As economic worries worsen, White House puts on the glitz

Published 2:26 pm Monday, June 21, 2010

You know the basics. The unemployment rate is 9.9 percent. Jobs are still being lost. Worries about the global economy are causing breathtaking volatility on Wall Street. And millions of Americans who still have jobs are worrying more than ever about the safety of their retirement savings.

What you may not know is that, during this moment of terrible economic anxiety, the Obama White House found the time — and the money — to turn itself, at least for a night, into a showcase of glitzy extravagance.

On May 19, the White House held a state dinner for Mexican President Felipe Calderon. The dinner itself was sumptuous; the East Room was an elegant setting, and first lady Michelle Obama brought in a favored Chicago chef to put together a lavish menu. “The main course of Oregon wagyu beef came with a Oaxacan black mole sauce with more than 20 ingredients that takes days to come together,” reported the Associated Press.

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Of course state dinners are supposed to be grand affairs. But where the Calderon dinner hit the heights was in the festivities after the dinner, which took place in a huge tent — the AP called it a “luxury marquee” because “tent” doesn’t quite do it justice — set up on the South Lawn.

“I know we just had a very formal dinner,” President Obama told the 200 guests who had left the East Room and made their way to the “luxury marquee” on charming trolleys brought in for the event. “But we heard that this was the place for the real party.”

And so it was. The AP reported that South Lawn “marquee” was “the size of two-thirds of a football field, decked out in elaborate black decor and nightclub-style lighting, (and) featured a stage and baskets of flowers and models of Monarch butterflies dangling from the ceiling.”

The White House had the idea to feature the butterflies — there appeared to be thousands of them — because Calderon was born in Michoacan, Mexico, which is where butterflies migrating from Canada stop for the winter.

Popular singer Beyonce, who attended the dinner with her husband, rapper Jay-Z, performed for the guests from a stage that could only be described as Hollywood on the Potomac. With Beyonce at the microphone, and the guests dancing or seated at their candlelit tables, it was a scene the most ostentatious party-giver would have envied: the White House as high-dollar nightclub. Perhaps they can call it Club 1600.

Words don’t do it justice. If you want to see what Club 1600 looked like, you’ll have to go to the White House Flickr Photostream ( There, the White House photographer posted several pictures that will provide a feel for what a truly opulent event it was.

Paid for by the taxpayers, of course. State dinners are handled by the State Department, and officials do not reveal the cost, so we don’t know the price tag for this one. But a simple look at those pictures will tell you that it was expensive — very expensive.

Despite the extravagance amid hard times, there was little public criticism of the president and first lady. That’s quite a change from earlier administrations.

In the early 1980s, for example, with the economy in deep recession, some critics in the press took first lady Nancy Reagan to task for her fashionable clothes and gatherings — for “exercising her opulent tastes in an economy that is inflicting hardship on so many,” in the words of a 1981 New York Times article.

Now, not so much. While it’s true that at any given time, critics of any administration can claim that the first couple is insensitive to this or that hardship Americans are enduring, the fact is, at this particular moment in history, Americans are enduring lots of hardships, and lots of anxieties to go with them. 

Which leads to a question: Is transforming the White House into a glam nightclub the best message for Barack and Michelle Obama to send to a suffering and nervous nation?

(Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.)