Despite the twinkling pink lights scattered across the ceiling, showy floral centerpieces and curtains of crystals dressing up the windows, the Obamas’ eighth state dinner, in honor of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, was a somewhat subdued affair. Light on the glitz and heavy on the government.
At just under 200 names, the guest list Tuesday was small for this, the rarest of soirees, and the bold-faced names were few.
The in-crowd trickled in about 6:30 p.m. The governor of Hawaii, David Ige, bragged about his chopstick skills: “I’m really good.” Everyone’s favorite septuagenarian social media star, 78-year-old “Star Trek” alum George Takei, admitted that despite growing up with chopsticks, he wasn’t very good. But “when it comes to food, I find I really don’t have any trouble getting it into my mouth.”
The whole affair was old hat to Takei. The Clintons invited him in 1994 when they hosted Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Perhaps that was the night’s most common thread — relaxed and comfy familiarity: Oh, dinner at the White House? Been there, done that. I’ve got the receipt from tuxedo rental shop to prove it.
When asked how many state dinners he’s attended, former vice president Walter Mondale, looking nowhere near his 87 years, laughed, “I’m not sure. Thirty?”
Former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D- S.D.) said he’d “lost count.” Asked whether it was his first, CBS News vet Bob Schieffer laughed, “Lately!”
Leave it to Shonda Rhimes — who as the creator of ABC’s political soap opera “Scandal” dreams up high drama at 1600 Penn. for a living — to actually seem dazzled to be inside the real-life executive mansion. Rhimes, who held a star-studded Democratic National Committee fundraiser at her Los Angeles home last July, paused just long enough to say that she was “excited” about the night, then disappeared with her date into the East Room.
The evening’s biggest (and only) jolt of the unexpected arrived in the wake of singer Ciara’s liquid champagne-colored mermaid gown. She was the date of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. The two looked every inch the celebrity couple, bringing a touch of TMZ to the otherwise tame proceedings. Finally, something juicy and not wonky to whisper about during the dinner, which was replete with White House staffers and legislators.
Remember, Wilson, whom we distinctly heard being referred to as “baby” by the songtress, was supposed to bring Ciara as his date to last week’s White House correspondents’ dinner. At the last minute, he swapped her out for his grandmother, Carolyn. When asked where she was, Wilson answered “back in Virginia.”
Sorry, grandma, but the “my body is your party” babe wins out.
As a diplomatic overture, the state dinner has seemingly dulled over time, losing some of its luster to less formal bilateral settings such as the golf course or working lunch. Not since the Reagans, who brought a heavy dose of Hollywood pomp to 1600 Penn. by hosting a record 52 ceremonial soirees, has an administration so relished the regal-ness of it all.
Like a fancy napkin, the purpose of these rare and exclusive dinner parties is multi-fold. They seal diplomatic ties (this time over sake), the spectacle of the photo opp is irresistible, and the political capital is impossible to measure but clearly worth the average half a million dollar sticker price.
For their part, President Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s social handshake underscores the two leaders’ commitment to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. When he greeted the prime minister Tuesday morning on the South Lawn, American and Japanese flags flapping in the wind, Obama called Japan one of the country’s “closest allies in the world.” The president went on to thank Japan for karate, karaoke, manga anime and emojis.
In his toast later Tuesday night the president raised a ceramic sake glass to the “outstanding leaders” in the East Room, “You represent the friendship and the bonds that we carry forward into this new century, and in celebration of the progress that we’ve achieved today.” The he attempted a haiku.
Spring, green and friendship
United States and Japan
Nagoyaka ni “Which means harmonious feeling,” the president helpfully offered.
Abe reciprocated in his toast, hailing the cultural exchanges between the two countries. The United States got sushi out of the deal, he noted. And the Japanese? Well, Abe confessed that he himself is a “hard-core fan of the American TV drama ‘House of Cards.’ ”
More sake for all, and then it was on to the dinner, served on the White House’s new china service, with “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto offering an assist to the White House chefs.
Later, there was retro-Americana entertainment by the cast of the movie “Jersey Boys,” who crooned hits like “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
From the wall of orchids and cherry blossoms behind the heads of state to the intricate tea-flavored petits fours accompanied by a teapot spun from blown sugar, no detail was left un-sweated. Waiting to exhale was White House social secretary Jeremy Bernard, the man behind the scenes ultimately responsible for every seating chart and plate garnish.
Bernard is leaving his post, to be replaced by his deputy, Deesha Dyer. Asked whether he was feeling nostalgic about his departure, Bernard straightened his tie — no matter how relatively low-key the night was, it is still a production of international scale.
He confessed: “I’ll feel nostalgic at about 11 o’clock.”
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