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A jazzy all-American state dinner for Chinese prez

By Nancy Benac

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 19 2011 5:20 p.m. MST

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcome China's President Hu Jintao to the North Portico of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011, for the State Dinner.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Michelle and Barack Obama welcomed a mix of Hollywood A-listers, big business types and prominent Chinese-Americans to the White House as they threw a "quintessentially American" state dinner Wednesday night for the president of China, complete with ice cream and apple pie.

The first lady was clad in an elegant orange-red shoulder-baring gown that swished around her in soft folds, and the president sported a tuxedo, as the two welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao on a red carpet at the White House portico. An honor guard stood at attention behind them.

Celebrity star power arrived in the form of singer Barbra Streisand, her hubby-actor James Brolin and action film star Jackie Chan. Big business turned out in force, too, including Microsoft's Steven Ballmer and JP Morgan Chase's Jamie Dimon, among others. Among the big names: fashion's Vera Wang, Vogue's Anna Wintour, artist Maya Lin, Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to add some gravitas. Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter made the cut, too.

The dinner's all-star jazz lineup included trumpeter Chris Botti, two-time Grammy Award-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, jazz icon Herbie Hancock, rising star Lang Lang and four-time Grammy-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves.

Jazz pianist Peter Martin, part of the entertainment lineup, prepped for his appearance by springing for a tux.

"I'm finally a grown-up, graduated from renting to owning," Martin tweeted, adding that he was "super-excited" about the White House gig.

Regular folks who find themselves in a last-minute frenzy before guests arrive can take comfort in knowing that it's the same at the White House: Just hours before the dinner, chair cushions were stacked in the front foyer, and harried staff were shuttling flower arrangements to and fro.

New this state dinner: The 225 guests were spread out among three rooms: the State Dining Room, Blue Room and Red Room, then all shuttle to the East Room for the entertainment. There were big video monitors for the outcasts in the Blue and Red rooms to catch the dinner toasts.

Also new: The Obamas opted against bringing in a high-profile guest chef, instead putting White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford in charge.

The White House said the all-American theme was selected at the request of the Chinese delegation.

On the menu: d'anjou pear salad with farmstead goat cheese, poached Maine lobster, orange glazed carrots and black trumpet mushrooms, dry aged rib eye with buttermilk crisp onions, double-stuffed potatoes and creamed spinach. Dessert was to be old-fashioned apple pie with vanilla ice cream.

Obama is known to be an avid eater of pastry chef Bill Yosses' pies.

Among those confirmed for the guest list: the newly inaugurated Chinese-American mayors of San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., Edwin Lee and Jean Quan, respectively, along with Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif.

Members of Obama's Cabinet with seats at the table included Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

There were some high-profile no-shows, including three of the top four leaders from Congress: House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who declined Obama's past state dinner invitations; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

With the Senate out of session, Reid was home in Nevada and McConnell just wrapped up a congressional trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan and had not planned to be in Washington this week, aides said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was the only top congressional leader to accept an invitation. Many in Congress see China as an economic threat to the U.S. Pelosi also has been an outspoken critic of China's human rights record throughout her career.

At a White House news conference with Obama, Hu punted when asked to comment on the congressional leaders' absence.

"I think President Obama is certainly in a better position to answer that question," he said, drawing laughter from journalists and the U.S. and China officials seated in the East Room.

Obama punted, too.

Others on the guest list: Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to China, and state dinner uber-veteran Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state. Kissinger also was at the State Department for a lunch in Hu's honor, the same one where Streisand turned up.

After a fancy morning arrival ceremony for Hu at the White House, Mrs. Obama met with the students at Howard University to frame the day's events — both social and substantive — as an "important opportunity to strengthen ties and deepen bonds of understanding." And she encouraged young Americans to study abroad — something she never did.

The first lady said she and her brother, Craig, were among the first in their family to go to college.

"We were way more focused on getting in, getting through and getting out," she said.

Online:

Guest list:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/19/expected-attendees-tonight-s-state-dinner

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