Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Inside The Tent At The Obamas' State Dinner At The White House

The secret garden...with the monumental view
President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama's State Dinner guests --a heady combination of Hollywood execs, political powerhouses and cultural visionaries, as well as members of the administration--took their seats in the "tent" on the South Lawn about forty minutes after arriving at the White House (above). Before that, the guests had passed through a scrum of photographers in the East Wing during their arrival, then enjoyed cocktails in the East Wing, and then they were escorted to the tent, where they mingled among the green-cloth covered, flower-laden tables. The menu is here.

The overhead lights of the tent were very dim during the pre-dinner period, and branches of (sustainably harvested) magnolia and ivy were twisted into the arms of the chandeliers, which cast dramatic shadows. (Above: Mrs. Obama with Prime Minister Singh during dinner)

The glass skylight panels of the roof glittered from reflected candlelight, which seemed to be stars in the night sky. And the roof panels were transparent for a purpose: The Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial were clearly visible--as they always are from the South Lawn--but the height of the pavilion made these seem even more dramatic; the pavilion was about six feet off the ground, to compensate for the downward slope of the South Lawn.

The flower arrangements in the center of each table, a palette of purples (hydrangea, garden roses, sweet pea) in honor of India's state bird, the Indian Peacock, also popped in the candlelight. New White House florist Laura Dowling received accolades for her debut efforts. (Above: The President during his toast with Prime Minister Singh)

Soft jazz piano was played during the start of the evening; it was sedate, formal, but not too formal. The tent seemed like a magical, secret garden, because the wall coverings were also a deep green.

An announcer asked guests--via the sound system-- to be seated after about forty-five minutes, so President Obama and Prime Minister Singh could make toasts, and the lights were turned up then. President Obama welcomed the guests in Hindi, and he noted the contributions of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying that such “giants” are “the reason why both of us can stand here tonight.” He invoked Jawaharlal Nehru's speech at the birth of India's nationhood, where Nehru called upon midnight's children to leave the past behind in order to shape a future of freedom, opportunity and peace.

"It's been said that the most beautiful things in the universe are the starry heavens above us and the feeling of duty within us. Mr. Prime Minister, today we work to fulfill our duty, bring our countries closer together than ever before," President Obama said.

In his response toast, Prime Minister Singh told President Obama that “Your journey to the White House has captured the imaginations of millions and millions of Indians.” A number of times during his visit, Mr. Singh has noted that possibly every citizen in his country now has a relative living in America. He spoke about the mutual interdependence of India and America for world peace...and wished America a Happy Thanksgiving as he ended his toast. The President, it seems, toasted with water. The Prime Minister abstains from alcohol.

After the toasts, it was time for dinner service. The White House chefs created the menu with the help of New York's Marcus Samuelsson, an award-winning chef who's also a cookbook author. Dishes were vegetarian with the exception of a green curry shrimp entree, and a post-modern blend of what have become important American regional cuisines, inspired by the waves of immigrant settlers to America, in the past and currently. Naan and cornbread were both served at the tables for bread service. The wine pairings, as is the case for all public functions--were American.

Musical performances after dinner were extraordinary--vocalists/songwriters Jennifer Hudson, A. R. Rahman, and Kurt Elling all sang to the accompaniment of the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by legendary composer Marvin Hamlisch. Hudson's 'Somewhere,' from West Side Story, was a tear-jerker; Rahman's 'Jai Ho!' seemed to sum up the evening. A troupe of Indian dancers also performed, to huge applause (above).

The dinner pavilion, below, shot from the South Portico of the White House, seems to glow in the dark.

Related: Another view outside the tent is here. The President and Mrs. Obama welcome Prime Minister Singh and Mrs. Kaur in a formal arrival at the North Portico. The guest list--all 320 guests--is here. The dinner menu is here.

*UPDATED: Photos from Pete Souza, official White House photographer have been added to this post; these are better than the ones your intrepid blogger shot.