WASHINGTON – Michelle and Barack Obama found just the right spot to seat a gent going stag to Tuesday's state dinner: They plopped French President Francois Hollande down right between them in a giant party tent, and put the pshaw to all that drama about his solo trip to the U.S. after a very public breakup from his first lady.
The A-list guest roster for the biggest social event of Obama's second term -- flush with celebrities, Democratic donors, politicians and business types -- mostly tried not to go there, tactfully avoiding talk about "l'affaire Hollande."
"I don't get involved in those things," demurred actress Cicely Tyson, who at age 80 said she's been to plenty of state dinners over the years.
Former NAACP official Ben Jealous was nothing but admiring of the French intrigue.
"I think the French are way cooler than we are on a whole lot of fronts," he said, including way better gossip.
On a frigid night, the evening's pomp and pageantry were all 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 White House north portico. The Obamas were there on the front steps to greet him, the first lady clad in a black and liberty blue silk gown by Carolina Herrera.
The dinner's celebrity quotient included actors Bradley Cooper, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mindy Kaling and Tyson. Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert somehow managed to snag a seat right next to the first lady. There were plenty of politicians, per usual. And in a midterm election year, the Obamas invited in more than two dozen donors to Obama's campaigns and the Democratic Party. Among them were Irwin Jacobs, the Qualcomm Inc. founder who has given more than $2 million to pro-Obama super PACs, and Jane Stetson, the Democratic National Committee's finance chair.
One of the most frequent phrases of the night was "un peu." As in, nope, don't speak much French.
A few brave souls ventured out of their comfort zones to try a word or two.
"Oui, oui, oui," declared the Rev. Al Sharpton, sounding like he was reciting the nursery rhyme about the little piggies.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said wife, Michelle Rhee, taught him a couple of French phrases en route to the White House and declared, "I'm ready to bust `em out."
Here goes: "bonsoir" and "bon appetit."
Bronx-born singer Mary J. Blige, the evening's entertainment, paused for a second when asked whether she had a French connection, then ventured: "Um, my last name is French."
When it finally came her time to sing -- past 11 p.m., on a school night, no less -- Blige belted out "Ain't Nobody" with such gusto she had both Obamas rocking in their chairs.
Obama, in his dinner toast, was deliberately sparing with his French.
He welcomed the guests with a hearty "bonsoir" and then confessed, "I have now officially exhausted my French."
He then delivered the requisite praises of all things French -- "especially the wine."
Hollande delivered a good portion of his remarks in respectable English before switching back to French.
"We love Americans, although we don't always say so," he told the crowd. "And you love the French, but you're sometimes too shy to say so."
Amidst all the pleasantries and tactful chitchat, there was the occasional moment of candor.
Cosmopolitan editor Joanna Coles, asked about her KaufmanFranco 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 later dutifully reported Badgley Mischka.
Across the room from Hollande and Obama, veep-and-veep sat shoulder-to-shoulder: That would be Vice President Joe Biden and Louis-Dreyfus, star of HBO's comedy "Veep."
The White House did its straight-faced best to keep the attention on anything but Hollande's personal life, preparing an outsized dinner-for-350 in a heated pavilion on the South Lawn that had patches of greenery and vines dripping from the ceiling.
The evening's four-course 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. And about that decadent dessert: The chefs used a paint sprayer to distribute a micro-thin layer of chocolate over the creamy ganache cake.
In the kind of awkward timing that gives protocol officers ulcers, the White House last fall invited Hollande and his longtime girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, to come for a state visit, the first such honor for France in two decades. But then just weeks ago, the two abruptly split after a tabloid caught a helmeted Hollande zipping via motorcycle to a liaison with actress Julie Gayet.