WASHINGTON -- The theme of President Barack Obama's state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron Wednesday night was "America's Backyard," but from the toasts, the guests and the atmosphere, it might as well have been "Americans And Brits Are Just Crazy About Each Other."
The dinner capped a two-day official visit by Cameron and his wife, Samantha Cameron, that may ultimately prove to be more memorable for its personal connections than its political ones. These included a "guys night out" for the prime minister and the president, a "girls night in" for their spouses, and a state dinner that seemed, at times, like an Obama 2012 campaign event.
During guest arrivals Wednesday night on the east side of the White House, British actors Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern of "Downton Abbey" both mentioned the Anglo-American marriage at the core of the hit period drama. Bonneville said the special nature of the U.S.-U.K. relationship is "symbolized in the show, where I'm married to an American, and now, with Shirley McLaine joining the cast as my mother-in-law, I think we've got the special relationship pretty much nailed down." A few minutes later McGovern, who plays Bonneville's American-born wife, told reporters, "on the show I am a character who is a bridge between [the U.S. and Britain], which I feel very proud to be."
Sir Richard Branson said Obama's earlier remark that the special relationship between the two nations has never been stronger was "very flattering and very true." He joked that his wife, Joan Templeman, "is very jealous" that he was attending the dinner. And Damian Lewis, star of the Showtime spy thriller "Homeland," said it was "thrilling" to know that his show was one of Obama's favorites.
The dinner was served for 362 guests, including actor George Clooney, billionaire Warren Buffett, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and his wife, British designer Georgina Chapman, and Irish golf prodigy Rory McIlroy. The menu blended culinary traditions of the U.S. with those of the visiting nation, a practice typical at state dinners. But the descriptions on the formal menu verged on the theatrical:
"The Main Course, Bison Wellington, is a perfect pairing of U.S. and U.K. cultures. The Wellington is a classic English dish given an American twist with the use of buffalo tenderloin.
"The dessert is Steamed Lemon Pudding, a nod to the traditional British treat. The pudding is prepared with Idaho Huckleberry Sauce to unite the British and American flavors."
Even the dinner program highlighted the close personal relationship between Obama, a Democrat, and Cameron, a Tory -- the British equivalent to a conservative. "Traditionally, America’s backyards are places of gathering and entertaining close friends and family. The special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom makes this “backyard” celebration a quintessentially American event," it read.
But nothing on the menu came close to reflecting the warmth and admiration the Obamas and the Camerons share as much as did the two leaders' toasts, which were personal, heartfelt, and sprinkled with recollections of previous times together.
Obama went first, recalling the time he and Cameron donned aprons to help grill burgers for troops during the Obamas' state visit to the U.K. in 2010. He also brought up the time "when David and I got beat pretty badly in table tennis by some local London kids."
These experiences, the president said, taught him that, "in good times and in bad, [Cameron] is just the kind of partner that you want at your side. I trust him. He says what he does, and he does what he says. And I’ve seen his character."
Obama also made the unusual move of bringing up Cameron's late son, Ivan, who died at age 6 in 2009, of cerebral palsy and epilepsy. "All of us have seen how you, as a parent, along with Samantha, have shown a measure of strength that few of us will ever know," said Obama. "Tonight, I thank you for bringing that same strength and solidarity to our partnership."
Surprisingly, for a toast that was so obviously about Cameron, guests ultimately raised their glasses first to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the formal head of state, who celebrates her Diamond Jubilee this year. It was a rare reminder of formality in an evening that was clearly dominated by the informal rapport and genuine friendship of the two couples.
In terms of language and sentiment, Cameron’s toast did not disappoint. He praised Obama’s “strength, moral authority, and wisdom” in terms that rivaled even his host’s well-known oratorical talents.
“Strength,” said Cameron, “because Barack has been strong when required to defend his national interests.
“Moral authority, because Barack understands that the means matter every bit as much as the ends. Yes, America must do the right thing, but to provide moral leadership, America must do it in the right way, too,” Cameron said.
“Wisdom, because Barack has not rushed into picking fights, but is steward of America's resources of hard and soft power. He's taken time to make considered decisions, drawing down troops from Iraq and surging in Afghanistan. He's found a new voice for America with the Arab people. And at home, he's recognized that in America, as in Britain, the future depends on making the best of every citizen.”
All the high praise, however, sounded at times like the kind of introduction a public official would give the president on the campaign trail, albeit a very eloquent introduction. Here in the White House was a ringing endorsement of a president who is facing a tough battle for reelection, by the leader of one of the world’s great powers.
Absent a reciprocal queen, Cameron raised his glass “To the president, to the First Lady, and to the people of the United States of America.”
Following dinner, nine-time Grammy Award-winner John Legend entertained guests, along with the British alternative folk band Mumford & Sons. As reporters were ushered out of the party, one of the Mumford & Sons players told guests “We always wanted to play a hoedown at the White House.”
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