06/08/2010 01:55 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's White House Festivities: Good, Bad, or Obvious?

In this wacky media environment in which everything is criticized somewhere, President Barack Obama gets no little amount of flak about the few White House entertainments he's hosted, with a very tony state dinner last month and an evening with Paul McCartney last week. Now, it's not as though Obama's turned the place into a party palace. And the events hold important clues to what Obama considers a style of accessibility and elegance.

Nor is there not a clear historical precedent for continuing to hold such events. During the Great Depression and World War II -- both of which put the contemporary great recession and far more limited wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in context if not entirely in the shade -- President Franklin D. Roosevelt held state dinners. But there have been different expectations with this president, in part because of who he is and in part because of the unique popular mobilization which helped him win the White House.

Obama has held only two state dinners. The first was just before last Thanksgiving, in honor of the prime minister of India. Lost in the shuffle of controversy around the infamous gatecrashers was the fact that it marked the first anniversary of the terrorist siege of Mumbai. India, a rising great power that is an important key to the "AfPak" thicket we're currently in, showed great forebearance after its commercial capital was brought to a standstill by attackers linked to Pakistan.

Excerpts from a White House evening with Paul McCartney.

Obama's second state dinner, honoring the president of Mexico on May 19th, also held a lot of geopolitical significance. Mexico as a state is under siege by powerful drug cartels fueled by the markets and guns found here in America. Its citizens frequently emigrate here illegally, where they become cheap labor and political footballs.

True, last week's evening at the White House honoring Paul McCartney with the Library of Congress's annual Gershwin Prize carried rather less geopolitical import. But a president is a cultural leader, as well. Sir Paul's old band, the Beatles (which I'm told made some sort of impact in the 1960s), was the best-selling group of the decade just past, their remastered albums creating a sensation in 2009. McCartney, through his partnership with the late John Lennon and his solo work, is arguably the most successful songwriter in history. (Most Lennon/McCartney songs were principally written by one or the other.) And McCartney came with a message of his own, extolling Obama even more than Obama extolled him, marking the president as the hope for "billions of us."

Should Obama have had McCartney -- and the host of other stars who also showed up to perform McCartney's songs -- play a benefit concert for the Gulf oil disaster? You could certainly argue that. Though that would also take the pressure off of BP, which is actually responsible for the mess.

In the event, Obama honored McCartney at the White House, before an audience of 200 (many of whom were members of the McCartney family) in the East Room. The evening will be broadcast on PBS on July 28th.

Former California state Controller Steve Westly was one of a few Californians on hand and described the evening. Westly, a clean tech venture capitalist and former top eBay executive who ran a near-miss campaign for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, was Obama's first California co-chair and a national finance co-chair. He's also a co-chair of Jerry Brown's gubernatorial campaign to replace term-limited Arnold Schwarzenegger. (So much for Westly's old eBay colleague, Meg Whitman.)

Westly, who might politely be described as a dyed-in-the-wool Beatlemaniac, complete with The Beatles: Rock Band game, says that the usual stuffiness one might associate with a White House event was thoroughly dissipated.

The rich and powerful in attendance were far more relaxed. The Obamas had their kids on their laps, singing along. McCartney mischievously dedicated "Michelle" to the first lady, quipping that he might be about to be "the first guy ever to be punched out by a president."

The other musicians, who did cover versions of McCartney's songs, seemed just as thrilled to talk with the former Beatle as the guests. It was less like a formal White House affair, notes Westly, than a really nice party.

Things were so unstuffy that, after they'd all chatted with McCartney, Paul Pelosi -- the husband of Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- suggested to Westly's young son Matthew, who was still awed by having just discussed with McCartney his nascent efforts to play Beatles songs, that he might want to slide down the White House banister. When the 8-year old didn't leap at the suggestion, Pelosi, who married Nancy in 1963, did the banister slide himself.

President Barack Obama hailed Sir Paul McCartney's contribution to popular music and song during a special event honoring the singer/songwriter with the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize last night in the East Room. McCartney and a host of stars played his Beatles and solo songs. The event will air on PBS on July 28th.

Not that everything went quite that smoothly. When Stevie Wonder reached for his harmonica to play a solo during his and McCartney's "Ebony and Ivory," it wasn't there. "I can't see my harmonica," Wonder said. "Of course, I never could see my harmonica," he quipped.

As an historical note, McCartney performed in front of the White House's oldest possession, the 1797 Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, which always hangs in the East Room. The portrait was barely rescued when the British Army burned the White House in 1814 during what might be described as a low point in the War of 1812. (It's good to recall that America has recovered from many things which would give the current media culture a collective apoplexy.)

Here's the set list, with the artists who performed McCartney's songs.

McCartney: "Got to Get You Into My Life"
Stevie Wonder: "We Can Work It Out"
Jonas Brothers: "Drive My Car"
Lang Lang: "Celebration" (This selection, played by the famed Chinese pianist, was a headscratcher for many. It turned out to be one of McCartney's classical compositions.)
Emmylou Harris: "For No One"
Jack White: "Mother Nature's Son"
Corinne Bailey Rae/Herbie Hancock: "Blackbird"
Faith Hill: "The Long and Winding Road"
Elvis Costello: "Penny Lane"
Dave Grohl: "Band on the Run"
McCartney/Wonder: "Ebony and Ivory"
McCartney: "Michelle"
McCartney: "Eleanor Rigby"
McCartney: "Let It Be"
McCartney/All: "Hey Jude"

In contrast to the evening with Paul McCartney, the state dinner for the president of Mexico was a thoroughly formal affair, thoroughly in keeping with White House tradition, according to an old friend who's been to many state dinners. Notably, there were only a few celebrities on hand.

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came last November, the weather was bad, so the traditional outdoor arrival ceremony, complete with formal military procession and 21-gun (cannon, not rifle) salute couldn't be held. Not so for President Felipe Calderon, who received the fullest traditional honors.

Following historical tradition, there is no little pomp and circumstance in the official arrival of President Felipe Calderon at the White House prior to the state dinner in his honor.

My old friend John Emerson (my best man more than a little while back) attended many state dinners when he was a top aide in the Clinton White House. When I got the guest list just before the May 19th state dinner, I called his mobile phone and, to demonstrate powers of perception before telling him I had the list, predicted that he was within a few blocks of the White House. Which Emerson, now a Los Angeles investment banker, not surprisingly was. He and his wife, Kimberly Marteau, were about to go through the first ring of security.

Emerson, though he hosted a fundraiser for then state Senator Barack Obama in 2003 and later did a book party for him, didn't back him in the Democratic primaries. Because of his longstanding Clinton tie, he was a national finance co-chair for Hillary Clinton before becoming one of the early peacemakers between the Clinton and Obama camps. Which also brought him to the secretary of state's luncheon earlier in the day for the Mexican president in the State Department's Ben Franklin Room, which had its own distinctly Clintonian cast of high-powered characters, and Vice President Joe Biden.

In Emerson's view, the security factor was the key difference between the state dinners of the Clinton era and those of the new Obama era. The vastly heavier security factor. In the Clinton days, Emerson could drive up to the East Wing and do valet parking. Today, no mere guest drives within a few blocks. Why not? Think car bomb. And everyone, perhaps in partial reaction to the gatecrashing incident last November, presents their identification three times.

Once through the various screens, notes Emerson, the security presence melts away, at least seemingly. This White House doesn't have the air of an armed camp, though there are no doubt very vigilant eyes with prepared people behind them.

Obama again welcomes President Calderon to the White House, and holds a joint press conference.

Like the McCartney evening, this dinner, after everyone proceeded through the announcements -- Emerson quipped to the photogs that Whoopi Goldberg was just behind them -- and introduction to the president and first lady in the beautiful Blue Room, took place in the East Room. This room has the ability to seat more than the traditional 12 tables of 12 in the State Dining Room.

Despite the great formality of the affair, things naturally loosen up some once all the initial hurdles are covered. Emerson noted that, of his table mates -- who included House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Valerie Biden, the vice president's sister and longtime campaign manager -- Admiral Mike Mullen was surprisingly funny. At least, one presumes, as far as chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff go.

Once inside the White House, guests are free to creatively wander, with a few obvious limits. After the dinner, the 200 guests were joined by more guests, such as Senator Barbara Boxer (who's seen a lot of Obama recently in his California fundraising appearances for her), in a tent on the lawn outside for the after party, which featured Beyonce and Rodrigo y Garcia. Beyonce reportedly put on nearly as full-tilt a show before this much smaller crowd as she did at Obama's inaugural, where she performed at the Lincoln Memorial show and also sang for the president and first lady's first dance at the inaugural ball.

Incidentally, though they represented the two warring primary candidates, Emerson and Westly harmoniously put together the California delegation to the 2008 Democratic National Convention, with Westly leading the Barack Obama forces and Emerson leading the Hillary Clinton forces.

Obama toasts President Felipe Calderon at his second state dinner in "La Casa Blanca."

Not that all was harmony at that delegation meeting. United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, a die-hard Hillarista, was still spoiling for a fight when I ran into her.

Yet, less than two years later, there Huerta was at the head table at last month's state dinner with Presidents Obama and Calderon.

What to take away from all this?

Are these high-level White House events in the Obama era still for the privileged and connected? Unquestionably.

If there were "regular people" on the guest list for that state dinner, I don't know who they were.

Are the people there, at the risk of sounding naive in several ways, nicer than guests at previous such events?

Perhaps. I know some nice people who were there. I also know people on those lists who are, well, not so nice. Big-time politics is not an arena for kindergarten teachers. Of course, one can recognize this without celebrating it.

Should events like this be done away with, even in tough times? Of course not. They serve a variety of obvious purposes, from carrying on the traditions of the presidency to conducting statecraft to rewarding supporters to celebrating aspects of the culture.

Should they somehow be opened up more to the general public? Perhaps, though when the scale expands the experience changes.

A lottery system for a few select guests from the general public? Perhaps, though that smacks of a distinct sort of tokenism.

Maybe there should be a lottery system for an entire state dinner. That could be very interesting.