President and Mrs. Obama welcomed China's President Hu Jintao to a glittery state dinner for 225 Wednesday night, with guests ranging from Wall Street titans to a human rights champion, to a pair of former presidents -- Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- and a clutch of entertainers and business leaders.
The event also featured an all-American dinner capped by apple pie and ice cream and the news flash from Obama that China will let Washington's National Zoo keep Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, its adorable loaner pandas, for another five years. After the toasts came a jazz concert.
Most guests arrived via a ground floor entrance and walked across the marble floor past a media scrum -- there was no red carpet, this being the White House, not the Golden Globes -- and it's not clear whether any of them noticed the dozens of protestors across Pennsylvania Avenue. The protestors spent much of the day demonstrating against China's crackdown on the religious group Falun Gong and against China's tough policies in Tibet.
Kenneth Roth, who heads Human Rights Watch, stopped to talk to reporters on his way to cocktails and addressed that very issue when he said, "I take it that was the reason I was invited, as a statement to President Hu. . . . These days the Chinese accept human rights as a topic of conversation. That is a step forward from the past."
This state dinner was the smallest of the three the Obamas have hosted -- there were more than 300 guests at the 2009 dinner for the Indian prime minister and some 260 honoring the Mexican president. This is also the first one held exclusively inside the White House, rather than under an enormous tent outdoors.
Guests were seated in three adjoining rooms, and although a state dinner invitation is, by definition, a hot ticket, best bragging rights arguably went to those in the State Dining Room. The Obamas and Hu -- who eschewed a tux for a dark business suit and necktie -- sat at a long rectangular head table for 20. Ten smaller round tables were arranged throughout the room. The rest of the guests were in the Red and Blue Rooms, which where equipped with large TV monitors so everyone could see and hear the toasts that came at the end of a long day of events dealing with trade and security.
The tables were covered in richly colored cloths -- teal, garnet or sable -- featuring a pheasant print that may have been meant to kill two birds with one stone: The pheasant is native to China, and was a favorite avian subject of American naturalist John James Audubon. Floral centerpieces of roses, hydrangeas, orchids and foliage toned down the gold service plates and flatware, some of it dating to the 1890s. The china came from the Reagan and Clinton presidencies.
At the request of the Chinese delegation, the menu was quintessentially American (think surf and turf) and for the first time at an Obama state dinner, White House chef Cristeta Comerford did not have to share her kitchen with a "guest" chef. The meal started with a pear, fennel, walnut and goat cheese salad, followed by poached Maine lobster with orange glazed carrots and black trumpet mushrooms, then a spot of lemon sorbet (the all-important palate cleanser) and proceeded on to dry, aged rib eye with buttermilk crisp onions, creamed spinach and double-stuffed potatoes. Dessert was that old standby, apple pie and ice cream.
As they have at previous celebrations, the Obamas used a professional party firm in addition to the White House staff. Rafinelli Events of Boston, which did the honors, is perhaps best known for staging Chelsea Clinton's knockout wedding in July.
And now, let's get down to the really important stuff: Who wore what, and who had clever repartee en route to pre-dinner cocktails.
Michelle Obama did not choose a gown by either Jason Wu (she wore one of his creations to the inaugural balls) or Vera Wang, two Chinese-Americans she has favored in the past. Instead she chose a long, deep red and black number with asymetrical shoulders, a tight bodice and draped skirt by Alexander McQueen, the bad-boy British designer who committed suicide last year.
The best-dressed man at the dinner, hands down, was martial arts movie mogul Jackie Chan, in a buttonless, open black jacket and high-collared white shirt with no tie. He carried a large camera to take groupie pix, and said he'd spent the morning hoping to hear some news about the American and Chinese film industries.
Wang wore, well, duh, Wang, a taupe and cream chiffon column; around her neck was a chunky stone collar of bronze-y bling (diamonds? crystals?). Barbra Streisand, who joked she'd been invited because "I worked in a Chinese restaurant," also claimed design credit for her ensemble: a long, dark pinstripe skirt with a high slit, a low-cut vest with giant sparkly buttons, a matching jacket and perhaps 200 carats of clear bling (diamonds? crystals?) around her throat.
Vogue Editor Anna Wintour -- who put the First Lady on the fashion mag cover -- sported an elegant knee-length white Chanel suit accented with geometric glitz. Conspicuously absent were her trademark sunglasses. Was there anything she wanted to know about Hu? "Will he invest his money in Chinese fashion?" she asked. We presume she was not referring to China's notorious knock-off clothing and counterfeit accessories factories.
Actor B.D. Wong of "Law & Order" was so thrilled to be at the White House he took cell-phone pictures of the media on his way in with his mother. Imagine his delight to discover he would be seated at the head table.
Perhaps it was an accident of timing, or maybe a minor global financial conspiracy, but Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase came in one after the other, with their wives on their arms. There were no shouted questions and no volunteered remarks.
Although the crowd was heavily Democratic there were some Republicans, including Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who brought her father rather than her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He was one of several lawmakers who declined the Obamas' invitation. So, too, did House Speaker John Boehner, who meets Thursday on Capitol Hill with Hu.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also declined, which is probably a good thing given that he called Hu a "dictator" on Tuesday during a radio show in Las Vegas, although House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi happily attended with husband Paul.
Then there was John Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to China who is widely rumored to be interested in running for the Republican presidential nomination. Asked about future plans on the way in, he said simply, "We are loyal to our country and our president."
But the State Dinner was about the moment, not the future. And so when dinner ended, guests filed into the East Room to hear such jazz greats as Herbie Hancock and Dee Dee Bridgewater and Chinese pianist Lang Lang. On a school night, Obama daughters Sasha and Malia were allowed to stay up late and come downstairs to catch the concert, for which they had the president of China to thank.