Wednesday, March 14, 2012

State Dinner: President Obama Celebrates The "Rock Solid Alliance" With David Cameron

The lavish affair in a pavilion on the South Lawn featured A-list guests, a Winter Harvest menu, and intimate stories from the Special Relationship...
President Obama celebrated his close friendship with British Prime Minister David Cameron and "the deep and abiding bonds between our people" on Wednesday evening with a lavish State Dinner for more than 320 guests, including a big celebrity contingent, as the two-day Official Visit came to a close. The dinner, held in a dramatically lit and flower-filled pavilion on the South Lawn, was profoundly different from the "Boys Night" the two shared on Tuesday when they flew to Ohio to snack on hot dogs and watch an NCAA basketball game. (Above: The President and Prime Minister embrace)

"In good times and in bad, he’s just the kind of partner that you want at your side," President Obama said as he toasted the Prime Minister, hailing his dignity and strength. "I trust him."

Cameron responded with a ringing endorsement for his host, ticking off the President's achievements in his response toast.

President Obama, he said, “has pressed the reset button on the moral authority of the entire free world." Their relationship, Cameron said, is something "I feel in my bones."

“Barack, it is an honor to call you an ally, a partner and a friend."

First Lady Michelle Obama and Mrs. Samantha Cameron both wore blue gowns for the 8:30 PM event, the largest dinner the Obamas have ever hosted. "They look better than us," the President joked to his wife as the Camerons arrived shortly after 7:00 PM during a brief ceremony under the North Portico. Mrs. Obama's off-shoulder silk ruched confection was designed by Marchesa, and co-founder Georgina Chapman, a Brit, was a guest at the dinner with her movie-mogul husband, Harvey Weinstein, who has helped raise millions for the President.

The dinner came at the end of a day of bilateral meetings and many earlier references to the Special Relationship, beginning with the morning Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn, all paying tribute to what the White House hails as "a rock-solid alliance" between the US and the United Kingdom. Hundreds of guests filled the South Lawn for the ceremony, including US and American school children.

"America's Backyard" was the decor theme inside the pavilion, and when America's Backyard is the South Lawn of the White House, the guests are equivalently impressive.

The Head Table...
There was a heavy Hollywood presence at the dinner--a scruffily bearded George Clooney sat beside Mrs. Obama at the long, rectangular Head Table, which seated twenty and was located at the top of the pavilion (above).

Mrs. Obama sat beside the President, who was seated beside the Prime Minister; Mrs. Cameron was on his other side. British-born actor Damian Lewis, star of Homeland, one of the President's favorite TV shows, also got one of the coveted spots at the table, seated across from the President and beside billionaire Warren Buffett and his daughter Susan, a philanthropist. British actress Carey Mulligan was also at the table, as was Lewis' wife, actress Helen McCrory.

Sgt. First Class Leroy A. Petry, a recipient of the Medal of Honor and Admiral James A. Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was also at the Head Table, as was David Adjaye, a British architect who is the lead designer of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, scheduled to open in 2015. Chad H. Griffin, a partner in Los Angeles public relations firm Griffin|Scheine, who is the new president of the Human Rights Campaign and recently named a National Co-Chair of the President's re-election campaign, also got one of the coveted spots. A bundler for the Obama campaign, Griffin was business partners with Mrs. Obama's Director of Communications, Kristina Schake, before Schake took up her White House post. Griffin's partner, Jerome Fallon, sat beside him. A "special" guest at the table, noted by the White House: Elaine Brye, a Winona, Ohio, mother of four children serving in the military. She was invited by Mrs. Obama after she wrote a letter to the First Lady about the Joining Forces campaign.

As he arrived for the dinner, Lewis wondered aloud to reporters how President Obama ever managed to find time to actually watch TV. British actor Hugh Bonneville, star of Downton Abbey, happily declared himself "chuffed to bits" to be at the dinner. His co-star and onscreen wife, Elizabeth McGovern, was also delighted, she said. Idris Elba and Wendell Pierce of The Wire rubbed elbows with the likes of Vogue legend Anna Wintour (wearing Chanel, and another major fundraiser); golf prodigy Rory McIlroy, the #1 ranked player in the world; and Sir Richard Branson. Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden attended, as did their son, Hunter Biden. More than two dozen major donors for the 2012 campaign were on THE GUEST LIST.

Stories from the Special Relationship...
The President, clad in a black tuxedo, and back-dropped by mauve lighting and the shadows of roses cast on the walls of the pavilion, stood at a podium and regaled his guests with foodie anecdotes in his eight-minute toast. As the candles on the tables flickered, he described the treatment he and Mr. Cameron have gotten at the hands of the media when they bonded over a World Cup beer bet and a barbecue for members of the military at 10 Downing Street. (Above: The President toasts)

"You can never tell how things will get reported as a consequence of our interactions," President Obama said. "When we met two years ago, we exchanged beers from our hometowns. One news story said: “David Cameron and Barack Obama cemented their special relationship -- by hitting the bottle.”

As for the barbecue:

"David and I rolled up our sleeves, threw away the aprons, decided to flip the burgers ourselves," President Obama said. "One reporter called it a “brave and foolish move.” Another expressed amazement at our “surprising competence.”

"Michelle and Samantha often remark the same way," he added, to laughter.

The Prime Minister earlier in the day presented the President with a gift of a special ping pong table, an insider joke, because the two got trumped when playing high schoolers last May during The President's State Visit to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Mr. Obama chafed at the media's handling of that, too:

"One newspaper asked the head coach of the British Olympic women’s team to critique our performance. Obama, the coach said, “talked a lot.” David “overhits the ball.” Both of them -- I’m quoting here --“looked a little confused.”

There were serious moments, too. The President spoke about Cameron’s “commitment to human dignity” and “resolve” over Libya, and the 2009 death of the Camerons' six-year old son, Ivan, who had suffered from cerebral palsy and life-threatening epileptic fits since birth.

"All of us have seen how you, as a parent, along with Samantha, have shown a measure of strength that few of us will ever know," President Obama said. "Tonight, I thank you for bringing that same strength and solidarity to our partnership--even if you do overhit the ball."

Though he said he wanted to be the first President to not mention Winston Churchill when welcoming a British leader to the White House, the President quoted him, and worked in both The Blitz and 9/11.

"In those two moments I think you see all you need to know about who we are and what brings us together tonight," he said. "In war and in peace, in times of plenty and times of hardship, we stand tall and proud and strong, together. And as free peoples committed to the dignity of all human beings, we will never apologize for our way of life, nor waver in its defense."

Cameron's Official Visit was a return of The Queen's hospitality last Spring, and the President toasted her Diamond Jubilee as he finished speaking.

"To Her Majesty the Queen, on her Diamond Jubilee; to our dear friends, David and Samantha; and to the great purpose and design of our alliance. May we remain, now and always, its faithful servants. Cheers, everyone," President Obama said, as he raised a wine glass filled with water.

More tales from the Special Relationship...
Cameron, in his nine-minute response toast, also spoke about the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, and Churchill, and the crucial nature of the US-UK alliance. He hailed the U.S.-led coalition effort in Libya, the Afghanistan surge and the end of the war in Iraq. (Above: The President and Prime Minister at the Head Table)

"Now, both Barack and I have said a lot today about the importance of the relationship between our two countries and our peoples," he said. "Like my predecessors, I'm proud of our essential relationship and of Britain's strong national bond with the United States of America. I feel it in my bones."

The Prime Minister also discussed his big day out with the President in Ohio, where he got personal Presidential tutoring on "bracketology."

"The truth is we have to have a guys' night out because so often we find we are completely overshadowed by our beautiful wives," Cameron said, which got applause from the guests.

"As I rolled into bed last night, I said, "Samantha, do you want to hear about what I got up to on this great guys' night out?" And she -- she's not too impressed by these things. She said, "Well, everything you did was on television. You were surrounded by the presidential bodyguard, so presumably you didn’t get up to anything."

The Winter Harvest menu...
The dinner was served after the toasts were finished: Guests dined on a four-course "Winter Harvest" feast, created by Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford using crops from Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden for the vegetable accompaniments. The garden was visible outside the glass windows of the pavilion, across the South Lawn, which had colored lights strung in the newly blooming trees, as well as animating the fountain. The menu was designed to symbolize the Special Relationship, with embroideries on American favorites and nods to British tradition and culinary culture. (Above: Dr. Biden greets a guest)

The White House described the entree, Bison Wellington, as "a classic English dish given an American twist with the use of buffalo tenderloin," and hailed it as "a perfect pairing of US and UK cultures." The Bison herd was raised in North Dakota. Alaska provided the fish for the First Course, Crisped Halibut with Potato Crust. Dessert was a Steamed Meyer Lemon Pudding, which used Idaho Huckleberries, in another melding of US-UK tastes. The full menu with all the details.

The White House once gain declined to name the American wines that were poured. The dinner marks the first time Bison has been served at an Obama State Dinner; the Cameron event is the sixth of the Administration, and the third overseen by Social Secretary Jeremy Bernard. No presidential china was used, because there were too many guests; the sets are not that large, according to an East Wing spokesman.

Entertainment and decor...
Guests were entertained after dinner by the band Mumford and Sons-- a favorite of the Camerons--and singer John Legend, a longtime Obama supporter. More guests were invited to join the party for the reception. The grounds of the White House are 18 acres large, and guests were ferried from the mansion down to the bottom of the South Lawn in a replica of an old-fashioned trolley, bright red with wood accents. The party lasted until after 11:00 PM.

The tables in the tent varied in size, and the decor scheme, tent, the table settings, and all decor were rentals, and overseen by the design firm Rafanelli Events, best known for creating Chelsea Clinton's "wedding of the century." Acid-green candles were set in tall glass pillars, and low candles sat on tables, which were covered in white and magenta cloths, or bare. Napkins were green, as was the menu at each place setting. The floral centerpieces were hydrangea, roses and lilac with greens; some were huge, and some smaller, including individual rose buds in vases. Planter boxes of flowers and trees filled the pavilion, which had a floor carpeted in magenta and a full sound system.

The guest list also included Sen. John Kerry and Rep. John Dingell; Cabinet Secretaries including Hillary Clinton, Hilda Solis, and Jay Carney, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the British delegation, political powerbrokers from both sides of the Atlantic, LGBT activists, and members of the military. THE GUEST LIST. (Above: George Clooney talks with the President's Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett)

The transcript of the toast remarks.

CLICK HERE for links to all posts about the Camerons' Official Visit.

A C-SPAN video of the event:

*Photos by AP/Getty pool