WASHINGTON – First lady Laura Bush called it a "sentimental first," an intimate and elegant dinner for friends. But from the hot pink bodice on her red lace gown to President Bush's cowboy boots, from the tequila sauce on the dessert to the fireworks on the back lawn, most elements of the Bushes' premier state dinner shouted, "Fiesta!"
Strolling violinists and 12-foot trees festooned with white impatiens framed the Grand Foyer as the Bushes opened the White House on Wednesday to Mexican President Vicente Fox, his new bride, Martha Sahagun de Fox, and just 130 guests.
Some, like tenor Placido Domingo, won the coveted invitation for their Hispanic heritage, others for their political connections to Bush. His home state of Texas exported a sizable crew, led by Gov. Rick Perry. Brother Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida, also made the cut.
Their parents, the former President and Mrs. George Bush, did not.
"We wanted this to be ours," said the current first lady.
It was a Texas kind of night, and Bush was not the only one to pair his tuxedo with cowboy boots, but at least his were a stately black. Texas artist Luis Jimenez kicked through the East Room receiving line in bright red boots.
Clint Eastwood, the lone Hollywood star, sounded keen to this White House's distaste for celebrity glamour. "I'm not from Hollywood myself," the actor said as he arrived. Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green and Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, had to wonder if they would still have made the guest list if they hadn't waited until Tuesday to announce their retirements.
Mrs. Bush said she had been determined to keep the crowd small and the receiving line from "going on forever" so that the Foxes could say more than a quick hello to the people they meet. She claimed Eastwood and Green for her dinner table. The president was seated with Domingo.
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott elbowed into the spotlight as reporters surrounded Eastwood, who did a two-year stint as mayor of Carmel, Calif. "We're looking for a candidate for governor out there in California," Lott said as Eastwood walked away in search of his dinner place card. "Come back, come back ...!"
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, the very last to arrive, was assigned a back table with Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush's designated arm-twister on Capitol Hill. Daschle and House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt were about the only Democrats included. The Bushes' bipartisan gesture extended to the cola wars. Executives from both the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo were invited.
Making her debut as the nation's hostess, Mrs. Bush knew there were standards to meet. "People expect a beautiful and elegant formal dinner at the White House," she said. The only hand-me-down she used from the Clintons was the gold-rimmed Millennium china that Hillary Clinton had ordered for the White House.
But throughout the mansion, small hints of playfulness contrasted with sober dignity, starting with Mrs. Bush's gown of "lollypop red" by designer Arnold Scaasi. A hot pink underlayer peeked from beneath sequined red lace for an overall effect that Mrs. Bush delighted in as "very festive." Huge stones sparkled at her throat, but three aides to the first lady could not say whether they were diamonds or paste; only that they were borrowed from Scaasi's archive collection.
Her counterpart, the petite Sahagun, wore a more understated aubergine sheath atop toe-crushing stilettos that, despite their four-inch heels, left her barely clearing the shoulder of her husband's 6'5" frame.
In the State Dining Room, each floral arrangement of white lilies, roses and hydrangea was filled with 175 limes, evocative of a frothy margarita.
Under the watchful portrait of Abraham Lincoln, guests had to navigate a confounding place setting of three gold forks, three gold knives and an oversized spoon. Bush, a teetotaler since he gave up drinking at age 40, made his toast with a glass of 7-Up.
On orders from the president to serve red meat and spicy stuff, chef Walter Scheib picked lowfat bison, encrusted it with pumpkin seeds and served it alongside potatoes whipped with poblano chilies. Pastry chef Roland Mesnier offered guests a drizzle of red chili pepper sauce or tequila sabayon with their mango and coconut ice cream.
The classy after-dinner performance by soprano Dawn Upshaw juxtaposed a fireworks display, a show that guests crowded onto the balcony to watch. The president, neither night owl nor any kind of Fred Astaire, welcomed his guests to dancing in the foyer afterward. But, he added with a reluctant pause: "For those of us who like to go to bed early -- well, I guess I'll be here for one dance."
The Bushes both grew up in Texas, which shares a 1,240-mile border with Mexico, and Mrs. Bush said her grandparents lived on the Rio Grande. "This is a sentimental first dinner for us," she told reporters in the hours beforehand, as aproned workers scurried about their finishing touches.
"It's just like a party at your own house where, at the last minute, you're washing the windows, wiping the fingerprints off the doors, setting the table."