Obviously they have it down pat. On Tuesday night, there was little by way of surprise heading into the state dinner in honor of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The flowers are always plentiful and expertly coordinated with the night’s theme (this time friendship and summer), the food meant to showcase American exceptionalism as well as culinary unity, and the best toasts are equal parts effusive, informative and funny.
So far, with the exception of the “gate crasher” hiccup of 2009’s Indian state dinner, when this White House decides to roll out the red carpet the night is smooth. Tuesday night’s festivities, which marked the Obama Administration’s 13th state dinner or official visit of a foreign leader, was polished to perfection.
The earliest arrivals were also the brightest: Actor Matthew Rhys and his girlfriend Keri Russell, co-stars of the FX spy drama “The Americans” who were among the lucky few seated at the dinner’s head table. Rhys, sporting a luxuriantly full beard, joked that the Secret Service “asked if I had papers, not being American.” He’s from the U.K. And the star power flickered out from there.
But some local wattage arrived with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has yet to have a sit-down with Obama to discuss D.C. statehood. Perhaps she planned to sneak the District’s elevator pitch in between courses. Bowser, celebrating her 44th birthday, brought along her “dear friend” Jason Turner, who you may remember from his brief turn as a husband on “The Real Housewives of D.C.”
Former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty upped the homegrown ante, although he’s based in Silicon Valley now. To prove that point Fenty arrived with his girlfriend of three years, Laurene Powell, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.
When asked her connection to Singapore, Amy Tan, author of “The Joy Luck Club,” answered, “They were inviting people from Asia.” She’d been to five state dinners thus far.
Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s older brother, took the time to brag a bit about his baby sister. He said the first lady’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last month was “terrific–as usual.”
And the award for the most inspiring guests goes to Army Maj. Jeremy Haynes and his wife Chelsea.
Haynes was listed on the official guest rolls provided by the White House as simply “Letter Writer.” The back story? In July Haynes wrote the first lady, describing the severe spinal injury he suffered while serving in Afghanistan and his wife’s unflagging support in the aftermath. Two years later Haynes walked, with the help of crutches, through the White House doors and posed for photos in the East Garden Room with Chelsea on his arm.
“She put her entire life on hold for me,” Haynes said. Tonight, he continued, was a gift for her. “I wrote a letter asking that my wife get the opportunity to attend an event that Mrs. Obama was going to be hosting. I didn’t know it was going to be the State Dinner. So [it was all] about making my wife’s dream come true and meeting her hero.”
Asked what the night was like, Chelsea Haynes, dressed in black gown with lace, answered shyly, “It’s an amazing night to be here.”
Rounding out the remaining tables decorated with bursts of yellow orchids (Singapore is known for the flower) and flickering gold candles were more administration staffers than the usual financial donors or potential donors to the president’s library. The guest list seemed like more of a “thank you” to loyal White House worker bees.
Guests dined on a four-course menu that celebrated both cultures with a cool Maryland crab salad tossed in a curd made from calamansi, a lime found in Southeast Asia, and tomatoes from Ohio paired with picked green mangoes. “Singapore is such a mixed culture in terms of its heritage and its cuisine,” said White House executive chef Cris Comerford during the preview last week. “It’s such a melting pot.”
Twenty-one years have passed since a Singaporean prime minister paid an official visit to the White House. In May of 1985 President Ronald Reagan hosted then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, father of the country’s current PM.
After giving a brief history on America’s ties to Singapore, going all the way back to Paul Revere’s daughter, Obama said the two countries were “bound together by history, by family and by friendship.”
In his toast on Tuesday, Lee praised the U.S.
“America is a great nation,” he said, “Not just because of your power and your wealth, but because of your high ideals, openness and generosity of spirit. You seek to build a world where countries can prosper together.”
In honor of the two countries’ 50 years of friendship, Lee named a hybrid orchid in honor of the president and Mrs. Obama. The flower is a mix of breeds native to Singapore and Hawaii, “where the president was born, most of us believe,” Lee joked.