State dinner

Mexico's state visit kicks off with pageantry at White House

The Obamas host Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife, Margarita Zavala, for a state dinner.
By Robin Givhan and Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 20, 2010

This time, it looked as if everything went perfectly. The name of every guest arriving for Wednesday night's state dinner appeared on the official list. The inevitable comparisons to the drama of last year's faded away. And the party talk was focused on politics, the majesty of the White House and how so many memories were being made on such a night. Which is how it should be.

The second state visit, this one in honor of Mexico's president and first lady, began under overcast skies, but events from the outset were more promising than in November. In the morning, hundreds of dignitaries, local schoolchildren, donors and invited guests gathered on the South Lawn for the official arrival ceremony welcoming Mexico's first couple, Felipe Calderón and Margarita Zavala.

The Obamas might be seasoned, after one remarkable first foray, at state dinners, but this was their first grand arrival ceremony. Last time, rain forced them to greet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the East Room, in a dramatically abbreviated format. There was little pomp, no marching troops, no sweeping vistas of the nation's capital.

On Wednesday, there was a full display of military might and grandeur, even a fife and drum corps. At the evening's dinner, guest chef Rick Bayless served modern Mexican cuisine on the Clinton and Eisenhower china in the East Room. Later, the 200 dinner guests were joined by 100 more who came for dessert served in an elegantly constructed pavilion, with thousands of decorative butterflies floating in the air, for performances by Beyoncé and Rodrigo y Gabriela. (Sasha and Malia were spotted in the tent -- got to stay up to watch the performances.) The first lady struck a colorful and glamorous note in a one-shoulder draped sapphire gown by Peter Soronen, which she paired with a twinkling silver belt. Her hair was styled in loose, tousled curls and the president acquitted himself nicely in a traditional tuxedo.

But a state dinner is, of course, a convergence of diplomacy, hospitality and politics. And in this case, illegal immigration and the controversy over the recently passed Arizona law, which President Obama does not support, were the topics of the day -- a splash of sobriety tossed onto an otherwise fizzy day of celebration.

President Calderón addressed the subject head-on during the formal arrival ceremony: "I know that we share the interest in promoting dignified, legal and orderly living conditions to all migrant workers. Many of them, despite their significant contribution to the economy and to the society of the Unites States, still live in the shadows and, occasionally, as in Arizona, they even face discrimination." His remarks drew applause and even a few cheers from the audience.

And on the red carpet -- or more specifically, in the marble entryway -- immigration was the only line of questioning to rival: "Who made your dress?"

"I think it's probably one of the most important times to have this dinner with the president of Mexico -- obviously because of the temperature regarding immigration reform, and the important conversations happened today," said actress Eva Longoria Parker. The "Desperate Housewives" star went on to say she was happy to hear President Obama voice his displeasure with the Arizona law. "You can't have these states doing their own punitive laws when immigration is a federal issue."

Oh, and by the way, what about that glamour goddess dress? Longoria Parker was wearing a tangerine-colored, draped gown with rhinestone embellishment by Reem Acra.

Women wore less supporting-cast black and took center stage in bold shades of fuchsia, tangerine and crisp blue. And some, such as labor activist Dolores Huerta, went traditional. She wore a beloved velvet smock, handcrafted, she said, "by the indigenous people of Mexico."

Olympic speedskating star Shani Davis arrived in a daze of good cheer. Who made his mint-green four-in-hand? "Men's Wearhouse," he said. What about the suit? "Men's Wearhouse," he said, until he looked at the lining and found a Ralph Lauren tag. "I think I just embarrassed myself," he said, laughing.

Whoopi Goldberg looked chic and sophisticated in a black Chado Ralph Rucci caftan with sheer sleeves. "I clean up well," she said with a smile. This was not her first state dinner, but it was the first in a long time. "It's kind of like coming home after a long drought," she said. "I used to come here quite a bit when President Clinton was president. And then, of course, the following eight years . . . wasn't here."

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