WASHINGTON – The first state dinner of the Obama White House had it all: Oscar-winning entertainers, Hollywood moguls, a knockout guest chef and even a wardrobe malfunction. Traditional evening gowns vied with saris of vibrant colors Tuesday night at the high-glitz dinner in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. There were turbans and bindis as well as diamonds and brocades.
“Everyone looks great; we’re feeling great,” White House social secretary Desiree Rogers told a phalanx of cameras as she arrived, betraying no hint of nerves at the biggest social event of the Obama presidency.
First lady Michelle Obama had been a little more forthcoming earlier in the day when she described the trick to pulling off the event as sort of like being a swan: calm and serene above the water but “paddling like mad, going crazy underneath.”
The 338-person guest list was a mix of wonky Washington, Hollywood A-listers, prominent figures from the Indian community in the U.S., and Obama friends, family and campaign donors.
Attorney General Eric Holder patted his pocket as he arrived and said his kids had prepped him with all sorts of questions for tablemate Steven Spielberg. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, asked who she was most looking forward to chatting with, ventured, “I’d have to name four.” Then didn’t.
Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania had to scramble when his ensemble went rogue at just the wrong moment: His cummerbund dropped to the floor just as he and his wife stopped to pose before a scrum of about 40 reporters and photographers.
Alfre Woodard and Blair Underwood provided the celebrity quotient, but neither could come up with a connection to India. Underwood said he was there because of Woodard. She said she was there because she’s on the president’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.
Dinner guests were treated to an eye-catching scheme of green and purple, from the green curry surrounding the prawns to the purple floral arrangements paying homage to the peacock, India’s national bird.
Pumpkin was on the menu, too, with Tuesday’s dinner coming just two days before Thanksgiving.
Hours before guests arrived and in keeping with tradition, Mrs. Obama previewed the glamorous table settings in the State Dining Room. That’s often the venue for such dinners, but not this time.
Instead, in an effort to show Singh how much the U.S. values relations with his country, the Obamas decided to serve dinner in a huge white tent on the South Lawn, with views of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial through clear panels.
It wasn’t your everyday tent: This one had chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and beige carpet on the floor.
President Barack Obama, in his dinner toast, said the setting conjured images of India, where special events are “often celebrated under the cover of a beautiful tent.” Singh, in turn, told the president he was overwhelmed by the Obamas’ hospitality and said the president’s election last year had been an inspiration to millions of Indians.
Magnolia branches native to both India and the U.S. adorned the tent’s inside walls, along with ivy and nandina foliage.
Guests were seated 10 apiece at round tables draped in green apple-colored cloths and napkins, offset by the sparkle of gold-colored flatware and china, including service and dinner plates from the Eisenhower, Clinton and George W. Bush settings.
Floral arrangements of hydrangeas, roses and sweet peas in plum, purple and fuschia evoked India’s state bird.
Mrs. Obama brought in award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit, a Scandinavian restaurant in New York City, to help White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford and her staff prepare the largely vegetarian meal. Singh is a vegetarian.
Samuelsson said being chosen to help whip up dinner was both “overwhelming and humbling.”
The culinary offerings included potato and eggplant salad, arugula from the White House garden, red lentil soup and roasted potato dumplings or green curry prawns. Pumpkin pie tart and pear tatin were for dessert; the pears were poached in honey from the White House beehive.
The entertainment lineup was stellar.
Singer-actress Jennifer Hudson and jazz vocalist and composer Kurt Elling, both Grammy Award winners from the Obamas’ hometown of Chicago, were performing. Hudson also won an Academy Award for her role in “Dreamgirls.” Indian musician and singer A.R. Rahman, who won two Academy Awards for the music in “Slumdog Millionaire,” also was in the lineup.
Among the other guests: Hollywood moguls David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Guests with ties to India included spiritual adviser Deepak Chopra, director M. Night Shyamalan and PepsiCo chairman and CEO Indra Nooyi. Katie Couric of CBS News, Brian Williams of NBC News, Robin Roberts of ABC News and CNN Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta were among the media representatives invited. Oprah Winfrey was not on the list, but her best friend, Gayle King, was among the guests. Also there Obama friends Eric Whitaker and Martin Nesbitt, along with Obama’s half sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, and her husband, Konrad; and Marian Robinson, the first lady’s mother.
Every aspect of Tuesday’s events was fraught with meaning and symbolism, from the flower colors to Mrs. Obama’s clothing designers.
For the dinner, Mrs. Obama wore a sleeveless, gold and cream colored sheath dress with an overlay of silver and matching shawl by Indian-born designer Naeem Khan. At the State Dining Room event earlier in the day, the first lady wore a skirt by Rachel Roy, who is Indian.
The dinner also was a debut of sorts for florist Laura Dowling, who’s been on the job less than a month.