One-Thousand Gushing Words on Obama's 'Glittering Gala' of a State Dinner

A Wednesday story by reporter Rachel Swarns on Obama's first state dinner was an overflowing feast of praise - over 1,000 words celebrating the Obamas.

Swarns is Michelle Obama's chief attendant when it comes to flattering coverage, and she provided it for both the first lady and her husband with a prose style so breathless you'd think there "had never before been a state dinner at the White House," as the Weekly Standard observed of the paper's coverage in the December 7 issue.

It is an old tradition, a White House dinner governed by ritual and protocol that happens to be this city's hottest social event. But at their first state dinner on Tuesday night, President Obama and his wife, Michelle, made sure to infuse the glittering gala with distinctive touches.

They hired a new florist, Laura Dowling, who bedecked the tented outdoor dining room with locally grown, sustainably harvested magnolia branches and ivy. They selected a guest chef, Marcus Samuelsson of Aquavit in New York, an American citizen who was born in Ethiopia, reared in Sweden and cooks up melting pots of flavors and cuisines.


And at the tables, the meatless menu included a mix of Indian and American favorites, including some African-American standards. Collard greens and curried prawns, chickpeas and okra, nan and cornbread were served to the 320 guests - including some well-known Republicans and prominent Indian-Americans - who started off with arugula from the White House garden and finished up with pumpkin pie tart. (After a tasting at the White House on Sunday, the Obamas gave the dishes their stamp of approval, Mr. Samuelsson said.)

And don't forget the dinner plates. For an administration that publicly prizes bipartisanship, what could be finer than an eclectic mix of Clinton and Bush china?

"He wants to set a tone that's different," Vishakha N. Desai, a dinner guest and the Indian-born president of the Asia Society, said of the president. "Obama's celebrating not just his African-American heritage, but the cultural diversity of America. And that's a powerful message to send to the world."


The evening was a potent mix of politics, diplomacy and glamour, with the administration's favored donors mingling with lawmakers from Congress, cabinet secretaries, Indian dignitaries and Hollywood celebrities decked out in tuxedos and designer dresses. The first lady wore a golden sleeveless gown created by Naeem Khan, an Indian-American designer.

For Mr. Obama, it was also a rare break from the bruising business of governance, allowing him to showcase his role as a world leader (and a gracious host) at a time when he is managing battles over health care legislation and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - all while watching his standing falling in the polls.


There was White House honey and sage from the garden and a menu that gave vegetables and beans - including eggplants and lentils - top billing. (For a White House keen on promoting fresh fruits and vegetables, what could be more serendipitous than a guest of honor who happens to be a vegetarian?)

Christopher Marquis's September 6, 2001 story on Bush's first state dinner was much shorter and far more sedate. It got the job done in under 400 words with a straightforward run-down of the menu and defiantly non-flowery imagery:

President Bush, smiling and stiff-backed in a black tuxedo, drummed his fingers absently as Mr. Fox's limousine pulled up to the White House north portico.

The Bushes were certainly no match for the Obamas' cool.