The pink and green elephant centerpieces signaled this was no ordinary evening at the White House. The tables in the State Dining Room were covered in saffron-colored silk with green mums and hot pink roses shaped into pachyderms -- a nod to India, not the loyal Republicans in the room.
Although earlier in the day President Bush had called it a "little family dinner," last night's black-tie affair for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the first big White House social event in nearly two years to honor a head of government, and it included all the traditional frills of a state occasion.
"India and the United States are separated by half a globe," Bush said in his welcoming toast. "Yet today our two nations are closer than ever before."
The White House placed special emphasis on Singh's visit by throwing what was only the fifth formal dinner of the Bush administration. The visit highlighted joint U.S.-India efforts on security and counterterrorism, trade, finance, investment and the environment. Yesterday Bush and Singh met with business leaders from both countries, and today Singh will address a joint session of Congress.
"We have developed a very healthy and strong relationship that's in our mutual interest," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It was obvious to him why the White House had selected India for a White House dinner: "This, of course, is the largest democracy on the face of the Earth."
Rumsfeld was among 134 people on a guest list that also included Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, Sens. Richard Lugar and Dianne Feinstein, and Rep. Tom DeLay.
DeLay entered the White House through an entrance that bypassed the media gantlet. Ditto Lewis Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, who was named Sunday as another high-level administration source in the CIA leak scandal. The first question at a news conference with Bush and Singh yesterday dealt with Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's involvement in the ongoing investigation of the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard didn't expect domestic issues to have much impact on last night's party. "I've been to these before, and they seem to be completely disconnected to whatever travails or successes the president's having otherwise," he said. Nor was he surprised that Libby was invited. "He's the chief of staff to the vice president. Are we supposed to think he did something wrong? I don't think he did anything wrong. What about Karl Rove? Is he here?"
If he was, he wasn't on the guest list, and Barnes correctly predicted the tenor of the evening. The mansion was filled with Indian American business leaders who happily applauded the toasts between the two leaders.
"As two strong, diverse democracies, we share a commitment to the success of multiethnic democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law," Bush told the dinner guests. "And we believe that by spreading the blessings of democracy and freedom, we will ensure lasting peace for our own citizens and for the world."
Singh responded with a long, gracious speech praising the president for his hospitality and generosity. He concluded by issuing an invitation: "Mark Twain once said the only foreign land he ever dreamt about or deeply longed to see was India. We have grown up learning the story of the unfinished voyage of Christopher Columbus: Setting sails to reach India, he discovered America. I now invite the people of America to complete the voyage of that great explorer."
An economist by training, Singh became prime minister in May 2004 after India's Congress Party president, Sonia Gandhi, decided not to take the job. He is a Sikh and the first non-Hindu to hold the post, and about 200 protesters unhappy with Indian discrimination against Sikhs loudly picketed in front of the White House as guests arrived for the dinner.
The guests of honor and the hot summer evening inspired the most colorful attire seen at the White House in many years. The first lady wore a yellow silk chiffon gown by Bill Blass printed with delicate orange flowers. Singh's wife, Gursharan Kaur, wore a traditional sari in black with red trim. Other women took the opportunity to dress in vibrant traditional dress or India-inspired patterns and colors.
The White House has not hired a new executive chef to replace Walter Scheib, who was fired earlier this year, so the menu was prepared by assistant chefs.
The four-course meal included chilled asparagus soup, halibut and basmati rice with pistachio nuts and currants, bibb lettuce and citrus vinaigrette, and a dessert of chocolate lotus blossoms with mango, chocolate-cardamom and cashew ice creams prepared by pastry chef Thaddeus Dubois.
After dinner, the party moved to the East Room to be joined by 126 more guests invited to sit in for the after-dinner entertainment by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. This portion of the evening was, for the first time at an official dinner, closed to any news coverage, and the names of the after-dinner crowd were not released.
Guests at the formal evening -- a rarity at the White House -- included, from left, Clarence and Virginia Thomas, Joyce and Donald Rumsfeld and, below right, David and Rosalee McCullough. Below left, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh prepares to make a toast to President Bush. Right, Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, are escorted to the dinner in the State Dining Room by the president and first lady Laura Bush. Guests raise their wine glasses to friendship between the United States and India. Last night's menu featured a main course of halibut, and after-dinner entertainment was provided by New Orleans's Preservation Hall Jazz Band.