WASHINGTON – Their day together started with a hug and ended with a joint dance with their wives at a state dinner that put on full display the warm relations between President Bush and Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski.
The U.S. president and first lady Laura Bush clearly were delighted Wednesday night to host the couple who had so generously entertained them during a visit to Warsaw last year.
After thanking Kwasniewski and his wife, Jolanta, in Polish for their hospitality, Bush also toasted the country of his guests as a steadfast supporter of the U.S.-led war on terror and beacon of freedom and democracy in Central Europe.
"America and Poland are joined by a commitment to helping each other along freedom's road," Bush said.
The admiration amid flickering candles was mutual
"I do not know if there is another such a unique thing in the world as Polish-American friendship," Kwasniewski said as he before raising his glass of sauvignon blanc to Bush.
The Bush stamp on the traditional black-tie state dinner reflects his penchant for low-key entertaining and casual diplomacy.
With the president preferring one-on-one chats with world leaders in less formal settings, it was just the second state dinner of his 18-month administration; the first was in honor of Mexican President Vicente Fox last September.
By contrast, though former President Clinton waited 18 months to stage his first state dinner, he had 27 during 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 vocalist native to Cleveland, Vanessa Rubin.
They also seated a relatively intimate 130 in the State Dining Room with nary a Hollywood presence, rather than the hundreds that became the norm at Clinton's star-studded dinners.
One invitee perhaps unknowingly summed up Wednesday's entire guest list. "We're not exactly Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise," Joan Hotchkis, president of the Blue Ribbon Music Center in Los Angeles County, dryly remarked to reporters as she entered the White House on the arm of her husband, John.
Even the table decor 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 -- a color scheme designed to mimic the Polish flag.
One piece of the enormous undertaking went embarrassingly wrong for the White House. As the two presidential couples descended from the residence to the party, an announcer mispronounced the last names of the Polish leader and his wife.
Mrs. Bush chose American designer Oscar de la Renta for her frock, a two-piece, long-sleeved gown of blush-colored tulle festooned with a turquoise sash and sparkling stones. The Polish first lady wowed the crowd in a black dress with a velvet low-cut bodice, sheer sleeves and flowing skirt.
Guests were treated to a menu that White House chef Walter Scheib III described as "strictly American," each course paired with an American wine. Seared striped bass and pepper smoked beef filet were accompanied by artichokes, polenta, grilled portobello mushrooms and orange and avocado salad.
For dessert, White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier produced a confection appropriate for the night's balmy temperatures: ginger almond ice cream accented with a red wine sauce, ripe cherries and peaches, and a hand-painted chocolate garnish of leaves and flowers. Cookies made from an old Polish recipe were meant to remind the honored guests of home.
Seated on either side of Bush were the Polish first lady 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 the Polish president 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.
Following an after-dinner concert by Rubin -- a choice made with an eye to Kwasniewski's love of American jazz -- the two presidents and their wives each took a quick spin on the dance floor. Then both couples quickly departed, leaving the remaining guests to the festivities.
"Some of us will dance longer than others, if you know what I mean," the famously early-to-bed Bush noted as he bid the crowd farewell. "We're kind of an early morning administration."