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Obama gathers his A list for first state dinner

The guest list for Tuesday's gala remains a secret, but it should solidify who is considered a VIP in the Obama White House. The dinner honors India's prime minister.

November 23, 2009|By Katherine Skiba

Reporting from Washington — What's the hottest ticket in the nation's capital? An engraved invitation to Tuesday's White House state dinner, the first hosted by President Obama.

He and the first lady will honor India's prime minister. But in a departure from the traditional venue -- the elegant State Dining Room -- the Obamas will gather with a few hundred VIPs in a huge, heated tent on the South Lawn.

The guest list for the black-tie gala remains a closely guarded secret. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, will certainly be there.

Several notables are good bets, such as Oprah Winfrey and Chicago hotel billionaire Penny Pritzker, as are top Obama aides David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett and Rahm Emanuel.

Dee Dee Myers, who served as President Clinton's press secretary, said the lobbying by people seeking an invite had probably been relentless.

"The first [state dinner] is always the most dramatic," Myers said.

"First impressions are important. That's your A list, that's your top game right there. By the time you get to the eighth state dinner, it'll be a lot less important."

The gargantuan tent affords a bigger crowd than could fit in the State Dining Room, which holds 140.

State dinners generally draw administration officials and members of Congress, the Cabinet and the diplomatic corps. Obama donors and corporate titans, Hollywood glamour, athletic greats and leading artists are bound to be thrown into the mix, possibly joined by some academics and journalists.

And the morning after, hotheads left off the list are bound to let off steam.

"There's always a few angry calls," Myers said, "because people read the guest list" in the morning papers.

But until the dinner takes place, the heat is on, perhaps for no two people more than Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary, and Cristeta Comerford, the White House's top chef.

Myers was a guest at a few state dinners put on by Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is another guaranteed attendee Tuesday. As secretary of State, she hand-delivered the invitation to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July.

Tented parties for state dinners aren't entirely new. In President Clinton's final year in office, he had about 700 guests under a tent for an earlier Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee.

There are two views when a president takes guests into his sprawling backyard: The intimacy, history and formality of the State Dining Room is lost; but there is space for more guests, it isn't as stuffy and the president has more freedom in styling the party.

Myers said the Clintons heard some complaints about their tented affairs from critics who judged them "too Arkansas, too big and not exclusive enough."

kskiba@tribune.com

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