- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

Last night's White House state dinner for South African President Thabo Mbeki was a more theatrical function of its kind and a lot more political.

The list of 360 guests made it one of the Clinton administration's largest state dinners and required setting up a large dramatically draped white tent called a pavilion on the South Lawn, lit with hanging chandeliers.

Mr. Clinton used his toast to refer to the early troubled years of both South Africa and the United States, an apparent reference to their racial struggles.

Pledging continued work toward peace in the continent, he hailed "the promise of South Africa, the promise that will always join our two people."

Mr. Mbeki hailed the close friendship between the two countries and cited Mr. Clinton's recent signing of a law to increase trade with Africa as proof the president "has provided a good lead for this country."

"And in that context, Mr. President, I must also express our appreciation for the increased focus on Africa that you have paid," Mr. Mbeki said. "It is certainly inspiring to us as Africans."

Prominent among those invited were at least 20 New York politicos, including State Comptroller H. Carl McCall; Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields; Rochester Mayor William A. Johnson Jr; and the Rev. Floyd H. Flake of the Cathedral of the Allen AME Church in Queens, who recently endorsed first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate race.

Others included former New York Mayor David L. Dinkins and Bill Lynch Jr., Mr. Dinkins' former chief of staff and a key operative in New York political affairs.

Among a dozen or more journalists were New Yorker magazine writers Jeffrey Toobin and Jane Mayer, both of whom cover the White House; a member of the New York Daily News editorial board; and Black Entertainment Television head Robert Johnson and Essence Communications head Edward Lewis.

People close to Vice President Al Gore included Donna Brazile, his campaign manager; Leon Fuerth, his national security adviser; and Democratic Convention 2000 executive Cheryl Carter.

Representatives on the guest list were mainly from states such as Florida, Michigan and Texas, which have a large number of electoral votes.

After the arrival of Mr. Mbeki and his wife, Zanele, at the North Portico, President and Mrs. Clinton stood with the couple, greeting guests in a long receiving line at the base of the staircase in the White House Grand Foyer.

The foursome then were transported by trolley under threatening skies to the pavilion to be seated among 37 round tables decorated with blush, pink and burgundy peonies surrounding candle-filled crystal bowls.

Gold flatware was set on peach tablecloths. Diners could look through clear plastic sides of the tent to the spotlit dogwoods and greenery on the outside lawn. Each of the Napa Valley vineyards supplying the wines had connections with South Africa.

A starter course of green and white asparagus from California served with morels and marinated lobster was followed by an apricot ginger glazed lamb and saffron pistachio couscous.

The dessert, called "the Pride of South Africa," consisted of pineapple and cherry sherbet in a pineapple shape, with fresh pineapple and cherries at the base. An edible white and chocolate ribbon wrap was decorated with images of safari animals.

Pianist Awadagin Pratt, the Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory of Music's first student to receive diplomas in piano, violin and conducting, entertained afterward, playing music by Rachmaninoff, which he said earlier he knew Mr. Mbeki was especially fond of.

"This was quite a popular dinner," White House Social Secretary Capricia Marshall noted in the afternoon. "There were a lot of requests that President and Mrs. Clinton granted."

An understatement, it would appear, given the eclectic mix of the night.

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