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White House state dinner for British PM mixes election-year celebrity power, political money
WASHINGTON (AP) ' Wednesday's giant state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife' the biggest ever thrown by Barack and Michelle Obama ' dished up a potent mix of celebrity glam, corporate heft and political money under a giant tent on the South Lawn. It is an election year, after all.
The entertainment lineup also included a little something special for both couples: The Obamas are big admirers of Grammy-winner John Legend, and David and Samantha Cameron are huge fans of Mumford & Sons, a British folk rock band also performing.
Obama, for his part, also is a big fan of "Homeland" actor Damian Lewis, who said on his way into the huge party tent that he planned to ask the president how he ever finds time to watch TV.
Among the 360 people who scored golden tickets to the dinner were actor George Clooney, billionaire Warren Buffett, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, businessman Richard Branson, Apple's Jony Ive, fashion's Anna Wintour and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the latter two big fundraisers for Obama.
Others who made the list: Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, both of "Downton Abbey" fame, and Rory McIlroy, the new world No. 1 golfer. In advance of the big night, the 22-year-old from Northern Ireland was so excited he tweeted a photo of himself being fitted for his dinner suit.
One anticipated guest ' at least by the Camerons ' was just not to be, a possible mix-up caused by what George Bernard Shaw called two nations separated by a common language.
David Cameron revealed at a luncheon that his wife was thrilled to learn that her favorite movie star was coming.
"I said, 'Is it Ben Kingsley from 'Gandhi' or Peter O'Toole from 'Lawrence of Arabia?'" Cameron said.
"No, it's Chevy Chase from 'Caddyshack,'" Cameron said his wife had told him.
But it turned out the only Chevy Chase on the invitation list was the Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Md. ' the home address of one invitee.
Apparently, a memo went out that blues were the color of the night. Both first ladies and a healthy share of their guests turned up in the color.
Mrs. Obama wore Marchesa, to the delight of Weinstein and his wife, Georgina Chapman, the designer of the first lady's gown. Both pronounced themselves surprised when reporters told them what the first lady was wearing.
"I'm knocked out," Weinstein enthused.
Obama gave the Camerons a sartorial thumbs-up as they arrived, declaring, "They look better than us."
After passing through the White house, guests had the option of walking or taking a trolley to the tent on the South Lawn. And this was no ordinary party tent: The giant structure featured a 150-foot-wide glass wall overlooking the White House grounds.
The entire menu was a U.K.-U.S. blend, featuring bison Wellington, using buffalo tenderloin from North Dakota instead of beef. It also included crisped halibut served on braised baby kale from the White House garden. The salad greens, too, came from the White House backyard.
During an afternoon preview event, Mrs. Obama told schoolgirls from the U.S. and the U.K. that the dinner emerges from a "little-bitty kitchen," but that the chefs would have a little extra elbow room Wednesday with the dinner taking place outside.
One tidbit that didn't appear on the extremely detailed menu: the specifics of the "American wine" selections. Without explanation, the White House stopped listing the wines after catching criticism for serving some pricey bottles at earlier state dinners.
Executive chef Cristeta Comerford told the schoolgirls that the garden was a big inspiration for the evening's menu.
"It just came from the backyard, which is kind of cool," she said.
It was one more way to find common ground with the Camerons, who have their own vegetable patch at the official 10 Downing St. residence.
The meal was all about fostering that oft-spoken-of "special relationship" between the U.S. and Britain. And so while the prime minister is not a head of state, making this an "official visit" rather than a "state visit" by the Camerons, the Obamas nonetheless chose to call it a "state dinner," with all of the attendant ceremony and pomp.
Evidence of the effort to bolster the friendship was everywhere, even in the Obamas' and the Camerons' gifts to one another.
The Camerons received a wood and charcoal burning grill engraved with American and British friendship flags, along with his-and-her White House chef jackets embroidered with their names. The gifts were inspired by the Obamas' May 2011 visit to London, when the two couples grilled burgers for American and British members of the military.
The Camerons, in turn, presented the Obamas with a pingpong table, a reminder that the president and prime minister played table tennis with some schoolboys during the Obamas' visit to London. Cameron joked during the luncheon that he and Obama had chosen the wrong gifts for one another, noting that the president is in much better shape.
"I gave him a table tennis table and he gave me a barbecue, but when you see us standing next to each other, it's quite clear that the person who needs the exercise is the British prime minister and the person who needs the barbecue is the president," Cameron said.
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