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

By Robin Givhan and Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 20, 2010; C01

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."

This dinner started an hour earlier than usual and arrivals began at 5:41, with guests announced in a steady stream. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has attended state dinners hosted by every president since he's been on the Supreme Court (total of five!). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi smiled for the cameras in ivory Giorgio Armani. Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, walked in alone -- with the aroma of money trailing after him. And Gayle King attended her second consecutive state dinner, but this time on the arm of Newark Mayor Cory Booker. She wore an orange Carmen Marc Valvo gown. He wore the dapper good looks of a supremely eligible bachelor.

The security, which the world now knows was breached during the first state dinner, was such that guests passed through three checkpoints. And they were questioned multiple times, but no one seemed to mind.

"The guy with the club was nice," joked comedian George Lopez.

This was the first state occasion for the Obamas' new social secretary, Julianna Smoot, and although her staff members and their handiwork were on full display, she was barely glimpsed, at least by reporters. Smoot dashed past the press line with a quick wave and not a word -- a blur in robin's egg blue.

But her former boss, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, declared it a "fabulous, beautiful evening fitting of the great relationship between two countries. This is a great coming-out party for her."

The East Room was set with both round and rectangular tables, including one large head table for the Obamas, the Calderóns and 16 select guests. The linens in three shades of Mayan blue suggested rippling water. The flowers -- purple roses, orchids and prickly pear cactus -- were tucked into woven, gilded baskets. There were few grand floral arrangements in the East Room. Why compete with the elaborate chandeliers that seemed to hang from virtually every corner?

Celebrity chef Bayless created a menu of jicama with fruit, a green ceviche, wagyu beef with black mole, and a chocolate tart with goat cheese ice cream. The two presidents offered toasts, with Obama injecting a big of humor: "We celebrate all that Mexico and its ancient civilizations has given the world throughout history -- advances in architecture and astronomy, mathematics and medicine, and of course, some very good food -- including the 'food of the gods' -- chocolate."

After dinner, guest moved to an elaborate pavilion constructed on the South Lawn. Any doubt has been put to rest: The Obama White House has mastered the art of the tent.

Inside, the myriad butterflies referenced Calderón's birthplace of Michoacan, where monarch butterflies migrate from Canada. Oversize lanterns hung from the ceiling, along with Brobdinagian baskets overflowing with tiny orange flowers. The room was dramatically lighted with spotlights and candles that glinted off the black stone dance floor. Tables, draped in orange and green quilted linens, were set up cabaret-style with black cane chairs in a semi-circle facing the stage.

The evening, even with the pavilion after-party, was an intimate conclusion to a full day. The morning arrival ceremony on the South Lawn gave thousands a chance to participate in the celebration.

As a crowd looked on, a color guard moved majestically across the lush, green lawn. A parade of flag bearers snaked up and around the south portico with the colors of the 50 states fluttering in the chilly breeze. As a military band played off in the corner, expected faces appeared in the crowd: Vice President Biden and Jill Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, other members of the administration and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. The Rev. Al Sharpton stood in a light gray suit off to one side. Opposite him were schoolchildren from the Girl Scouts, the Latin American Montessori bilingual school, Oakton High School, Dunbar High School and Mary's Center. They waved tiny American and Mexican flags and quietly shifted from side to side, twisting and turning in youthful anticipation.

When two Marines opened the doors to the White House, the Obamas emerged. He, with chin thrust slightly upward, was in the uniform of power: a dark business suit. She, wearing a calm smile, was dressed in a raspberry-colored jersey shift and matching coat from Calvin Klein. An artful bib necklace sparkled around her neck.

They stood expectantly until a black Cadillac limousine, with diplomatic flags flying, rolled down the White House driveway and stopped. Calderón stepped out, his dark suit almost a duplicate of Obama's. Zavala was in a teal dress topped with a lightweight ebony coat.

There were handshakes all around and familiar smiles. After all, this is the fourth time the two presidents have had one-on-one time. And Zavala had just hosted Michelle Obama in Mexico City in April. The band began to play the Mexican national anthem, and off in the distance cannons fired and the boom of a 21-gun salute echoed across the Ellipse. It was a majestic sight as one looked down the sloping lawn, across the gathered crowd. The Lincoln Memorial was visible on the horizon. And the Washington Monument pierced the white smoke and the low-hanging clouds. It was quite the welcome to town.

"When you look around and see the diversity, the military. It's an exciting energy," says Madelyn Clark-Robinson, who works for the National 4-H Council and was in the crowd. "It's such a positive view of what the country is about."

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