It's been almost one year since the election of President Obama, and nine months since he was sworn into office and the Obama White House is still marking a lot of firsts. November will bring the biggest social event yet for the administration -- a so-called state dinner honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, organized out of First Lady Michelle Obama's East Wing Social Office.
Why do I say so-called? Because Singh is not India's head of state. That title -- largely symbolic -- belongs to the president of India, Pratibha Devisingh Patil. When President Bush threw a very fancy dinner for Singh in 2005, the White House was careful not to call the event a state dinner -- it had the appearance of one but was billed as an "official dinner."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs used the term "state dinner" last week when he explained why India was selected for the honor. (He called India "an important ally" and noted that "we continue to . . . engage with the Indians to bring about peace in obviously an important part of the world.")
I checked with the East Wing to clarify if the Nov. 24 event was indeed going to be called a state dinner, and the guidance I got back was yes.
Well, no matter what its called, it's going to be a heck of a night. And though its just being announced, it's been in the works for some time.
President Clinton's first state dinner was thrown about a year and a half into his presidency, June 1994, for the Japanese emperor. Bush's first was after eight months in the White House, for Mexico.
"The first one is always so exciting for the administration," said former White House social secretary Amy Zantzinger, who served under former First Lady Laura Bush.
I talked with two folks who have helped run state dinners -- Zantzinger and Neel Lattimore, former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's press secretary -- to get a sense of what's in the works.
"A guest list and a menu has to go to the State Department and has to be approved by India to make sure there are no allergies to food to flowers," said Lattimore, who added that care must be taken to ensure that the flowers or colors used don't have an unintended meaning in the guest's culture. And "a great deal of research is done on entertainment [the honored guest] would enjoy," said Lattimore, who noted that a formal arrival ceremony must be is mapped down to the minute.
According to Zantzinger, "the first two things you think about are the guest list and the after-dinner entertainment." She said Mrs. Bush, who was "very involved" in selecting both, would have tasting dinners with friends in the private residence. She and Zantzinger would also discuss floral ideas with the head White House florist and eventually select from three choices of flowers and place settings.
Mrs. Bush preferred rather small, intimate state dinners and used the State Dining room, which seats about 132. President Clinton entertained the Japanese emperor in a tent on the South Lawn so more people could be invited.
Lattimore said in the Clinton White House, before final decisions were made, "we always did three table settings, three flower arrangements, three linens and up to three menus. . . . Mrs. Clinton would actually taste the food . . . over a period of several days."
Guest lists -- aside from the official delegation from the host country -- came from names suggested by the president and first lady, the State Department, National Security Council and the political and legislative affairs and liaison shops.
Was there a special formula in crafting the lists? "We always liked to have representation from the Supreme Court, members of Congress, senior staff, Cabinet secretaries that directly relate to the country . . . and a few members from the business community," Zantzinger said.
White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers faces a challenge in running a dinner for the same guest honored fairly recently -- at least in terms of official dinners.
The 2005 menu for Singh included chilled asparagus soup, Chappellet Chardonnay Napa Valley 2003, pan-roasted halibut, ginger-carrot butter, basmati rice with pistachios and currants, herbed summer vegetables, trio of celery hearts, leaves and roots, bibb lettuce salad and, for desert, mango, chocolate-cardamom and cashew ice creams.
The table arrangements were saffron silk tablecloths with sheer gold overlays, with Clinton china and Vermeil flatware. The flowers were trumpeting elephants made of green button mums, with floral blankets of Hot Lady roses. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band entertained.
Usually the honoree leaves before the guests. Said Lattimore, "I remember Nelson Mandela saying, 'Why can't I stay and dance?' "