, various White House staff, folks from Capitol Hill, actors Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood and White House chef Sam Kass, who made the People magazine list of "100 most beautiful people" this year.

Mrs. Obama's influence

Even in the smaller space, the ceremony bore some of the signature marks of the Obama administration, or more precisely, the first lady's office: local children. The first couple have been vocal about their intention to include both children and regular folks in White House events. It is the People's House, as they are so fond of saying. The emphasis on youth was underscored throughout the afternoon. At the traditional first lady's preview of the dinner's menu, place settings and floral arrangements, the usually staid House and Garden affair was transformed into a teachable moment for local young women who are participating in the White House's mentorship program. Eighteen mentorees, some wearing Girl Scout sashes loaded with badges, listened as William Allman, curator of the White House, gave a lengthy history lesson on state dinners. (The first was in 1874 under President Ulysses Grant.) And Tanya Turner, a protocol officer from the State Department, offered a peppy tutorial on diplomatic visits. (The head of state always stands to the president's right, which is the place of honor.)

The first lady made a costume change from her morning attire. For talk of china and posies, she wore a twinkling J. Crew cardigan -- belted, as is her way -- and a taupe and beige skirt by Indian American designer Rachel Roy. In her remarks, she noted that this dinner for India was especially meaningful because it was a chance for her to reciprocate the hospitality that she has enjoyed in her travels this year. Call it dinner party payback on an epic scale. "I have been on the other side of these visits and dinners -- as a guest in many countries. Since becoming first lady, I've had the opportunity to visit eight countries with my husband, the president. And in each and every country, during each and every visit, I have been moved by the warmth and gracious hospitality that our hosts and the citizens of the countries that we visited have extended to the president and to me."

Where's John Q.?

For her debut as the first hostess, Obama eschewed the standard and more manageable gathering of about 130 in the State Dining Room. Instead, she and the president willwelcome some 400 guests who will make their way through a receiving line and then on to cocktails and dinner under a tent constructed on the South Lawn. Expected guests included Washington power players Ann and Vernon Jordan, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the Bidens and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Hollywood was expected to be represented by, among others, director Steven Spielberg, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. And other notables such as actor Underwood and CBS's Katie Couric were tweeting about their inclusion on the guest list. Despite the Obamas' pledge of a White House open to more than the triple-A list -- and those with highbrow connections -- so far, no one named Average Joe has been trumpeted as an attendee. Average Jane has not been tweeting about her hunt for a ball gown. (Although White House players were spotted around town urgently perusing the city's formalwear offerings.)

To serve all those guests, the Obamas will use several china patterns. The service plates -- or chargers, as hoi polloi like to call them -- are from the Eisenhower and Clinton administrations. Both have a white center lavishly bordered by gold. Also pulled out of storage is the George W. Bush state china, with a pale green lattice border and a thin rim of gold.

They blend nicely with the iridescent apple-green linens, and seat cushions on the gilded cane chairs. The flowers, in shades of purple, pay homage to the state bird of India, which is the Indian peacock. Each table, which seats 10, will have a lively and loose arrangement of hydrangea, garden roses and sweet peas. The table aesthetics, with their bold colors and organic arrangement of flowers, are less stately and more romantic.

Magnolia branches will also border the walls of the elaborate garden-themed tent, which will have views of the Washington and Jefferson monuments. And because all things have meaning at a state dinner: Magnolias are native to both India and the United States.

The evening's entertainment will be classical, pop and jazz. Marvin Hamlisch will conduct the National Symphony Orchestra. Jazz vocalist and Chicagoan Kurt Elling will perform and another Chicago native, Jennifer Hudson -- of "Dreamgirls," "American Idol" and the Democratic National Convention -- will also sing. A.R. Rahman, who won an Academy Award for "Jai Ho," the title song from "Slumdog Millionaire," a film that caused consternation in India among those who felt that it showed the country in a poor light, is also scheduled to perform. A remix of his infectious song was recorded with the Pussycat Dolls, who were apparently not invited to the party.

The menu was supervised by guest chef Marcus Samuelsson of New York's Aquavit, which specializes in Swedish cuisine, which is one of the few facts related to the evening that doesn't seem to symbolize anything. Samuelsson worked with the White House kitchen staff to create vegetarian dishes in respect for Singh, who does not eat meat. Foodies, start your engines. Guests will begin with potato and eggplant salad and White House arugula -- the bitter greens favored by food snobs clearly no longer are deemed a political faux-pas -- with onion-seed vinaigrette. Following some red-lentil soup, there are two main courses: roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney, along with chickpeas and okra, or green curry prawns with caramelized salsify, smoked collard greens and coconut aged basmati rice.

Washing it all down are American wines: a 2008 sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley (Modus Operandi), a 2006 Riesling from the Willamette Valley (Brooks "Ara"), a 2007 Grenache from Santa Ynez (Beckmen Vineyards) and a sparkling chardonnay from Monticello (Thibaut-Janisson Brut).

Dessert includes a pumpkin pie tart and a pear tatin and an extravaganza of brittle, petits fours and pralines.

The girls from the mentorship program are not expected at the dinner. But at the end of their history lesson, they at least had the chance to sample the evening's sweets.

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