When the Obamas host their first official state dinner for the Indian prime minister tonight at the White House, the evening will be soaked deep in history and tradition but will include a little Obama flavor, aides to the president said.
The Obamas kicked off the long day this morning by welcoming Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur, to the White House for the official visit.
In a tampered down arrival ceremony, moved from the South Lawn to the East Room because of rain, President Obama told the prime minister today that "it is fitting that you and India be so recognized.
"This visit reflects the high esteem in which I and the American people hold your wise leadership," Obama said. "It reflects the abiding bonds of respect and friendship between our people, including our friends in the Indian-American community who join us here today."
As the two nations work toward better futures, the president said, "India is indispensable," adding that the two leaders can unite to strengthen the economy, promote trade, combat climate change end extreme poverty, stop terrorism and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
As the world's largest democracies, the president added, the United States and India can "keep faith with our common values: speaking out and standing up for the rights and dignity to which all human beings are entitled, and showing that nations that respect the rights and aspirations of their people are ultimately more stable, more secure and more successful."
Obama noted that it was 60 years ago that President Truman welcomed to the White House the first prime minister of an independent India.
"While the decades that followed were not without their challenges, the spirit of that first visit is with us today; the same sense of possibility, the same hope for the future."
Singh said he brought to the United States the "friendly greetings of our 1 billion people of India," as he came to "broaden and deepen our strategic partnership."
The two leaders will spend the morning behind closed doors in a series of one-on-one and extended meetings with their broader delegations. A joint news conference will.
The Main Event
The main event, culminating the day's activities, will be the glitzy and glamorous state dinner in the evening.
Three-hundred-twenty guests were invited to the "black tie" event, the invitation reading simply:
"The President and Mrs. Obama request the pleasure of the company of Mr. _____ at a dinner in honor of His Excellency Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of the Republic of India, and Mrs. Gursharan Kaur, to be held at The White House on Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at seven o'clock."
A large white tent has been erected on the South Lawn of the White House to accommodate the many guests, which aides tout as a sign of the openness of the Obama administration. In years past, the dinner has been held in the East Room or the State Dining Room, which would allow for far fewer guests: The State Dining Room, for example, seats 120 people.
By opening the event to the lawn of the White House, the administration was able to expand the guest list. Such an arrangement is not common, but it has been done before. In 2000, President Bill Clinton invited nearly 700 people for a state dinner under a tent on the South Lawn honoring Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Among those lucky 320 invited to the Obamas' first formal fete are notable Indians from the United States and abroad, as well as the Indian delegation, members of Congress, many top-level administration staffers and a few of the Obamas' Chicago friends.
Actor-turned-White House staffer and Indian-American Kal Penn is also expected to attend.
The complete guest list, under lock and key until this afternoon, will be scrutinized later today for celebrity figures and big donors perhaps being repaid for campaign support by receiving the golden ticket.
An Inclusive White House
While many on the guest list no doubt will be Washington, D.C., elite the White House is also attempting to open up elements of the dinner to those who might otherwise not be able to soak in such White House tradition.
Seventeen high school girls got a special sneak preview of the White House state dinner arrangements this afternoon, shown by hostess first lady Michelle Obama.
As part of the White House Leadership and Mentoring Program, the first lady invited some of her mentees to the State Dining Room to sit at two tables outfitted for tonight's White House dinner on the South lawn.
Dressed casually, the girls filtered in and took their places at the tables, which were draped in apple green linen, set with White House china and adorned with the intricate purple flower settings.
"We've got a big day going on," Michelle Obama said. "This is our first official state visit of the Obama administration. It's very exciting for us."
The first lady said the joke -- midway through the official state visit with still much left to do, including the all-important state dinner on the horizon -- is that they feel like a "swan."
"We're kind of calm and serene above water -- but we're paddling like mad, going crazy underneath, trying to look smooth," she said.
Going over some of the behind-the-scenes preparation, she said it takes everyone at the White House, the State Department and the military office to put all of today's events together, She then ticked through all the things that were handled, "the guest list, the invitations, the place settings that you see here, you've got to figure out who sits where -- all that fun stuff."
Michelle Obama explained that even in a house as big as the White House, "there's only so many people that we can invite," so the girls were invited to the White House beforehand so they could see what will happen at the state dinner and so they could understand an event that feels to them "untouchable."
"The state visits and dinners are a really important part of our nation's diplomacy," she said. "Throughout history they've given U.S. presidents and the American people the opportunity to make important milestones in foreign relations. So these dinners and events are really critical to what we do internationally. And they've helped build stronger ties with nations as well as people around the world. That's what President Obama and Prime Minister Singh are doing today."
The first lady's office says this is her way of opening up the White House more, especially to young people, in hopes of inspiring them to reach their goals and perhaps be invited one day to a dinner of its stature themselves.
The First Lady's Fete
The first lady and her staff are in charge of planning the prestigious event, making decisions on the tiniest details. This includes the color of the table cloths, the china set, the flowers, the music, the silverware, the guest list, and the menu – among many other details.
The round tables, which seat 10 each, will be draped with apple-green linens. In honor of the state bird of India, the Indian peacock, deep purple flower arrangements sit in the middle of each table. The centerpieces, put together by new White House florist Laura Dowling and her team, are meant to evoke "the classic American garden," the first lady's office said. They are made of purple, plum and fuchsia hydrangea, garden roses, and sweet peas. On the walls of the large tent on the South Lawn will be arrangements of magnolia branches. In addition, locally grown ivy, and nandina foliage will be used to decorate the sides of the tent where guests will eat.
The first lady's office said that all bouquets from the dinner will be re-used through the White House, as a means to recycle the flowers.
The tables will be set with china, all from the White House's historic collection:
-- Service Plates: Eisenhower administration, 1955 New Castle, Pa., Castleton China. U.S. government purchase, 1955.
-- Service Plates: Clinton State China Service, 2000 Trenton, N.J., Lenox. Gift of the White House Historical Association, 2000, commissioned to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the White House.
-- Dinner Plates: George W. Bush State China Service 2008-2009 Kinston, N.C., Lenox, Inc. Gift of the White House Acquisition Trust, 2009.
The menu, created by guest chef Marcus Samuelsson and White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford, with the first lady, is respectful of the dietary concerns of the Indian prime minister, who is a vegetarian. It also puts an emphasis on healthy eating from the Obama White House. White House Pastry Chef William Yosses and his team created the desserts.
The first lady's office said the menu "reflects the best of American cuisine, continues this White House's commitment to serving fresh, sustainable and regional food, and honors the culinary excellence and flavors that are present in Indian cuisine."
Herbs and lettuce from the White House garden will be included in the meal. The honey used in the pears poached with honey are from the White House beehive. And the desserts will be garnished with mint and lemon verbena grown in the White House Kitchen Garden.
Here is the complete menu:
Potato and Eggplant Salad White House Arugula with Onion Seed Vinaigrette 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Modus Operandi, Napa Valley, California
Red Lentil Soup with Fresh Cheese 2006 Riesling, Brooks "Ara", Willamette Valley, Oregon
Roasted Potato Dumplings with Tomato Chutney Chick Peas and Okra or Green Curry Prawns with caramelized salsify with smoked Collard Greens and coconut aged basmati 2007 Granache Beckman Vineyards, Santa Ynez, California
Pumpkin pie tart Pear Tatin Whipped Cream and Caramel sauce Sparkling Chardonnay, Thibaut Janisson Brut, Monticello, Virginia
Petits fours and Coffee Cashew Brittle Pecan Pralines Passion fruit and vanilla Gelees Chocolate dipped fruit
Tonight's entertainment also includes elements from India as well as from the United States.
Kurt Elling, an eight-time Grammy nominee and American jazz vocalist and composer, will perform. Chicago-born Jennifer Hudson, winner of the third season of "American Idol" will sing. In addition, the guests will hear from the National Symphony Orchestra, with Marvin Hamlisch as the conductor, and the United States Marine Band.
A.R. Rahman, an Indian composer, musician and singer who wrote the "Slumdog Millionaire" score will also perform. Mrs. Obama began planning this event in early October when it was formally announced by the West Wing. Working closely with her social secretary, Desiree Rogers, the West Wing, the National Security Council and the State Department, she has attended to the many aspects of the event.
"Under the social secretary's eye all of the preparations will come together but ultimately at the end of the day it is the first lady and the president as well that will make the final decisions," Anita McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush, says.
The First Honor
The White House says that the formality of the dinner, the size, and the fact that India is the first to be honored with an official state dinner and visit are an indication of the importance placed within the administration on their relationship with the nation. India, with nearly 1.2 billion people, is the second-largest country next to China.
"This is a very important relationship with a very important country that we have in the world," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. "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."
The day's events provide plenty of time for the two leaders to discuss their most pressing bilateral concerns – and will serve as a working event as much as it is a ceremonial and celebratory affair. On the docket for today's discussions will be counterterrorism, the economy, energy, and climate change.
The traditional toast exchanged by the two leaders at the dinner will offer "an important platform" for the continuation of a dialogue that the two leaders started earlier in the day, the White House Historical Association says.
As the world's largest democracy, aides say the U.S. relationship with India is "tremendously important going forward," and that played into their decision to host this honor for India first.
Singh is no stranger to the pomp and circumstance of being honored with an official White House state dinner. In 2005 he was so honored by President Bush.