President Obama and First Lady Michelle host their first state dinner tonight, honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, in a showcase of the First Couple's taste and style. A reception begins at 7 p.m. local time in the East Room of the White House, with the dinner for 320 guests in a massive tent on the South Lawn starting at 8:15 p.m. C-SPAN goes live with dinner coverage at 9 p.m. In addition, C-SPAN.org
will live stream guest arrivals and the dinner toasts when they happen.
Unlike first ladies before her -- most recently Laura Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- Mrs. Obama will not hold a briefing with reporters and key players such as the chef, florist and social secretary to discuss dinner details. Instead, she is hosting a mentoring event for high school girls, which the press will be allowed to observe; Mrs. Obama will make some remarks and then hand it off to the White House curator and a protocol officer from the State Department.
Here's how the day will unfold:
At 9:15 a.m. the Obamas will greet the prime minister and Mrs. Kaur at an arrival ceremony to be streamed live at www.WhiteHouse.gov/live
. (On Tuesday morning, the White House announced that because of the rainy weather, the ceremony would be moved to the East Room of the White House.)
At 11:35 a.m. the president and prime minister will hold a joint press conference, which, if Obama is lucky, will not provide fodder for "Saturday Night Live." (The most recent show skewered him, using his Chinese press conference as the backdrop.)
But don't look for a lot of action from the U.S. or Indian press corps. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Monday the leaders will take only two questions -- one each from a U.S. and an Indian outlet.
At 2 p.m. the first lady tries to add some meat on the bone regarding her role as official hostess for the dinner. She has invited some of the girls in the mentoring program to the State Dining Room for a briefing on the history and protocol surrounding state and official visits.
There, reporters will see two tables featuring the place settings and china that will be used at the dinner. The menu will be released at that time, as well as the names of the entertainers for the evening and, I'm told, a host of other details.
Mrs. Obama will deliver remarks; she will be joined by White House Curator William Allman and Tanya Turner, protocol officer for the Visits Division of the State Department.
The much anticipated guest list will be released later in the day.
At 6:15 p.m., reporters will gather in what is called the White House "booksellers" area to watch the guests arrive.
At 7 p.m. the Obamas meet up with Singh and Mrs. Kaur at the North Portico of the White House and head to the dinner at 8:15 p.m. The event will be open to the press pool for the toasts and also streamed live at www.whitehouse.gov.
During the Monday press briefing, I asked Gibbs about the dinner, hoping for an answer that would explain to people why it's important to honor the leader of an important U.S. ally at a formal, potentially lavish, dinner.
Lynn Sweet: Robert, may I follow up on the question on the India State Dinner tomorrow night? I'm wondering if you could explain a little about the role of diplomatic entertaining in the Obama White House?
Robert Gibbs: I'm sorry, diplomatic . . . ?
Sweet: The role of this kind of diplomatic entertaining. People might wonder when they see a black-tie dinner . . . what the role of having a party like that is, given that some people might say there are two wars and a lot of joblessness going on in the country. Just explain why this happens and the way it will unfold.
Gibbs: Well, look, again, I think it's -- this is a very important relationship with a very important country that we have in the world. That's why India was chosen to be the first visit. I think that's why the White House wanted to have something as formal as this to discuss throughout this process the issues that we have bilaterally -- again, what I talked about in terms of --
Sweet: Talk about the party specifically, the 400 people –
Gibbs: I understand. Let me -- let me wind through my answer here -- the issues of, again, of counterterrorism, of the economy, of energy and climate change -- a lot of which we read about each day in the news and obviously will be topics throughout the conversations that are had between the president and the prime minister. Again, I think is a show of respect for the value that we put on that relationship. I think India is the world's largest democracy, and I think the relationship that we have with them and the issues that we're dealing with them are tremendously important going forward in our future.