- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

President Obama’s first state dinner attracted a bevy of Hollywood A-listers, big-money fundraisers and Washington power brokers to fete Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh under a big top erected on the White House’s South Lawn to accommodate the larger-than-typical guest list.

Movie moguls Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg joined big money bundlers such as Penny Pritzker, Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign finance chairman, and media bigwigs Katie Couric of CBS News and Brian Williams of NBC News at the dinner for more than 300.

Click here to view a list of tonight’s White House guests.

As guests flooded to the tent, first lady Michelle Obama, wearing a sleeveless gown and shawl, and the tuxedo-clad president greeted Mr. Singh and Indias delegation at the North Portico.

In his dinner toast, Mr. Obama said, “We celebrate the great and growing partnership between the United States and India. Tonight under the stars, we celebrate the spirit that will sustain our partnership, the bonds of friendship between our people.”

Using his first official state visit to court good will with India, Mr. Obama met with the prime minister for two hours in the Oval Office earlier Tuesday, then showered praise on Mr. Singh for his leadership of the “world’s largest democracy.”

“The relationship between the United States and India will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,” Mr. Obama declared - twice - during a joint news conference. The shy prime minister smiled sheepishly and spoke softly as he returned the kind words.

In an effort to tamp Indias fears about Chinas budding relations with Washington and in a show of respect for Mr. Singh, the president and first lady opted to hold the lavish dinner not in the State Dining Room, which holds only 140 or so people, but outside in a barn-sized tent with clear panels that highlighted the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.

With Hollywood in the house, it wasn’t surprising that the night’s entertainment included two Oscar winners: singer Jennifer Hudson and Indian composer A.R. Rahman. The National Symphony Orchestra, with Marvin Hamlisch conducting, also performed.

Guests dined at tables for 10 with apple-green linens, part of a decor that the White House said “reflect the Obamas’ dedication to green and sustainable elements.” Deep purple flowers on the tables were meant to evoke the state bird of India, the peacock. Around the walls of the tent were arrangements of magnolia branches, which, the White House noted, “are locally grown and sustainably harvested.”

“After the dinner, the bouquets will be recycled and used throughout the White House,” the White House said in a five-page fact sheet.

Mr. Obama also appears to hold no grudge against his predecessor: The main dinner dishes came from the George W. Bush State China Service (service plates came from the Clinton and Eisenhower collections).

The dinner menu - crafted by Mrs. Obama, a guest chef, Marcus Samuelsson of New Yorks Aquavit and the White House chef - was selected to highlight the White House’s “commitment to serving fresh, sustainable and regional food.” Included in the meal were herbs grown in the White House Kitchen Garden.

Revelers dined on green curry prawns and caramelized salsify with smoked collard greens and coconut aged basmati, potato and eggplant salad, White House arugula with onion seed vinaigrette, roasted potato dumplings with tomato chutney, chickpeas and okra.

The wines at each course were all domestic, spanning from Napa Valley, Calif., to Monticello, Va. For dessert: pumpkin pie tart, pear tatin, whipped cream and caramel sauce and petit fours, including cashew brittle.

The invite list overflowed with the kind of people known elsewhere as “famous for Washington,” mainly administration officials and a bunch of lawmakers - at least Democrats.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana was the only Republican lawmaker to attend (several top Republicans didn’t rate an invitation; others who did declined). There were a few governors - including Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican; a former top Bush official (one-time Secretary of State Colin L. Powell); and plenty of Indian Americans.

Guests with ties to India included Mr. Jindal, author Deepak Chopra, director M. Night Shyamalan and CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, Mr. Obama’s original choice for the post of U.S. surgeon general.

In an oddly political preview of the state dinner that did not include any discussion on the menu, the wine selections or the actual dinner itself, Mrs. Obama told about 20 girls from the White House Leadership and Mentoring Program, sitting at two mock-up tables, about “building that future together.”

“And building that future is not just the job of any one country alone. No one country can do it by themselves. … And that’s why the president has worked so hard to begin what he calls a new era in our relations with the world and other countries,” Mrs. Obama said.

At the end of the preview, a reporter tried to ask a question - about the dinner - but the first lady’s staff shouted “no questions” - and the press was escorted from the State Dining Room.

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