Reliable Source: Post-State Dinner analysis and gossip

Jan 20, 2011

Join the Reliable Source's Amy Argetsinger and politics and government reporter Nia-Malika Henderson as they discuss the happenings of Wednesday night's State Dinner.

Fashion at the White House state dinner for China

I'm to take your questions about last night's state dinner.  It's my first chat so be gentle! 

Good morning, and thanks for joining us. I'm lucky to have Nia-Malika Henderson with me today since she, unlike me, actually went to the White House last night (while I did Cinderella duty back here at the office). Her co-author from last night, Roxanne, is traveling today. Looking forward to your questions.

I was surprised to see several guests from the world of fashion on the list, particularly Anna Wintour, since her reputed lack of interpersonal skills would suggest she's not exactly suited for diplomacy. But speaking of fashion, the first lady looked stunning, as usual. Perhaps they were there to see her.

Anna Wintour was actually quite nice last night.  Some expected that she would breeze by the press in giant sunglasses and not say a word but she was quite gracious....And Vera Wang was also very gracious, in her Vera Wang dress and jewelry...Wintour wore Chanel, and said she wanted to talk about the fashion industry with Hu.  No word on whether she got that chance...

What's the deal with the short dresses? Isn't a long dress to be worn to a formal occasion? Michelle Kwan looked beautiful but dressed for the Golden Globes rather than a formal dinner at the Whte House. And shame on you Anna Wintour.

Michelle Kwan's dress has turned out to be the talker of the night on the fashion front. What do you all think -- the right choice for the night? Link to a photo to follow.

Why did Chinese President Hu not wear black tie?

You know... we don't know the answer to this one.

I noticed that a lot of the women were wearing gowns without sleeves and/or knee-length dresses: aren't they freezing (as someone who is wearing a coat inside my office.....)? Is the thermostat at the White House set at 80!? Thanks.

Good question on the White House thermostat.  If you're standing near a window, the White House can be a bit drafty!  So maybe Michelle Kwan was a little cold last night but she certainly looked stunning....

Fashion at the White House state dinner for China

Just how big of a social and political faux pas was it for Speaker Boehner to say no to the state dinner? What's the buzz about Exactly why he did it? To appear 'tough'? I'd say he just appeared small and petty.

It's worth noting that Harry Reid also turned down the state dinner. Whether it's a faux pas that counts against him long-term -- well, I think these guys are good at assessing the pros and cons of accepting a dinner invitation. It's worth noting that the last time Boehner accepted a state dinner invitation was during the Bush White House. At the same time, I think many politicians have made the calcluated decision now and then (Barack Obama included) that there's no upside with constituents to be photographed at a black-tie or white-tie affair.

Why didn't Mrs. Hu come with her husband this time?

Sorry, we don't know why he was wife-less or black-tie-less.

What could guests like Barbra Steisand, who thought she was there because she had worked in a Chinese restaurant, Anna Wintour and other "celebs""do to help China and U.S. relations - except add to the debt we owe the Chinese? What is the breakdown taxpayers paid for their drinks, dinner and entertainment? Very few should have participated in this costly scam and I have more respect for Speaker Boehner because of the leadership he has shown in not attending.

thanks for your question on why china and how celebs or anyone helps us/china relations.  while this was a very glamorous event (cost unknown, but no more or less expensive than state dinners from previous administrations), it really was all about the economy. not only is china our lender, but they have a huge market that the us wants to tap into.  so that's what jackie chan said he wanted to talk about opening up china's movie industry and wintour wanted to talk about opening up their fashion industry.  a more open china means more jobs and manufacturing for the U.S. and more exports...


Good morning Amy! Thanks for taking my question. Who, in your opinion, had most outrageous or out of place outfit? Barbara Streisand from article I read this morning sounds like her outfit was kind of out of place.

It looked to me that Barbara Streisand was wearing the kind of unextraodinary basic-black ensemble that she often wears. Much more buzz about Michelle Kwan and Anna Wintour's short dresses, which some people didn't think were formal enough. 

Which state rooms were used for the dinner last night?

the state dinner was in the red room, blue room and state dining room (the head table, with obama and hu was in the state dining room)...225 guests...they packed a lot of people in each room...

I was struck how arriving couples divided into: agreeable pairs that proceeded at a common pace, often with the wife (in trickier shoes, in a gown) setting the tempo, vs. pairs where one of the two apparently can't even spare a few seconds but just has to hustle the other one along. Usually it's the man racing off (I'm looking at you, Thomas Friedman), but each gender seemed to have its hurriers. Are these people trying to catch a bus or something? Special exception: B.D. Wong with mom. She wanted to head in, but they were both so happy it was cute. Some of the other couples could review the Wong video for future pointers!

B.D. Wong was a great hit last night because he was clearly so happy to be there.  As was his mom.  He stopped and chatted with the reporters and wanted to take it all in.  And ended up at the head table with Hu and Obama, the Clintons and the Carters...

I guess the White House state dinner for PRC President Hu Jintao was less entertaining for the media than the previous event for Indian Prime Minister Singh, evidently without any unexpected guests this time. What steps can you tell us the White House took to prevent any copycats from pulling the same type of publicity stunt? I am also curious about Michelle Kwan. From the Post photo she looked gorgeous in her gold color evening dress. Was she accompanied to the event? Aside from her ethnicity is there some particular reason she was on the exclusive invite list?

Michelle Kwan came to the dinner unaccompanied. It's pretty typical, if you study any state dinner list, to invite Americans of great accomplishment who have roots in the country being honored -- thus, B.D. Wong, Vera Wang, Maya Lin, Elaine Chao, Lang Lang, etc.

So when they come up with the guest list for these affairs, do they just round up the usual suspects? It seems that they just invite anyone that used to be famous who also happens to have the same ethnicity as the guest (see Kwan, Michelle)

The guest list is not an easy thing to get on, nor is it easy to put together.  It's an administration wide affair in many ways and the state department, east and west wings all have a say.  yes, with state dinners there is always a nod to the country and prominent Americans associated with that country are invited.  But this dinner was also all about business so there were lots of business folks, CEOS, who had met earlier with Hu and Obama...

Is the White House using new acrylic chairs (some used in the Red Room) for extra seating?

The chairs were a design touch that were a surprise to most of us.  Reporters went in early for a preview and they were still in the middle of setting up...the cushions (orange and blue) were still in the was a very modern touch to the evening I thought...

I was channel surfing last night and landed for a second on P/S and guess who was on? Like cockroaches, that can survive nuclear war and reality TV shows, they turned up as analysts. I quickly clicked my remote as my only way to protest this disaster to humankind , but now I am curious about what they said, and refuse to lower myself to watch the video I saw that the Daily Beast has up. So, first, can you tell me what they said, and second , can we start a protest group to save poor Ms. Parker from Spitzer and and further embarrassing guests? Just FYI, I disagree with Ms. Parker's POV most of the time, but out of love for a sister, we gotta save her..

No, please don't watch. I watched, and the entire experience was humiliating for everyone involved. Even the Salahis. They postured as experts on state dinners, and assessed the wines served at the dinner.... There was just nothing there. Just nothing. Instead of watching the CNN video clip, please see Bill Hader's take-off on "Parker Spitzer" from SNL last weekend. (Link to follow)

I agree that any short dress at a White House state dinner is a no-no. My burning question is: what was on the menu? Please publish this list of succulent state secrets.

D’Anjou Pear Salad with Farmstead Goat Cheese
Fennel, Black Walnuts, and White Balsamic

Poached Maine Lobster
Orange Glazed Carrots and Black Trumpet Mushrooms
Dumol Chardonnay “Russian River” 2008

Lemon Sorbet
Dry Aged Rib Eye with Buttermilk Crisp Onions
Double Stuffed Potatoes and Creamed Spinach
Quilceda Creek Cabernet “Columbia Valley” 2005

Old Fashioned Apple Pie with
Vanilla Ice Cream
Poet’s Leap Riesling “Botrytis” 2008

Anna Wintour! Really? Why?

Yes, Anna Wintour!  She is probably the most important figure in the fashion world--a huge, huge, huge, billion dollar industry.  So as the U.S. tries to increase exports and sell goods to China, why not have Anna Wintour there representing and speaking about that billion dollar industry?

stunning and attention grabbing without drifting into January-Jones-At-The-Globes territory! I loved it, it was a semi-risky choice that really paid off. Considering her relative youth for a state dinner and her great body, I say, rock that knee length gold dress, Michelle!

Thanks for your vote. More commentary to follow...

I liked the First Lady's dress-- I think she always looks classy, but unique. That whole Oscar de La Renta look is so last decade. Most of the guests that I saw(C-span) seemed dowdy. Were there any standouts? What was up with Wintour wearing a suit, even if it was Chanel? Was she trying to make a statement that she is on such a different plane than other mortals that she can wear what most would deem inappropriate for the ocassion, or was she just trying to get attention?

You are asking us to read the mind of Anna Wintour?

If you can't be bothered to wear a formal gown to a White House State Dinner... like Seth Myers says on SNL--- REALLY! I mean REALLY! REALLY!

Short dresses were everywhere last night.  But none of the women wore pants--Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm caused a bit of stir when she wore pants to the India state dinner in 2009.  But I will say, the women in the short dresses seemed to be able to get around a little easier in their dresses, even if they may have been a little cold...yes, it is a formal dinner but didn't Michelle Kwan look great in her short number?

Mr. Ambassador may be a great fellow, but he unforgivably blocked your photographer's shot of his wife's Chinese-themed dress -- at least per your slideshow! Is there anywhere we can see what she wore?

Poking around, but I can't find a better visual of Mary Kaye Huntsman's dress. Sorry!

Do you have details of the Tuesday evening dinner at the White House? It would be interesting to know what was served. What a good idea to have the secretary of state at a smaller gathering!

Don't know a whole lot, other than that it's very rare for a visiting head of state to get that kind of small private gathering before a state dinner.

Because Michelle Kwan's dress was smokin'! Anyone who can look that hot in a dress gets to wear it wherever she wants, in my (male) opinion.

More thoughts...

but her dress was totally inappropriate for a State Dinner. So was Anna's suit. She of all people should know what to wear to a black-tie event.

More thoughts...

Of the people who walked by the press, who were the friendliest -- the most willing to stop and chat with the working press as they made their way into the dinner? Or did nobody stop and chat?

Henry Kissenger wanted nothing to do with the press and just breezed by...Governor Chris Christie was chatty, as was Sen. Kerry,  Jackie Chan, Anna Wintour, all chatty.  Barbra Striesand, chatty too but it was hard to hear her answers to the questions.  We asked that she come a little closer so we could talk to her and she looked at us with a "why would i want to do that" expression and backed up...but she did chat...

I understand the discussion about Michelle Kwan and Anna Wintour (whoever that is), but why not James Clyburn? It looks like his tie is technically black, though it is far from the tradiitonal Black-Tie uniform. It looks like he just came from the office or a Capitol Hill cocktail party, unlike BD Wong and Chris Christie -- who looked great and obviously put some effort into it.

Well, you have to admit -- Rep. Clyburn does look like he's appropriately dressed for dinner with Anna Wintour.  Anyway, thanks for highlighting the gentlemen's attire -- we'd sort of lost sight of that half of the guest list.

and no sleeves...but no stockings! what are they thinking!? For a formal dinner!

I have noticed that at many affairs in Washington (including the annual White House party), many women (including me), don't wear stockings.  And as an aside, the First Lady is not a fan of stockings, but she did have on tights yesterday morning in the dress she greeted Hu in (black dress by a Serbian designer)...

The official program for the Chinese state dinner at the White House (menu, music, notes)

Any information on whether the security has been raised to assure the world that we won't be stuck with Salahi-like folks and their attempts at 15 minutes of fame after crashing a dinner?

The security has definitely been raised in the wake of the Indian state dinner/Salahi fiasco.  Lists are doublechecked at checkpoints, and there is someone manning the stations at different checkpoints.  They very much want to avoid another Salahi like event...

Anyone there that shouldn't have been? Richard Gere perhaps? Someone from RHW: DC, Season 2? Snooki?

No Snooki spottings last night at the dinner!  Any thoughts on what she might have worn had she been there?  Short, long, stockings, no stockings? 

One of the ladies (wife of someone with a walking chair type thing) looked like she was wearing pants, and a floating type jacket that was floor length. I think it was red?

That was Maggie Daley, wife of the mayor of Chicago. Yes, indeed, careful study of photos from several angles suggest she was wearing black pants under a sort of long skirted cape. (My vocabulary falls short. Is it obvious you're not dealing with a fashion writer here today?)

Did she enter with her husband or first by herself then her hubby joined her. They didnt seem to connected at all

They walked out together, Nia says, but -- well, she's Willow Bay! She knows the photographers want to get a photo of her and her dress, unencumbered by that CEO guy on her arm.

Since when have husbands and wives been seated at the same table? Especially when they are the hosts? It makes them look like amateurs.

I wish Roxanne were here, since she's got the historic knowledge on this. It's my recollection that when the White House seated couples together at the first Obama state dinner, there were some raised eyebrows and suggestions that this was a break from tradition.

I never would have thought Elliot Spitzer would have lasted longer than the bar at the Mayflower. Sad.


Photos and videos of President Obama's toast show him holding something that looks like water. Tell me it's really wine, please. I think water is right up there with Mountain Dew as a celebratory beverage.

I do not have an immediate answer for you on this. I recall that he toasted the Indian prime minister with water in 2009, which was in deference to Indian tradition... 

Had a beautiful dress. She looked great.

Thanks for your vote.

Is there a cultural or protocol reason for the president using 'they' instead of 'we' in his toast:  "May they grow together in friendship May they prosper together in peace. And may they realize their dream of the future for themselves, for their children and for their grandchildren." Because it seems to reinforce the notion that he is distanced/disconnected from 'we the people' when I read those words, i.e. keeping folks in both China and the U.S. at a distance, cerebral and abstract once again. What's your take on this? Is this a typical toast using 'they' instead of 'we'? What form have other toasts taken, both by Obama and by previous presidents? THANKS! keep up the great, informative (and entertaining) work!

good question on Obama's toast.  Obama began the toast part by talking about a Chinese proverb that says "if you want one year of prosperity, then grow graing...if you want 100 years of prosperity, then you grow people."  from there he said "to our people"....the citizens of china and the U.S....and then "may they grow together"...i write all this to say that within the context of the speech it didn't seem disconnected or distant or cerbral last night...

Did the White House use a guest chef last night? The dinner menu was beautifully All America ...the way it should be!

Unlike the past two state dinners, there was no guest chef last night -- it was a Cristeta Comerford production.

Michelle has been working as an unpaid "Public Diplomacy Envoy" for the State Department for several years now, it started when she met Condi Rice at a previous event. She is in her last semester of a master's degree program in International Relations as well.

Yes, thanks for noting.

I have to say I didn't get her look. It looked like some red fabric was growing up and out of her outfit to strangle her. Don't these guys have stylists? Oh, I forgot, it is called Hollywood for ugly people for a reason.

Please, everyone, let's retire that terrible "Hollywood for ugly people" cliche. (We traced that lazy line back to its roots last month -- link to follow.) I don't think that many people outside of Hollywood have stylists... and judging from public reaction to some of the Golden Globe choices, we're all beginning to wonder what good stylists do anyway.

I'm so tired of people getting on their high horses about state dinners. Nation to nation diplomacy has involved "state dinners" since ancient times. It is a critical part of international diplomacy. It is and always has been part of the cost of doing business as a nation - not just for us but for every nation. And before complaining about the cost, consider the amount of money it put back into the economy. Everyone there spent some amount of money on clothes, jewelry, hair, makeup, manicures, travel, staying in hotels, etc., etc. All of that in addition to the food and flowers purchased by the White House, the pay to additional wait staff and security, the money that went to taxies and limo drivers etc.,  etc., put far more money back into the economy and money into the pockets of people like you or me than the outlay by the WH and State Department.

State dinners are very much part and parcel of U.S. diplomacy.  Some Presidents really like the pomp and circumstane and the chance to gather in a formal way (Reagan, Clinton) and other Presidents (George W. Bush) don't like them so much.  So far, President Obama has had three state dinners.  The first (India) got lots of scrutiny because everyone wanted to see how this White House put on a formal affair (and then with the security issues, scrutiny was really intense.)  But the importance of the Chinese state dinner and the conversations about human rights and foreign affairs (North Korea, Iran, Sudan) can't be understated.  China has a huge strategic role in almost every aspect of America's economy and foreign policy and the dinner is not only a way to honor and recognize that, but a way to firm up a growing partnership....

Not to sound like a Personality Parade question, but he is awesome. What has he been doing since Oz was canceled.

Apparently he's been starring on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" for a decade now.

If I print up the official program, I can use that as proof that I was actually invited, right?

Yes, you know the trick!

Who says Washington is Hollywood for ugly people? : We trace a cliche back to its origins

Is it true that Michelle's studying at U/Denver to become a diplomat (in the steps of Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice)?

No, she's at Tufts. (According to Wikipedia, anyway.)

Perhaps she was invited in part because as someone who's recorded dozens of albums she's concerned about the flagrant piracy of artistic works in China.

From what I'm told, she was invited because Hu Jintao is a major fan.

Let's face it: A lot of what these guest lists are about is impressing the guest of honor. Some people get all worked up about whether a particular guest *deserves* to be invited. But I suspect a big part of the dynamic when it comes to inviting celebrities to these things is so that the head of state will go home thinking, "Wow, that was COOL!" You know -- more fun than sitting with a bunch of worthy businessfolk and policy types.

I just love the way some posters hyperventilate about Boehner not attending but conveniently ignore that Reid -- who belongs to the president's own party -- also declined the invitation. Reid, in fact, embarrassed the president by calling Hu a "dictator" thus adding a very political spin to his non-attendance, which Boehner did not do. As for the ladies' dresses, Michelle Kwan's dress was an absolute delight to behold, no matter what its length. I preferred it to Michelle Obama's dress, which looked a little bit too busy and whose red seemed muddied by orange undertones (although that might have been lighting).

Boehner did decline the invite, and Reid, also not there last night.  Pelosi, who has also criticized China on human rights issues, was there.  One school of thought on this is that Boehner, now Speaker Boehner, now has more of an obligation to go to such events than before, but as you point out, Reid also not there. But I think it's fair to say, the decision to attend or not attend, definitely makes some sort of statement, political or otherwise.

Why was she invited? Not that I have anything against her, but...

She is the wife of Disney president/CEO Bob Iger. And if you looked at the guest list, it was very heavy on big-business types. The whole China thing is all about business.

Surf 'n' Turf with Double Stuffed Potatoes and Creamed Spinach. That's so '60s, and not in a good way. Why???

Come on -- doesn't it sound delicious? At this hour?

She did get her undergrad degree at University of Denver before heading to Tufts.

Okay, thanks for reading the bio more closely than I did. I thought the previous question was about her current academic studies...

Are special vegetarian entrees available for state dinner guests who don't eat meat? What's served for toasts to those who don't drink alcohol?

Yes, you can get a vegetarian entree if you wish; and there's always water... Or I imagine you can request some other beverage. It's a pretty civilized place that way.

I thought white tie and tails were de rigueur for state dinners.

I have been to two state dinners (if Roxanne were here she could really speak to this), but it seems to me that now the idea of "black tie" is open to interpretation in a way that it wasn't years ago and that men sometimes wear ties, tuxes, and sometimes the women wear long dresses, short, sleeveless...but the rules don't apply as easily as they once did.  Though if women wear pants, people still do question that but I bet in a few years, that'll be standard too...


That Quilceda Creek Cabernet 'Columbia Valley' 2005 is one nice wine.. I just googled it thinking I'd treat myself $$$. Wish I could have had some :)

I'm sure they're hoping Hu Jintao went home and Googled Quilceda Creek Cabernet 'Columbia Valley' 2005, too, so that between that and the Streisand meeting, he's feeling pretty good about the U.S. right now.

I'm not sold. Bring back Simon, Kara and Ellen.

Or Simon and two other people TBA. This show is going to lose altitude rapidly without him.

Did anyone tell a knock, knock joke?

Hu's there?

Any word if Ahmad Rashad was bothered that his old NBA Inside Stuff co-star got an invitation, and he didn't? Though in fairness, Willow carried that show.

I thought you said you didn't want to sound like a Personality Parade column today.

Isn't it just a bit racist for an American guest to wear an ethnic-themed dress to a state dinner?

I'm not sure about this--the inappropriateness of wearing ethnic-themed dresses if you're not from that ethnicity.  Of course, Salahi did just that for the state dinner.  Perhaps some think it is poor taste.  But women, from all backgrounds, tend to give a nod to whatever culture or nation is being celebrated that evening with little touches in their outfits.  You saw that in what Mrs. Daley wore, and also what Mrs. Obama wore to the state dinner honoring India and in the choice of red for the Chinese state dinner...

I was there last night and can attest that trying to decide what to wear for an event like that is daunting. I did my own hair and make-up, and after a week's worth of agonizing, finally found a dress I deemed appropriate and flattering (but not TOO flattering) and then agonized about finding appropriate shoes. Everyone who has written in about "why did they wear that" or "they looked terrible" etc., obviously has not had to dress themselves for a STATE DINNER AT THE WHITE HOUSE. Overall, I thought everyone there looked great -- it was indeed a most special, and even festive, occasion.

it is hard to figure out what to wear to such an event. obviously you want to be comfortable, but appropriate and LOOK GOOD.  I think if you look at all the decisions last night (some women wore formal gowns) others wore Chanel suits (Anna Wintour!), some went with tuxes, some went with ties...the rules of fashion are changing and expanding...

Isn't she in poor health these days? If so, just getting to the state dinner was no small accomplishment.

She has indeed been very sick. Battling breast cancer for eight years, recently hospitalized for bone problems.

Thumbs up.

Her dress was a really big hit last night.  Great color, great fit...

Thanks for joining us today -- a lot of good questions. Catch you after the next state dinner (we're averaging about one every six months) -- or next Wednesday for the next Reliable Source.

In This Chat
Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post columnists Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts discuss your favorite gossip, celebrity sightings and their recent columns.

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Nia-Malika Henderson
Nia-Malika Henderson is a politics and government reporter.
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