The Salahi Effect? White House Hopes for Smoother State Dinner This Time

State Dinner for MexicoOfficial White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
A U.S. Army Herald Trumpets conductor directs the position of musicians, during the rehearsal for the upcoming State Arrival ceremony for Mexico, on the South Lawn of the White House, May 17, 2010.

In the shadow of last year's state dinner -- best known for the gate-crashing by socialites Tareq and Michaele Salahi -- the White House is hoping that today's state visit, honoring President Felipe Calderon of Mexico and his wife, will be free of distractions.

With a new social secretary, new security protocols and one state visit under its belt already, the Obama White House has expressed confidence that the day-long visit will run smoothly, culminating in a glamorous black-tie state dinner this evening.

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The spotlight today – the White House says – will be on the ties between two neighbors.

"We're two societies that are woven together by millions of family and friends, by common interests and a shared future," President Obama said at a Cinco de Mayo reception in the Rose Garden earlier this month. "It's the friendship and cooperation that we'll deepen when we host President Calderon and First Lady Margarita Zavala for their state visit and dinner."

State visits are events soaked deep in history and tradition. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will first welcome President Calderon and his wife in a formal and official welcome ceremony on the South Lawn. Last year's welcome ceremony was moved inside to the East Room due to weather, so this will be the first of the Obama administration.

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The grandiose welcome was rehearsed on Monday at the White House, a U.S. Army Herald Trumpets conductor seen directing the position of the musicians for the arrival music.

After meeting bilaterally and then with their delegations, Obama and Calderon will emerge in the Rose Garden to answer questions from the press. Calderon will attend a lunch at the State Dinner and then sit down for more meetings at the White House and State Department.

In the afternoon the two First Ladies will travel together to The New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland for one of Mrs. Obama's "Let's Move!" events, focusing on combating childhood obesity.

The evening will bring the main event – with all the glitz and glamour that most state visits are known for. It is a black-tie dinner, where both couples, as well as roughly 200 invited guests, will don their best. The president will greet the Calderon and his wife on the North Portico and then host the state dinner in the East Room.

Mr. Obama will make the traditional toast, and President Calderon will return with his own. Following dinner the group – and likely some additional guests – will attend performances in a large tent set up on the South Lawn of the White House.

Menu, Guest List Under Lock and Key

Many of the behind-the-scenes preparations and details for tonight's state dinner have been kept under proverbial lock-and-key by the First Lady's office. Her staff has been planning the fete for months.

The First Lady's office confirms that the Obamas will be flying in one of their favorite chefs from their hometown of Chicago -- Rick Bayless, celebrity-chef of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo.

The Obamas were regular customers at Bayless' restaurants when they lived in Chicago, last dining at Topolobambo with friends in November of 2008, shortly after winning the election.

Bayless, winner of America's Top Chef Masters, will be teaming up with White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford to create a Mexican menu that will, in his words, create "aromas in that kitchen that have never been there before."

In an interview with NPR this week Bayless said he'll be cooking up some mole and ceviche, in addition to many other delicacies on the otherwise secret menu.

"Obviously most people in the United States think -- still think of Mexican food so much in terms of the simple street foods like tacos and such," Bayless told NPR, "And I certainly wanted to feature something that I consider to be Mexico's greatest dish. So, yes, I'm going to be making a mole and I think it's got 27, 28 different ingredients in it. "

Vegetables grown in the First Lady's White House garden will be used for the dishes.

The ambiance, as at most state dinners, will be grandiose, weaving in elements of the host's country as well as the guest-of-honor's country, usually with a special touch to the First Lady's liking.

Large white tents were constructed on the South Lawn of the White House as early as last week, to build the ornate structure that will host hundreds for the late-night musical performances under the stars, and in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

The guest list this year may be one of the most secretive details, promised to be released before only moments before tonight's dinner arrivals. Like most state dinners, it will combine politicians – members of the administration and Congress, as well as from the Mexican delegation and leaders in the Hispanic-American community, along with a few celebrities as well.

Among the rumored attendees are prominent Mexican-American actresses Salma Hayek and Eva Longoria Parker.

The Salahi Effect

Two names likely not on the guest list this year: Tareq and Michaele Salahi.

The main event, the black-tie state dinner in the East Room of the White House might bring some nostalgic uneasiness among those in the White House, as this is where the breakdown in security led the Salahis, as well as a third gate-crasher, Carlos Allen, to enter the White House without being on the guest list at the last state dinner.

The White House this week expressed confidence that all procedures have been corrected to ensure there will not be a repeat of that security problem, and no one not already on the highly-coveted invite list will enter the event this time.

"I'm not going to elaborate on increased security procedures," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said earlier this week. "That would invite people to try to figure out how to evade them."

Yet Gibbs added later that it is his understanding that there will be a representative from the social secretary's office at the gate checking names this time alongside Secret Service.

Last year the three guests were let in to the White House grounds by Secret Service even though their names were not on the official guest list and no representative from the social secretary's office was at the entrance points.

Criticism fell on then-White House social secretary Desiree Rogers's staff. Rogers resigned in February,and has been replaced by Julianna Smoot.

Por Que Mexico?

Today's state visit comes at an opportune moment for both the United States and Mexico, the White House says.

"There is no more important relationship for the United States than our relationship with our neighbor, and it's also that there's no more complex relationship in the world to the United State," a senior administration official says, " And the partnership the US and Mexico has formed is based on shared values on mutual respect and mutual responsibilities"

On the table for discussion, senior administration officials said: economic competitiveness, clean energy cooperation, the safety and security of both countries, efforts to address the drug war, and cooperation on hemispheric and global issues – from Honduras to Haiti, Iran and the upcoming G-20 meetings next month in Toronto.

"The United States has a major stake in Mexico's economic recovery and in the success of President Calderon's efforts against the drug cartels," Peter DeShazo, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. says. "Mexico is the second-largest source of imported oil for the United States and the third-largest U.S. trade partner. The bilateral relationship is complex and multifaceted, going well beyond the important variables related to border management."

President Calderon will likely raise the issue of the denial of access by Mexican trucks into the United States, which is in violation of the NAFTA agreement, looking for change in the US stance on the issue.

During his visit to Mexico in April of last year, President Obama stood beside President Calderon and promised that he would seek the ratification of the inter-American treaty known as CIFTA to curb small arms trafficking that is a source of so many of the weapons used in the drug war.

The Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and other Related Items -- best known by its Spanish acronym CIFTA -- was adopted by the Organization of American States 12 years ago, in 1997. President Clinton sent it to the Senate the following year, and CIFTA hasn't been heard from since.

The treaty makes the unauthorized manufacture and exporting of firearms illegal and calls for nations in this hemisphere to establish a process for information-sharing among different countries' law enforcement divisions to stop the smuggling of arms, to adopt strict licensing requirements, and to make firearms easier to trace. Despite President Obama's promise, this has not been done yet.

"The president will confirm his commitment to work with the Calderon government and with Congress to address the legitimate concerns that exist regarding the Mexican trucking program while also abiding by our international obligations," a senior administration official says, "It is an important issue. We recognize its importance to President Calderon and to the relationship."

The two leaders will discuss the controversial issue of immigration, recently thrust back into the spotlight with the passage of Arizona's immigration law last month.

The Arizona law as written states that "For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person."

Both men have been outspoken in their opposition to this law.

Calderon has said it is opening the door, "to intolerance, hate, discrimination and abuse and law enforcement."

Mr. Obama recently has recently said this law was "poorly conceived" and "not the right way to go."

"We understand that this is an issue that has resonated in Mexico, is of deep concern for the Mexican government, and again underscores the importance that the president has said in dealing with that frustrating on the United States, fixing our broken immigration system, and moving forward on comprehensive immigration reform," the administration official said.

But like many state visits, the takeaway of the day may be more a reaffirmation of the countries relationship rather than anything tangible.

"I wouldn't expect that there would be any startling announcements of any major new projects or programs, but that's not necessarily to be expected. What's important is reaffirming the need to work cooperatively on issues that are of importance to both countries," DeShazo said.

"It's a statement about the centrality of the bilateral relationship, which is good."

This will be the fourth time the two Presidents are meeting bilaterally, since President Obama was selected, and the 11th time overall – as they have seen each other at numerous international summits over the course of the past year and a half.