Part 2 of the story of our night at the White House. (Part 1 is here.) When last we saw our protagonists, they were ready to enter the dining room for dinner.
Dinner was served in the State Dining Room. About 125 guests were seated at 13 tables of 10. Each place setting had five glasses, a calligraphed name card (mine said, “Mr. Senator”), and a fancy menu card.
Couples were assigned to separate tables. I was at table 1, Susan at table 6. On my left was a mother and daughter from Egypt, Fatma and Dina. Dina is one of the Special Olympics global messengers, athletes who travel the world spreading the word about Special Olympics. They were very sweet, asking me about things like whether they could keep the name card, how they would get their photo with the President, whether the meat was pig (it was lamb).
Fatma had a borrowed digital camera, and was having difficulty getting the flash to work, so I tried to help. They were trying to get a photo with Schwarzenegger, who took the camera and was trying to figure out the flash. I took the camera from him and tried to take a photo, but still didn’t know how to make it flash. Eventually I got it working, and took a photo of them with the President.
Other people at my table included some captains of industry, Mark Shriver, and the wife of the lead singer of the entertainment for the evening.
Susan’s table included Maria Shriver and Leonard Flowers, who played Jimmy, the athlete to beat, in The Ringer. Leonard really is a Special Olympics athlete, and a very modest guy. She asked him how he felt playing the bad guy, and he said it made him feel lonely.
My table was right next to the entrance to the dining room, and I was seated right on the aisle, so that I was next to everyone walking in. When he entered, President Bush walked within two feet of me, and for some reason, he turned and looked me in the eye and said, “Let’s eat!”.
When everyone was seated, it was time for speeches. Fake columns on the wall were opened up to reveal stage-bright lighting equipment, and a phalanx of photographers and reporters flooded into the room, complete with step-ladders to get good angles.
First Bush made a few welcoming remarks. Then Eunice Shriver gave a great short speech. Of course I was a supporter of Special Olympics already, but I felt really moved by her speech, where she recounted some of Rosemary Kennedy’s life, and how her disability, and the world’s reaction to it, had inspired her to found the Special Olympics.
Mrs. Shriver is 85 (the dinner was actually to mark her 85th birthday). She’s small but feisty. She had some difficulty turning the pages of her speech, but didn’t seem fazed by it. And she didn’t just talk about Special Olympics and disability. She also said this:
Tonight as we celebrate, we know beyond us lies a dangerous world. And sadly, throughout my lifetime, it has been so. World Wars, regional wars, ethnic wars, religious wars. Oh, that they would cease! Oh, that we could do better than war!
I don’t think Bush was discomfited by this remark, and probably would even agree with it, but I think we were all impressed that even in a small way, Mrs. Shriver would speak her mind in that way.
Next came the meal. There was a very impressive cadre of wait-staff. The guy in charge of the waiters (I’m not sure what to call him) was the most serious person I saw all evening, including the security personnel. He’s the fellow with the red bow-tie and the startling resemblance to Patrick Stewart you can see in the photographers photo above.
I stood to take a photo, and Mr. Head Waiter told me in no uncertain terms to sit down. “We’re still serving,” he said. He stood at the edge of the room, peering intently around, looking for any problems. Impressive, but scary.
When it was time to serve a course, the waiters would stream into the room, at least twenty of them. All seemed energetic and motivated, except one woman who looked completely annoyed by the whole thing. Even working at the White House can be a job you hate.
The food was interesting combinations of ingredients, and very good, even though I thought I wouldn’t like much of it (I’m not partial to avocados, shrimp, or lamb). The portions were very small, though. And the extras were unusual. There was no bread, for example, but there were dessert mints and little chocolates on the table throughout the meal.
A military band had been playing out in the lobby all evening, using the distance from the dining room to provide just the right quiet music for dinner. For dessert, they appeared in the dining room door and played Happy Birthday.
A small cake with candles was brought out for Mrs. Shriver, and the rest of us got pre-cut pieces of cake. The top was decorated with two special pieces of chocolate: a Special Olympics medal, and a medal with Mrs. Shriver’s profile on it.
When dinner was over, we were led out into the Center Hall again. Waiters with trays of brandies, after-dinner liqueurs, and coffees stood ready. There was time for more mingling. As Bush walked out of the dining room, once again Ted Kennedy was hanging onto him, chattering in his ear. Bush looked kind of annoyed. Sue sidled up to them and motioned desperately for me to snap a picture. She smiled Zelig-like while I obliged.
We were led into the East Room for the entertainment, Rascal Flatts. The room had been set up with 150 gold chairs, some of which were reserved for someone or another. We walked to the left (natch), and found seats with some gorgeous women who turned out to be wives of the band. Rascal Flatts took the stage after an intro by Linda Case, of the Special Olympics Board. The lead guitarist made some jokes with the President about how his (chilled avocado) soup was cold: “Don’t y’all have any ovens in this place? Maybe a microwave?” Bush really enjoyed it, as did we all. They sang a few songs, one of which was from the movie “Cars.” The lead singer also mentioned that the piano he was playing on was one he had been kicked off of when he’d been a little kid on a tour of the White House. “Y’all are laughing, but it’s true!”
When Rascal Flatts was done, the Special Olympics Global Messengers took the stage. One of them gave a remarkably polished memorized speech about the goals to increase the number of athletes worldwide (currently in the 2 millions).
The athletes then presented the President and Mr. Bush with Special Olympics jackets. The President thanked them briefly and then seemed at a bit of a loss as to what to do next. So he then said, “Well, I guess it’s time to go to bed.” We all laughed, and that was that.
I know that Bush is known for his folksy charm, and his plain-spokenness. But couldn’t he have come up with something a little more appropriate to say? How about, “thanks for coming, it was a wonderful evening,” or, “please stay and enjoy yourselves, I have to go”?
In any case, that was the last we saw of the President and Mrs. Bush.
Continued in part 3.
As before, all the photos from the adventure are on Tabblo: