Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly described the cuisine at chef Marcus Samuelsson's New York restaurant Aquavit as Swiss. It is Swedish.

Marking first state dinner, Obama welcomes Indian prime minister

At his administration's first state dinner, President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh toast each other, their families and countries.
By Robin Givhan and Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

It may be that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has forever set the standard for an evening at the White House. 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 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 during its first test playing host on an international scale. The Tuesday sky was cloudy; the air was cold; and the rain sprayed down for most of the day.

And the Obamas' first state dinner in honor of India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, was under a tent built on the South Lawn. There were so many ways for the fantasy to transform into a soggy and muddy nightmare. And yet it didn't.

For her debut as the first hostess, Michelle Obama had eschewed the standard and more manageable gathering of about 130 in the State Dining Room. Instead, she and the president welcomed some 400 guests, who made their way through a receiving line and then on to cocktails and dinner under the tent.

The first guests to arrive -- a full 30 minutes early -- were Obama hometown friends Marty Nesbitt and his wife, Anita Blanchard. They strolled in with broad smiles, he in a tuxedo and she in a ruby-red silk chiffon gown with straps that twisted across her back. For many guests, this was their first state dinner--and it showed. Energy Secretary Steven Chu was paraded in front of reporters, headed the wrong way and was pulled back by his laughing wife: "He's not very good at taking orders."

The parade of VIPs had the sweet but awkward quality of teens dressing up for prom: posing for pictures, rushing along (Louisiana's Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, Kalpen Modi), afraid of making any mistakes of etiquette. The most curious and unexpected sighting: Tareq and Michaele Salahi. The notorious Fauquier County vineyard socialites, who are filming "Real Housewives of D.C.," swanned in, even though their names did not appear on the official guest list.

But soon a trickle of nervous guests turned into a steady flow of colorful gowns and dashing tuxedos.

The women enlivened the dark night with traditional saris in shades of claret, fuchsia and daffodil yellow. White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers silently declared the evening a full-wattage fashion moment in a pale peach Comme des Garçons gown -- so very avant-garde -- with pearls shimmering between layers of transparent tulle. CBS's Katie Couric arrived in a sari-inspired amethyst gown by Carmen Marc Valvo. And Semonti Stephens, the first lady's deputy press secretary, practically sprinted past the photographers, but still they managed to capture her in a luxurious sari, one purchased in Calcutta and originally worn at her wedding in May.

The first lady, however, was the star of the show. She glittered in a strapless silver, embroidered gown by the Indian-born designer Naeem Khan. She wore her hair swept back and had piles of sparkling "churis," traditional Indian bracelets, on her wrist. Her ensemble announced that no-holds-barred, Hollywood-style sexy glamour had arrived in Washington.

But this being the nation's capital, where Rep. Steny Hoyer could not refrain from declaring the evening "a little bit of both" work and play, several women could not resist the safety and security of basic black. The first lady's chief of staff, Susan Sher, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, power player Ann Jordan and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all wore black gowns. Lovely, but still . . . And Pelosi looked positively enraged when asked if, perhaps, her sleek, black cut-velvet gown was by Giorgio Armani. The question went unanswered, except for that withering glare.

The tent -- much maligned by the Indian press -- was, in the end, breathtaking, offering a more contemporary and glamorous setting than the traditional, floral-bedecked, monochromatic, Colonial understatement of the State Dining Room. The heated enclosure was an elegant extension of White House and boasted a soaring roof, and 11 ivy-wrapped chandeliers offered soft, romantic even, lighting. White candles floated in glass vases, and enormous urns of magnolia branches lined the tent's walls. It was a grand setting for table-hopping and rubbernecking. Look, there's recently reelected New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sitting next to Jarrett. Actors Blair Underwood and Alfre Woodard -- who both made clear they were not an item, although they arrived together -- were seated with Rogers. CBS's Couric was a tablemate of press secretary Robert Gibbs. To serve all those guests, the Obamas chose several china patterns. The service plates -- or chargers, as the hoi polloi like to call them -- were from the Eisenhower and Clinton administrations. Both have a white center lavishly bordered by gold. The George W. Bush state china service was also used. Those plates have a pale green lattice border and a thin rim of gold.

They blended nicely with the iridescent apple-green linens, and seat cushions on the gilded cane chairs. The flowers, in shades of purple, paid homage to the state bird of India, the Indian peacock. Each table, which seated 10, had a centerpiece of a lively and loose arrangement of hydrangea, garden roses and sweet peas. The table aesthetics, with their bold colors and almost organic arrangement of flowers, was less stately and more romantic.

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