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November 25th, 2009
10:43 AM ET

A few stumbles, but a very good start: A review of the first Obama State Dinner

Reporter’s note: President and Mrs. Obama have hosted their first State Dinner, and like all great openings, it deserves a review.

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Under a glass-ceilinged tent on the South Lawn, a low-tech marvel that would set Gaddafi’s eyes ablaze, White House movers gathered with their shakers (salt and pepper, among them!) for the first official State Dinner last night. Was it a success? Let’s break it down.

The only place to start is at the beginning, with the entrances. There is something stilted and odd about formal introductions of arrivals at a party these days. Just to hear the names boomed out to a waiting phalanx of reporters and photographers makes it seems as if members of a 17th century French court are going to come flouncing in amid the clatter of carriages, with halos of powder arising from their wigs.

That said, the fortunate guests dutifully played along; Walking in one door, pausing briefly at a piece of tape stuck to the floor in the prime photography position (not unlike those “picture spots” so apparent at theme parks,) either avoiding all the shouted questions about their attire or merely shrugging them off with a, “This old thing? Why I found it in the back of the closet. It must be twenty years old!” as if they sit down to meat loaf and beans with the First Family every Tuesday night, right after bowling league.

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Most nervous entrance: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who sprinted through like Usain Bolt. Most good humored: Energy Secretary Steven Chu. He and his wife somehow wound up going the wrong way, as if they were fleeing the dinner as opposed to arriving. He laughed it off as the mistake became apparent; she curtsied and pirouetted back into the proper direction. Best smile: Our own Sanjay Gupta who looked much happier being a dinner guest than he likely would have been if that whole Surgeon General gig had played out.

And of course, the guest list had plenty of the big names that always add heft to an affair. Spielberg, Clinton, Pelosi, Powell, Couric, Williams, Bloomberg, and an ocean of others. Enough said of that crowd. They were supporting cast and did it well.

The First Couple’s entrance with the Prime Minister of India and his wife, was all that it should be for a presidential promenade. The music was formal, the announcement grand, and of course, the dress: Though I greatly admire women’s fashions, I’m often left flat by other reviewers who needlessly gush over an unimaginative frock merely because it is the work of some famous designer, and is draped over the shoulders of someone famous.

That said, Michelle Obama’s strapless, Champagne-colored dress really was lovely. Simple, elegant lines, with enough shimmering silver sequins to add the magic. She wore it well, and set off against the president’s straightforward tux, it looked like everything one could want in classic First Lady fashion for a big night. It was, by the way, a diplomatic dress too; the design work of Indian-born Naeem Khan. Throw in the armload of Indian bangle bracelets she wore, and the look was perfect.

The menu was suitably respectful of the guests of honor’s vegetarian tastes. Heavy on the potatoes, chick peas, okra, and arugula; light on the heartier fare. The heaviest it got was the prawns and the pumpkin pie tart. In fairness, the media didn’t get a taste, so heaven knows what it was really like, although one could argue it was not hugely inspired. Too much political correctness, not enough pancetta and sauce, I say. Frankly I suspect the china, from the Eisenhower, Clinton, and G.W. Bush years was the most interesting thing on the table for many diners.

Not that they could see it that well. At least from the camera’s point of view, it seemed a shade too dark for the guests to adequately eyeball each other or the beautifully decorated tent. Note to White House staff: Seeing and being seen only works if, well, you can see.

President Obama’s toast was well-said, hopeful and diplomatically short; as was the responding toast of the Prime Minister. Good for them both.

Jennifer Hudson was an excellent choice for the entertainment, but in a curious departure from the president’s much bally-hooed pledge of transparency; her act was entirely shielded from the public camera’s view, and even the much-less-interesting Marvin Hamlisch with the National Symphony Orchestra (Please…what was this? The overture to another revival of Oklahoma at the Roundabout Theater of Tucson?) was made available to the TV cameras for only a short two minutes. So sadly, all we can say about the entertainment is that we hope it was entertaining. Bad form, Pan. We, the taxpayers, picked up the tab, but were unceremoniously hustled from the room before the fun began. Oh well.

Still, the Obama White House, which has clunked a few times in matters of pageantry, overall brought a wonderful sense of style and grace to what will no doubt be the first of many such evenings over the next few years, and for a few hours the howling of the economy and the rumbling storm of international discontent seemed as distant as the cloud covered stars overhead.

Out of five, give it four stars as a very promising start; and hustle to grab that next invitation should it come your way.


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