Obamaland: Inside POTUS’ First State Dinner

by John Arundel
Attorney General Eric Holder Photo by Kyle Samperton

Dr. Sharon Malone and Attorney General Eric Holder. Photo by Kyle Samperton

The 300 or so guests began arriving as early as 6:30 pm for the 8 o’clock dinner, gathering in the East Room for pre-dinner cocktails followed by a receiving line in the Blue Room. The first to arrive was Marty Nesbitt and his wife Dr. Anita Nesbitt, the Obamas’ longtime Chicago friends.

Dr. Nesbitt, a general practitioner who delivered Sasha and Malia Obama, wore a red, floor-length evening gown. The second couple to arrive was Energy Secretary Steven Chu and his wife Jean Chu, who patiently posed for shutterbugs and was asked which designer she was wearing. “Bloomingdales,” she responded about the black satin number with a lace jacket.

Laughter and chatter came from the Grand Staircase, as the Marines filled the room with music, including John Rutter’s “Suite for Strings” and a number called “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” which sounded like it had a touch of New Orleans to it, according to White House pool reports.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur to The White House for their first Official State Dinner since taking office.

Dr. Singh, the 14th and current Prime Minister of India, is widely regarded as one of the most influential people in the world. He is the first prime minister to take office since Jawaharl Nehru‘s return to power after completing a full five-year term. During his tenure as India’s Finance Minister from 1991 to 1996, Singh was widely credited for carrying out important economic reforms in India which resulted in the end of the infamous Licence Raj system.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg arrives at the State Dinner.  Photo by Kyle Samperton.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg arrives at the State Dinner. Photo by Kyle Samperton.

“We are very excited … everything looks great,” White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers told reporters shortly before the evening unfolded. Rogers was wearing a Comme des Garcons multi-layered dress which was nude in color and had pearls woven into two layers of fabric.

Mrs. Obama walked down the Grand Staircase from the Private Residence in a strapless, floor-length, champagne-colored gown with silver detail by Indian-born designer Naeem Khan. Her hair was swept back and she was wearing a bunch of churis, a traditional sparkly Indian bangle bracelets. Mrs. Kaur was wearing a black sari with red and gold trim.

Around half past seven o’clock members of the Obama cabinet followed them down the Grand Staircase and into the Green Room, where cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was first, followed by Gen. Jim Jones, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden – who wore a gown by Lebanese designer Reem Acra – followed in twos by Ambassador Susan Rice and Ambassador Timothy Roemer.

Fifteen minutes later the American and Indian presidents made their way down the red carpet lining the Cross Hall. The four stood briefly in front of the doors to the Blue Room. The two world leaders flashed broad smiles as the cameras rolled and photographers clicked, while Singh and Kaur were more plain-faced. Afterwards, the four turned and entered the Blue Room for the Receiving Line.

“These state visits and dinners are a really important part of our nation’s diplomacy,” Mrs. Obama told reporters earlier in a preview tour. “Throughout history, they’ve given U.S. presidents – and the American people – the opportunity to make important milestones in foreign relations. So these dinners and events are really critical to what we do internationally. And they’ve helped build stronger ties with nations as well as people around the world. That’s what President Obama and Prime Minister Singh are doing today.”

White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers.  Photo by Kyle Samperton

White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. Photo by Kyle Samperton

The Obamas had a large dinner tent set up on the now-muddy South Lawn, and guests came in wearing colorful “saree,” the traditional Indian dress.

Some of the last guests trickled down the stairway from the balcony, Colin Powell and his wife Alma; Larry Summers, Obama’s sister Maya Soetoro-Ng and her husband Konrad Ng, and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

The Tent was an expansive T-shaped construction that hardly fits the common definition of a party tent. Guests entered from the south driveway, avoiding the soggy grass altogether, and walked down a narrow hallway lined in tan carpet. The sides of the tent were clear, so guests could see the Oval office to their right and the east side of the South Lawn to their left. Along the way, clusters of large glass vases filled with water and decorated with floating candles, vines and orchids were set on silver columns every few feet.

Once guests entered the tent, the ceiling of which vaulted into a V-shape – they walked past giant pots of magnolia branches flaking the entryway. A vast gold chandelier wrapped in ivy and featuring a dozen mini-lampshades on top.

The room was filled with round tables covered in apple green tablecloths, with four tall candles and centerpieces featuring

Sarah and Ari Emanuel. Photo by Kyle Samperton

Sarah and Ari Emanuel. Photo by Kyle Samperton

Alma and Colin Powell. Photo by Kyle Samperton

Alma and Colin Powell. Photo by Kyle Samperton

Vernon and Ann Jordan.  Photo by Kyle Samperton

Vernon and Ann Jordan. Photo by Kyle Samperton

fuchsia and shades of purple hydrangea, garden roses and sweet peas.

Three of the tent’s walls – the south, east and west – were a deep shades of green, giving them a foliage feel. Six giant pots of magnolia branches lined the east and west walls. There was a bar on the east side of the room – and long rectangular tables covered in green were around the perimeter of the room for what appeared to be serving purposes.

Photo by Kyle Samperton

Gayle King. Photo by Kyle Samperton

Eleven additional chandeliers hung from the tent’s clear ceiling – three large ones were in the middle and four were hung on either side.

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer was seated at the table closest to the entrance, along with Sarah Feinberg. Pfeiffer chatted briefly with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). Casey also stopped to chat with Vice President Joe Biden, who was seen working the room.

First Grandmother Marian Robinson was seated at a table diagonal from Pfeiffer’s and was seen chatting animatedly with one of her tablemates.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was seated at a table near the middle of the room; House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer; DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeff Katzenberg, David Axelrod, Attorney General Eric Holder, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

The Pool Reporters made note about the seating arrangements: There was no head table. President Obama was seated next to Kahr and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Mrs. Obama was seated at her own table, next to Singh and Colin Powell.

Also at the president’s table were Kerry, Roemer, Mary Johnston, Indra Nooyi, Paul Pelosi, David Geffen and Jeremey Lingvall.

At Mrs. Obama’s table were Amrit Singh, Upinder Singh, Dr. Amartya Sen, Emma Rothschild, Alma Powell, Rep. Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Janis Berman.

Some of those seated at Vice President Biden’s table were Earl and Barbara Graves, Lee Hamilton, Mrs. Nancy Hamilton and Mr. M.S. Ahluwalia. Some of those seated at Dr. Jill Biden’s table: Melody Barnes, Senator Casey and M. Night Shyamalan.

At 9 p.m. the President and Mrs. Obama, Prime Minister Singh and Kahr were announced, at which point the guests rose to their feet. They made their way to the front of the tent, where Obama and Singh spoke from a small gold lectern.

Obama proudly noted that this was “the first state dinner of my presidency.” After saying “I propose a toast,” Obama checked to make sure Singh had a glass. Once Singh had a glass they cheered and guests sipped white wine or lifted plum-colored goblets of water.

Singh gave warm remarks and was interrupted at one point when he praised the “grace and charm” of Mrs. Obama. He also quoted one of Obama’s favorite former presidents, Abraham Lincoln, and he commended the selection of Obama for the Nobel Prize. Several Indian celebrities cheered the remark, including Slumdog Millionaire’s A.R. Rahman and Visakha Desai of the Asia Society.

Aapka Suwagat Hai,” Obama said in Hindi, meaning “You all are welcome.”

The Indian Prime Minister returned the compliment, wishing “good health and happiness” and a “stronger friendship” with the Obamas and the “friendly people of the United States of America.”

The Prime Minister applauded President Obama’s recognition by the Nobel Committee citing the “healing touch that you have provide and the power of your idealism and vision.”

“Mr President, your journey to the White House has captured the imagination of all Indians,” Singh said. “You are an inspiration to all those who cherish the values of democracy, diversity and equal opportunity.”

“I can do no longer than to describe your achievements in the words of Abraham Lincoln who said: ‘In the end, its not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.'”

Singh said that Obama’s leadership coincides with a time of profound change in the world. “We need to find new pathways of international cooperation that respond more effectively to the challenges caused by the growing independence of nations,” he said. “As two leading democracies, India and the United States must play a leading role in building a shared destiny for all humankind.”

“A strong and sustained engagement between our two countries is good for our people and important for the world. We are embarking on a new phase of our partnership. We should build on our common values and interests to realize the enormous potential and promise of our partnership.”

The Prime Minister also heaped praise on the Indian American community. “The success of the nearly 2.7 million strong Indian American community is a tribute to our common ethos. They have enriched and deepened our ties and I thank them warmly.”

Photo by Kyle Samperton

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Rebecca Olson Gupta. Photo by Kyle Samperton

Guests then sat down for a dance performance by the Bay Area Empire Bhangra and to the first course of the evening: potato and eggplant salads on arugula with onion seed vinaigrette.

Reporting gathered from White House Pool Reports.

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