WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s final State Dinner Tuesday was a swirl of dolce vita diplomacy, Italian designer gowns and plates of Mario Batali pasta easing a bittersweet end to one of the presidency’s best perks.
The dinner marked an final moment for Obama to deploy the lavish displays of friendship afforded the US commander-in-chief. But it also symbolized an end to the stylish, celebrity-friendly era of presidential entertaining the Obamas ushered in eight years ago.
Speaking Tuesday morning, Obama said he had “saved the best for last” in extending the most formal of Washington invites to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Planning the event, the White House embraced the opportunity to go large, inviting more guests than any of Obama’s previous 12 events and serving a meal oozing with continental flair.
Even first lady Michelle Obama embraced the “go big or go home” attitude, striding out of the White House North Portico Tuesday wearing a figure-hugging Atelier Versace gown made entirely of rose gold chainmail. The dress appeared to spark as cameras flashed.
The evening was a rare moment of refinement in an otherwise crude election season that’s occupied Washington. Even the mud slinging wasn’t far from Obama’s mind during a dinner toast.
“Tonight, we’re reminded that American democracy has been graced by the touch of Italy,” Obama said. “We look at the dome of the US Capitol and marvel at the touch of Brumidi. Yet some days our presidential campaigns can seem like Dante’s Inferno.”
Renzi, too, made certain the presidential contest wasn’t far from mind. Joking that when Obama leaves office he could visit Florence and compare the White House garden tomatoes to those grown in Italy, Renzi turned his focus to the first lady, who delivered a speech last week denouncing Trump’s sexually aggressive remarks.
“Michelle, after last week let me be frank — your speeches are better than your tomatoes,” he said. “Thank you so much, as prime minister but also as father of a small daughter.”
Tuesday’s dinner had political undertones from the start. When guests arrived they were greeted by a group of acapella singers from a non-profit organization backed by Rosie O’Donnell, whom Donald Trump has spent the last decade maligning. And Renzi, the guest of honor, has openly backed Hillary Clinton in November’s contest.
And there’s little secret that White Houses past and present have rewarded donors and like-minded politicians with coveted invites to state dinners, meaning conversation around the pink-draped tables Tuesday wasn’t likely be favorable to Trump. Among the prominent Democrats invited: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
But even among a pro-Clinton crowd, few could imagine the same mix of Hollywood and Washington the Obamas have attracted during their time in office, even if another Democrat wins.
“I don’t know when glamour’s going to be ever back in the White House,” said fashion designer Naeem Khan, who dressed Michelle Obama for her first state dinner in 2009.
Indeed, many guests had a hard time imagining the choices a President Donald Trump, or a first lady Melania, might make for a formal White House event.
“Gee, I don’t know,” said comedian Jerry Seinfeld when asked what a Trump state dinner might be like.
Chance Bennett, the artist who goes by Chance the Rapper, said on his way in he was looking forward to a dance-friendly soundtrack during Obama’s final state dinner.
“I hope there’s some dancing,” he said, to better advance “the recurring dance battle that me and the president have had going on for a few years.”
Those who scored the last golden ticket of the Obama tenure dined on agnolotti with butter and sage (a sample tasted by a reporter Monday was creamy, autumnal and piping hot), warm butternut squash salad, beef braciole with horseradish gremolata, and green apple crostata with thyme caramel for dessert.
The event is a bookend to the administration’s first state dinner in 2009, held in honor of India and marred by gate-crashers. Since then, the Obamas have welcomed both close allies — Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada — as well as countries with frostier US ties, including two state dinners in honor of China.
The events have attracted celebrities, lawmakers, diplomats, athletes and fashion designers — and the celebration of Italy was no different. Gwen Stefani will perform after dinner, and brought as a date her boyfriend, country star Blake Shelton. Renzi, an outspoken advocate of the Italian fashion industry, invited Giorgio Armani as a guest.
The evening’s chef, Mario Batali, said between preparation sessions Monday he was honored — but also anxious at the prospect of serving 500 guests in a temporary tent 200 yards from the White House kitchen.
“If there’s one thing that I’m not going to sleep well about tonight, it’s only going to be the hot plates,” Batali said. “I think I’ll be shaking in my orange crocs tomorrow when it’s about a half-hour before service.”
In the end, the dinner was another “last” on a long list of final moments for the Obamas. Speaking during his toast Tuesday, Obama said he was reminded of his visit to the Colosseum in Rome in 2014.
“It was late in the day, it was quiet, the sun was going down, and as I walked across those ancient stones worn by the history of 2,000 years, it was a humbling reminder of our place here on earth,” he said. “In the grand sweep of time, each of us is here only for a brief moment. So many of the things that we focus on each day, the political ups and downs, the successes and the setbacks, those things are fleeting.”
“What matters in the end is what we build,” he said. “What matters is what we leave behind.”
By Kevin Liptak
CNN White House Producer