WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama found just the right seat for French President Francois Hollande, who came to an elegant White House state dinner without an escort. They seated him between them, and tried to put an end to all the drama about his solo visit to the U.S.
Hollande's very public breakup from his first lady happened just weeks before Obama raised a glass to him at Tuesday's glitzy event. That left the White House to do its straight-faced best to keep the attention on anything but "l'affaire Hollande" and the French president's personal life.
In the kind of awkward turn of events that give protocol officers ulcers, the White House last autumn invited Hollande and his longtime girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, to come for a state visit, the first such honor for France in two decades. But just weeks ago, the two abruptly split after a magazine reported that a helmeted Hollande zipped via motorcycle to a liaison with French actress Julie Gayet.
So on a frigid night in Washington, the evening's pomp and pageantry were designed to wrap Hollande in a comfy blanket of warmth, from the moment he stepped out of his limo and onto a red carpet on the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance to the White House. The Obamas greeted him on the front steps, the first lady clad in a black and liberty blue silk gown by Carolina Herrera.
A four-course meal was served in a heated pavilion on the South Lawn that had patches of greenery and vines hanging from the ceiling like chandeliers. Democratic donors, politicians and business types who made up the 350-person guest list Tuesday evening avoided mentioning the French intrigue.
Ben Jealous, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was nothing but admiring of the whole affair. "I think the French are way cooler than we are on a whole lot of fronts," he said, including "way better gossip."
The evening's celebrity quotient was impressive, including actors Bradley Cooper, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Mindy Kaling. Many wondered how late-night political comedian Stephen Colbert snagged a seat on the other side of the first lady.
Mary J. Blige, the evening's sole entertainer, had to think for a second when asked whether she had a French connection. "Um, my last name is French," she said. Obama, in his dinner toast, was deliberately sparing with his French.
He welcomed the guests with a hearty "bonsoir," then confessed that "I have now officially exhausted my French." Hollande delivered a good portion of his reciprocal toast in respectable English before switching to French.
"We love Americans, although we don't always say so," he told the crowd. Amidst all the pleasantries and tactful chitchat, there was the occasional moment of candor. Cosmopolitan editor Joanna Coles, asked about her Kaufman Franco black dress with a leather bodice, told reporters, "I was hoping it wasn't too slutty."
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., drew a blank when reporters asked who designed her vibrant green dress. She called on her husband, Cass Sunstein, to check the label and dutifully reported it was Badgley Mischka.
Across the room from Hollande and Obama, vice presidents sat shoulder-to-shoulder: That would be Vice President Joe Biden and Louis-Dreyfus, who plays a vice president on the HBO comedy series "Veep."
Dinner celebrated American cuisine. The main course: dry-aged rib-eye beef from a family farm in Colorado, with Jasper Hill Farm blue cheese from Vermont. For dessert, the pastry chefs used a paint sprayer to distribute a very thin layer of chocolate over a creamy ganache cake. Cotton candy dusted with orange zest was also part of the lineup.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Jack Gillum contributed to this report.
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