The dashing Justin Trudeau, only 18 weeks into his prime ministership of Canada, was the star of President Obama’s 11th State Dinner Thursday in the East Room of the White House, where notables ranging from Canada’s minister of fisheries to Vancouver-born movie star Ryan Reynolds sipped ice wine from northern Michigan and nibbled on baby lamp chops splashed with Canadian whisky.
“May the special connection between our two countries continue to flourish in the years to come, and may my gray hair come in at a much slower rate than yours has,” said Trudeau, 44, referencing his host, President Obama.
“And to the great credit of their people, Canadians from British Columbia to New Brunswick have so far rejected the idea of building a wall to keep out your southern neighbors,” Obama said during his toast. “We appreciate that.”
The two leaders, one a young liberal swept recently into Ottawa and the other a weathered liberal about to be swept out of Washington, spoke in front of a zig-zagging spray of white orchids. The East Room, awash in yellows and greens, reflected the springtime weather that wafted into Washington this week. Orchids, yellow roses and light-green hydrangea cascaded out of towering glass centerpieces atop tables clothed in gold patterns.
The dinner menu had whiffs from north of the border: an hors d’oeuvre of poutine with shaved duck, a first course of Alaskan halibut casserole bites served in personal tureens, “yukon potato dauphinoise” alongside the main course of lamb chops, and maple pecan cake for dessert (the maple syrup was from New England, not Canada, for those worried about the United States losing jobs to Quebec).
It had been 19 years since a Canadian prime minister paid an official visit to the United States. Trudeau was accompanied by his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau and mother Margaret Trudeau. The family’s charisma was a topic of conversation as guests made their way into the dinner.
“He’s cool,” the actor Michael J. Fox (born in Alberta) said of Justin. “I was a big fan of his dad. When I was a kid we had the coolest world leader going.”
“He’s a breath of fresh air for Canada,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who lives an hour’s drive from the Canadian border and first met Trudeau when the future prime minister was 10 years old.
In an endless parade of pale-faced chairmen, ministers and ambassadors, a tiny clutch of celebrities stood out: “Grey’s Anatomy” actress Sandra Oh, “Saturday Night Live” overlord Lorne Michaels, and funnyman Mike Myers (all born in Ontario). The tastiest tabloid fodder on the invite list, though, was “Deadpool” actor Reynolds and his wife Blake Lively, the star of prime-time soap opera “Gossip Girl” and any number of beauty-product commercials.
Both Trudeau and Michelle Obama wore midnight blue — he a tuxedo and she a strapless, floral-patterned jacquard dress by the Taiwanese-Canadian designer Jason Wu. President Obama wore a traditional black tuxedo. Sophie Trudeau wore a floor-length purple dress, with cap sleeves and train, by the Romanian designer Lucian Matis, who immigrated to Canada in 1999.
Canada and the United States are “actually closer than friends,” said Trudeau, the son of the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who was first feted at the White House in 1969. “We’re more like siblings, really. We have shared heritage though we took different paths in our later years. We became the stay at home type. You grew to be a little more rebellious.”
The day began with an arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, a chat in the Oval Office and a press conference in the Rose Garden. The two leaders, Trudeau an inch taller than Obama, reaffirmed the cozy relationship between their countries, from robust trade to the shared goal of wrangling climate change. They were effusive in their praise for each other.
Trudeau complimented Obama’s “tremendous heart” and “tremendous intellect.”
Obama praised Trudeau and his delegation’s “enormous energy” and “enormous passion.”
“If in fact you plan to keep your dark hair, then you have to start dying it early,” Obama joked during the press conference, when asked about his legacy and Trudeau’s potential. “You hit a certain point, it’s too late. You’ll be caught.”
Our northern neighbor is a crucial trading partner and loyal military ally, but not a reliable source of bilateral drama or tension. The evening had none of the import of Obama’s two state dinners for China, or the scandal of his administration’s first state dinner (for India) in 2009, when two aspiring reality-TV stars waltzed uninvited into the White House.
As the 130 guests listened to songwriter Sara Bareilles perform, the four remaining GOP candidates for president were on the debate stage at the University of Miami.
Mike Myers, his hair as white as the caps of the Canadian Rockies, was diplomatic in his assessment of the crude and compelling campaign.
“One of the things Canada can offer the world is civility,” he said in the East Garden Room of the White House.
And of the Americans who are threatening to flee to Canada if someone like Donald Trump is elected president?
“We’ll take you all,” Myers said.
Fashion critic Robin Givhan contributed to this report.