- Associated Press - Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hemlines were soaked and raindrops spattered tuxedos, but not even a thunderous downpour could dampen the excitement of guests flocking to perhaps the most exclusive social event on Washington’s fall calendar: a White House state dinner for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

“I love the rain. They don’t have rain in Arizona,” said Dr. Peter Rhee, the trauma surgeon who treated Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head earlier this year.

“So much for the hair salon,” said ABC News correspondent Juju Chang, holding up the floppy ends of her dark locks.

Even President Obama took note of the soggy weather as he marveled at the intense day of diplomacy that took Mr. Lee from the White House to the Capitol and back again. “He’s had a very busy day - and a very wet day,” Mr. Obama said.

A driving rain began just as guests started to arrive for Thursday’s opulent East Room extravaganza, soaking many of the guests and their finery as they waited in line to come in from the storm. Hemlines on many of the floor-length gowns were visibly wet. Raindrops dotted tuxedo sleeves and lapels. One sodden guest hid behind her husband and refused to look in the direction of reporters watching the guest arrivals.

Besides better weather, the dinner also lacked Hollywood star power. Billie Jean King, a tennis great from days of yore, was one of the biggest names among the 220-plus invited guests. Ms. King said she had spent the day reading up on the just-passed U.S. free-trade agreement with South Korea and was “just excited to be here and be a part of it and share” her first state dinner.

For the occasion, Mr. Obama deployed maximum culinary diplomacy to signal his high regard for Mr. Lee. An intimate dinner at a suburban Korean restaurant Wednesday was followed Thursday by lunch on the State Department’s fine china and the dinner at the White House.

The meal incorporated vegetables and herbs from the White House garden. The menu: butternut squash bisque, a salad featuring daikon sheets and masago rice pearl crispies in a nod to Korean traditions, wagyu beef from Texas, and chocolate cake served with a blend of Korean and American pears.

Mrs. Obama wore a striking purple, one-shouldered gown by Korean-born designer Doo-Ri Chung as she and the president welcomed Mr. Lee and his wife in the rain. The South Korean first lady, Kim Yoon-ok, wore a traditional hanbok in pink and white.

Korean elements punctuated the decor, too, including Korean knotting on the menu cards, deep red bamboo vases on some tables and chrysanthemums in the fall-hued floral arrangements. In Korea, bamboo represents integrity, and chrysanthemums are a sign of a productive and fruitful life, the White House said.

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