WASHINGTON – President Bush (search), famously unimpressed with the pomp and pageantry of the presidency, is nonetheless a Texan who appreciates big things as well as a politician who can count votes.
And so it was that 134 guests of Bush and his wife, Laura, gathered Monday evening at the White House to recognize the U.S. relationship with the biggest democracy in the world.
The all-out gala honoring India and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (search) was a much-anticipated return to a grand, black-tie dinner at the White House, the first in nearly two years.
"This, of course, is the largest democracy on the face of the Earth," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) explained to reporters as they gathered to watch the arrival of the usual mix of dinner guests — Cabinet members, administration officials, members of Congress, representatives of the Indian government and corporate tycoons.
Among the notables in attendance were Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who has been identified as a source for a news story that identified the wife of an administration critic as a CIA officer.
Another was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (search) and his wife, Virginia. Thomas, notable because Bush has yet to nominate a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, had a prime seat at Mrs. Bush's table.
The event was only the fifth such dinner of Bush's presidency and the first of his second term.
His previous dinners were for the leaders of Mexico, just days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; Poland, in July 2002, and the Philippines and Kenya, in May and October of 2003.
In contrast, Bush's immediate predecessor, President Clinton, hosted 29 state dinners during his eight years in office. Bush's father, the first President Bush, held more than two dozen such events during his single term in office, and President Reagan held 57 state dinners during his two terms.
In celebrating the relationship between the United States and India, Bush raised a glass to "two nations bound by our common interests," including the fight against global terrorism.
"As two strong, diverse democracies, we share a commitment to the success of multiethnic democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law," Bush said in the State Dining Room beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. "And we believe that by spreading the blessings of democracy and freedom we will ensure a lasting peace for all citizens of the world."
Singh said they must strengthen democratic capacities and oppose terrorism together.
"We must speak the same language and display the same resolve," he said during his toast.
For the occasion, many women wore bright colored and flowing gowns. Others wore traditional Indian attire — saris, or two-piece outfits trimmed with sequins and other glitter.
Mrs. Bush slid into a Bill Blass creation, a silk chiffon evening dress of yellow and orange floral print and asymmetrical ruffles below the waist, accented at the neck with a yellow-and-orange beaded necklace.
Guests dined on chilled asparagus soup and lemon creme; pan-roasted halibut, ginger-carrot butter, basmati rice with pistachio nuts and currants and herbed summer vegetables; and salad of Bibb lettuces and citrus vinaigrette.
Dessert was chocolate lotus blossoms — the lotus flower is a religious symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, two of India's religions — accompanied by a trio of mango, chocolate-cardamom and cashew ice creams.