Veep and veep sit next to each other at the State Dinner

McClatchy Washington BureauFebruary 11, 2014 


U.S. President Barack Obama welcomes French President Francois Hollande during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, on February 11, 2014.


President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande saluted their country's friendship during toasts at a star-studded White House state dinner Tuesday.

"Viva la France, God bless America, and long live the alliance between our great nations," Obama said, delivering what a White House pool report says what was a "light-hearted" toast at the lavish dinner on the South Lawn.

Obama joked at the toast about observations that Alexis de Tocqueville made in 1831 when he traveled across the US, writing that "The power of the King of France would be nil if it were modeled after the power of the President.”

"I very much can relate to this," Obama said amid laughter. "And the King didn’t have to deal with the filibuster."

He noted that the US took lessons from France, saying that a young American lawyer inspired by white and black students studying together in Paris "became one of our greatest abolitionists, helped to end slavery, and is one of the reasons that all of us can be here this evening as full citizens, free and equal."

And he paid tribute to Hollande "for the principled leadership and personal friendship and courage that he has shown on the world stage."

Hollande spoke immediately after, thanking Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

"We love Americans, although we don’t always say so. And you love the French, but you’re sometimes too shy to say so," Hollande said to laughs.

Some reporters were invited to the dinner -- but those covering it were kept behind a rope line at the back of the room and ushered out immediately after the toasts. Still, the pool captured actor Bradley Cooper chatting up Secretary of State John Kerry for a few moments before the toasts began.

And it noted that Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays a vice president on HBO's The Veep, sat next to the nation's actual Veep, vice president Joe Biden, at the dinner.

Asked what her favorite part of the dinner was, Louis-Dreyfus told a reporter, "Look who I'm sitting next to!" pointing to Vice President Joe Biden. The vice president swiftly interrupted the conversation: "Hey, stop screwin' around, she's my date!" He promptly burst out laughing and said, "Just kidding."

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert was seated next to Michelle Obama at the head table with Obama and Hollande.

Also at the head table, Eliseo Medina, the activist who fasted for 22 days in support of immigration reform.

The guests include a number of celebrities -- and members of Congress. New York Sen. Charles Schumer told reporters he liked French food, particularly "the rolls" and steak frites. But, he added, "no food is better than Brooklyn."

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said it was his first state dinner and that wife Michelle Rhee had taught him some French in the car: "Bon soir" and "Bon appetit." Attorney General Eric Holder might not have done much better. He said he was "glad to be here" to honor "one of our closest allies." But he said he took Spanish in high school.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power arrived with her husband, Cass Sunstein, and was uncertain who had designed her bright green gown. "Cass, check the label," she told her husband. It was Badgley Mishka.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi -- wearing Armani -- was asked if the United States or France has better chocolate. "San Francisco," replied the woman who represents the district.

Al Sharpton told reporters he had been practicing his French and he offered some at the press' urging. "Oui oui oui."

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, flanked by service members, greeted Hollande as he arrived at the North Portico of the White House for the State Dinner just after 7 p.m. The three posed for a brief photo op, the men in tuxes and Michelle Obama in a Carolina Herrera gown in black and liberty blue.

The guests also included Jason Collins, the first major U.S. athlete to come out as gay and Edith Windsor, who challenged the Defense of Marriage Act.

Collins spoke to reporters briefly. "Just having fun," he said. "Just enjoying life." Powers tweeted that she was sitting Collins at the dinner and "thanked him for his courage & making it a little easier for guys like @MikeSamFootball," the Missouri State football who Sunday announced that he is gay.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney -- who spars with reporters daily -- walked by the press, the White House pool report notes, "with a laugh."

There was little buzz about Hollande showing up sans a date -- after an affair with an actress created a rift between him and his girlfriend, once France's first lady.

"The French are much cooler than we are," said the NAACP's Ben Jealous.

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