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.
The toasts were gracious, of course, but also took note of history and the changing nature of an increasingly interconnected world.
"To the future that beckons all of us. Let us answer its call. And let our two great nations realize all the triumphs and achievements that await us," Obama said.
And Singh reciprocated: "Mr. President, your journey to the White House has captured the imagination of millions and millions of people in India. You are an inspiration to all those who cherish the values of democracy, diversity and equal opportunity."
The menu was supervised by guest chef Marcus Samuelsson of New York's Aquavit, which specializes in Swiss cuisine, 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 predominantly vegetarian dishes, out of respect for Singh, who does not eat meat. Foodies, start your engines! Guests began with potato and eggplant salad and White House arugula -- the bitter green favored by food snobs clearly no longer is deemed a political hot button -- with onion seed vinaigrette. That was followed by red lentil soup. There were 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 were American wines: a 2008 sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley (Modus Operandi), a 2006 riesling from the Willamette Valley (Brooks "Ara"), a 2007 granache from Santa Ynez (Beckmen Vineyards) and a sparkling chardonnay from Monticello, Va. (Thibaut-Janisson Brut).
Dessert included a pumpkin pie tart and a pear tatin and an extravaganza of brittle, petits fours and pralines.
The evening's entertainment began with a dramatic flourish as forest-green curtains on the tent's south wall pulled away to reveal the National Symphony Orchestra with Marvin Hamlisch conducting "Summon the Heroes." The Washington Monument, with its milky glow, was visible in the distance. Then came the Bay Area Empire Bhangra dancers performing their acrobatic moves in green and red costumes. Next up, A.R. Rahman's "Jai Ho!" He won an Academy Award for the song from "Slumdog Millionaire," a film that caused some consternation in India among those who thought it showed the country in a poor light. A remix of his infectious song was recorded with the Pussycat Dolls, but they apparently were not invited to the party.
Also on the bill, jazz vocalist and Chicagoan Kurt Elling and another Chicago native, Jennifer Hudson -- of "Dreamgirls," "American Idol" and the Democratic National Convention.
For such an elegant evening that seemed to go off without any visible hitches, the day had begun in a worrisome way. The weather had been so dismal that the arrival ceremony for the prime minister 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 would 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, and Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill.
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 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 mentees, some wearing Girl Scout sashes loaded with badges, listened as William Allman, curator of the White House, gave a history lesson on state dinners. (The first was in 1874 under President Ulysses Grant.) And Tanya Turner, a protocol officer from the Department of State, offered a 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 a grand scale. "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."
So this country's bigwigs and top honchos mingled with diplomats and visiting dignitaries. Despite the Obamas' pledge of a White House open to more than the triple-A-list, however, no one named Average Joe was on the official guest list.