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Early soggy pomp gives way to opulent state dinner in Obama's South Korean charm offensive
WASHINGTON (AP) ' Hemlines were soaked and raindrops spattered tuxedos, but not even a thunderous downpour could dampen the excitement of guests flocking to perhaps the most exclusive social event on Washington's fall calendar: a White House state dinner for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
"I love the rain. They don't have rain in Arizona," said Dr. Peter Rhee, the trauma surgeon who treated Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head earlier this year.
"So much for the hair salon," said ABC News correspondent Juju Chang, holding up the floppy ends of her dark locks.
Even President Barack Obama took note of the soggy weather as he marveled at the intense day of diplomacy that took the South Korean leader from the White House to the Capitol and back again. "President Lee has had a very full day ' and a very wet day," Obama said.
A driving rain began just as guests started to arrive for Thursday's opulent East Room extravaganza, soaking many of the guests and their finery as they waited in line to come in from the storm.
Hemlines on many of the floor-length gowns were visibly wet. Raindrops dotted tuxedo sleeves and lapels. One sodden guest hid behind her husband and refused to look in the direction of reporters watching the guest arrivals.
Besides better weather, the dinner also lacked Hollywood star power. Billie Jean King, a tennis great from days of yore, was one of the biggest names among the 220-plus invited guests.
King said she'd spent the day reading up on the just-passed U.S. free-trade agreement with South Korea and was "just excited to be here and be a part of it and share." It was her first state dinner.
For the occasion, Obama deployed maximum culinary diplomacy to signal his high regard for Lee. An intimate dinner at a suburban Korean restaurant on Wednesday was followed Thursday by lunch on the State Department's fine china and the dinner at the White House.
Lee's state visit got off to a soggy start under umbrellas at a pared-down morning arrival ceremony on the South Lawn.
But inside the White House, rich fall colors and floral arrangements of mums and hydrangeas mixed with fresh apples gave the guests a warm welcome.
The meal incorporated vegetables and herbs from the White House garden. The menu: butternut squash bisque, a salad featuring daikon sheets and masago rice pearl crispies in a nod to Korean traditions, wagyu beef from Texas and chocolate cake served with a blend of Korean and American pears.
Korean elements punctuated the d cor too, including Korean knotting on the menu cards, deep red bamboo vases on some tables and chrysanthemums in the fall-hued floral arrangements. In Korea, bamboo represents integrity, and chrysanthemums are a sign of a productive and fruitful life, the White House said.
Mrs. Obama wore a striking purple, one-shouldered gown by Korean-born designer Doo-Ri Chung as she and the president welcomed Lee and his wife in the rain. The South Korean first lady, Kim Yoon-ok, wore a traditional hanbok in pink and white.
The entertainment lineup mixed East and West: The Ahn trio, sisters born in Seoul and reared in New York who play piano, violin and cello, performed with a high-energy fusion of jazz and classical sounds. Next up was Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Janelle Monae from Kansas City, Kan., who sings a blend of alternative, R&B and funk sounds.
The rain ' and a tornado watch ' didn't scare away anyone lucky enough to snag a ticket for Washington's most sought-after A-list event.
Also on the guest list? Ford CEO Alan Mullaly, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, who cut short a trade mission to ' where else? ' South Korea.
Obama has developed a special rapport with Lee: The two clicked during Obama's first trip to Asia in 2009, and the signs of friendship were manifold during his visit to Washington.
Obama and Lee shared a limo on the way to a Korean restaurant in a Virginia suburb for dinner Wednesday night.
Vice President Joe Biden got in on the charm offensive at a lunch of lemongrass sesame chicken in the State Department's opulent Ben Franklin Room. He took note of Lee's nickname "Bulldozer" and said Lee, slight of build, doesn't look anything like an NFL linebacker, but had earned his nickname by taking apart and reassembling a bulldozer to figure out how to make it work better.
Biden called that a testament to Lee's perseverance and patience in pursuit of practical solutions.
Obama picked up the theme in his dinner toast, saying of Lee: "There's a reason people call him the Bulldozer ' he is unstoppable."
Lee, for his part, spoke of what a "very close friend" Obama was, adding, "I'm a very, very honest guy, so what I say I really mean."
White House guest list: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/10/13/expected-attendees-tonight-s-state-dinner-president-korea-and-mrs-kim-yo
Darlene Superville can be reached at http://twitter.com/dsupervilleap . Nancy Benac can be reached at http://twitter.com/nbenac