WASHINGTON – Small touches of Poland — bright red flowers mimicking the country's flag and cookies made from an old Polish recipe — were meant to make President Bush's honored guest feel at home. But Wednesday night's state dinner for Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski was designed as an American showcase.
Guests were treated to a menu that White House chef Walter Scheib III described as "strictly American," each course paired with an American wine.
American designer Oscar de la Renta won the heart of first lady Laura Bush with a two-piece, long-sleeved gown of blush-colored tulle festooned with gold threading, a turquoise sash and sparkling stones.
The choice of after-dinner entertainment was all-American, too, in jazz singer Vanessa Rubin — though made with an eye to Kwasniewski love of the genre.
The president and first lady were clearly delighted to host the couple who had so generously entertained them during a visit to Warsaw over a year ago.
"President Bush and I both feel we really know the president and first lady well," said Mrs. Bush.
Topiaries of myrtle and twin 12-foot trees of pink New Guinea impatiens in the Grand Foyer greeted guests clad in black-tie and evening gowns.
One piece of the enormous undertaking went embarrassingly wrong for the White House. As the two couples descended from the residence to the join the party, the announcer mispronounced the last names of the Polish leader and his wife.
But the focus of the evening was the warmth between the two leaders and their countries.
After thanking them in Polish, Bush toasted his guests "for your freedom and ours."
"Just as Poles keep contributing to America's vitality, Poland keeps contributing to the vitality of the entire world," Bush said.
"Perhaps our sense of community is so strong because we are children of freedom ... because we have never failed each other," said Kwasniewski in a return toast over sauvignon blanc.
Seated on either side of Bush were Polish first lady Jolanta Kwasniewska, who wowed the crowd in a black dress with a velvet low-cut bodice, sheer sleeves and flowing skirt, and Debbie Francis, a longtime Bush family friend from Texas. The president also shared his table with Chicago's Democratic mayor, Richard M. Daley, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Mrs. Bush selected as her immediate dinner companions Kwasniewski and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Also among the guests were at least four Republican "pioneers" who helped Bush raise $100,000 or more during his 2000 campaign. But Bush leaned decidedly Democratic in sending invitations to Capitol Hill — of seven lawmaker guests, five were Democrats.
Vance Coffman, the chairman and chief executive of Lockheed Martin Corp., was no doubt delighted to be included. His company is competing against two European contractors for an over $3 billion Polish contract for combat jets.
The White House also kept key constituencies in mind by setting places for people such as Cardinal Adam Maida, the leader of the Roman Catholic church in Detroit, and Alex Machaskee, president and publisher of a newspaper in the battleground state of Ohio, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
Following Rubin's post-dinner concert, the Bushes and the Kwasniewskis each took a quick spin on the dance floor before departing the festivities and leaving the rest of the guests to finish out the evening.
"Some of us will dance longer than others, if you know what I mean," the famously early-to-bed Bush noted as he bid farewell. "We're kind of an early morning administration."
It was just the second state dinner of the 18-month Bush administration. The first was in honor of Mexican President Vicente Fox. By contrast, though former President Clinton waited 18 months to stage his first state dinner, he had 27 over his eight years in office. Bush's father held 17 in his one term.
International superstars often entertained at Clinton's dinners, but the Bushes featured a semi-obscure jazz singer native to Cleveland. They also seated a relatively intimate 130 with nary a Hollywood presence, rather than the hundreds that become the norm at Clinton's star-studded dinners.
One invitee seemed to unknowingly sum up Wednesday's guest list. "We're not exactly Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise," remarked Joan Hotchkis, president of the Blue Ribbon Music Center in Los Angeles County, to reporters as she entered the White House with her husband, John.
Even the table decor in the State Dining Room was muted, though elegant. Cream damask tablecloths, gold Vermeil cutlery and simple crystal glassware were accented only by the Nancy Reagan red and gold china and bold centerpieces of red gerbera daisies and tiny roses.
Chef Scheib prepared a meal of lemon-basil seared striped bass and pepper smoked beef filet, accompanied by artichokes, polenta, grilled portobella mushrooms, summer vegetables, orange and avocado salad and potato tartine.
White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier created one of his signature elaborate confections out of ginger almond ice cream, accented with a red wine sauce, ripe cherries and peaches, and a hand-painted chocolate garnish of leaves and flowers.