1. Opinion

A White House evening to remember

Published Mar. 16, 2012


The Obamas were having 360 of their closest friends over to dinner Wednesday evening, including the Camerons of London, the Buffetts of Omaha and the Tashes of St. Petersburg.

"How did you make the list?" a friend wondered in a way that provoked no offense since the same question had occurred to me.

Whatever the reason, when the elegant invitation to a state dinner in honor of the British prime minister landed on my desk, there could be but one answer. On a glorious spring evening, Karyn and I gathered at the White House gates with the likes of Antonin Scalia (of the Supreme Court), Richard Branson (of Virgin Atlantic airline) and George Clooney (of Hollywood).

Two ID checks and two more security screenings later, we made our way into the East Wing and were announced as guests while cameras flashed reflexively and reporters no doubt wondered, "Who?"

We wandered first-floor rooms that featured portraits of the first ladies (Pat Nixon seemed melancholy), presidential china (Karyn favored the Reagans') and one of George Washington's swords (a gift from the French soldiers who fought with him in the revolution), then upstairs to a reception in the East Room. I was last there 20 years ago, as bureau chief for the Times in Washington, covering a press conference by President Bush the Elder.

Just past 7:30, doors at the back of the room swung open for a receiving line with the president, the prime minister, Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron, while official photographers fired away. Karyn and the First Fan compared notes about the NCAA tournament. Out the door and down the stairs, trollies waited to carry us to dinner in a tent on the South Lawn, but the heavens were smiling, and most people walked.

Describing this structure as a "tent" is like calling the Queen Mary a "boat." It covered a space the size of a city block, over a solid floor, and the lighting and flowers (hydrangeas, sterling roses and violets) combined for a visual feast of lavender and green long before the first course was served.

For men, the black-tie dress code left little margin for error, but the ladies' gowns were objects of discreet red-carpet critiques. Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, looked Karyn up and down, then conferred a slight nod of recognition and approval for her fashion choice, probably not a good omen about the impending bill. (To borrow a term from a previous administration, we've been operating on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis.)

While we waited for the rest of the receiving line, we counted off the political celebrities — Hillary Clinton, Timothy Geithner, Eric Holder, John Kerry — and the vaguely familiar; "Hey, isn't that, oh, you know … ?" Joe Biden, in St. Petersburg recently for a fundraiser at the Vinoy, said Florida is one of five states on his assignment list for the campaign.

At our table, we found ourselves seated with the governor of Maryland, the chairman of the president's economic advisers and Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security. Her biggest worry these days: attacks on computer networks. In Florida, I offered, hurricanes would still be high on the list.

From one table away, we could see Warren Buffett seated directly across from the president, and the first lady was next to George Clooney. "Get his picture," Karyn urged, forgetting her earlier reticence about bringing our camera.

The president and prime minister exchanged toasts pledging that the "special relationship" between the United States and Britain has never been stronger (an assessment that comes 200 years after the British set fire to the White House during the War of 1812).

The evening's musicians — British folk rockers Mumford & Sons and jazz singer John Legend — covered a range of tastes. And just before midnight we stepped back through the gates, where the world — including Mr. Buffett's Cadillac — was waiting.

So, how did the Tashes wind up inside the White House for the dinner party of a lifetime? Unlike the doctor-lawyer couple from Miami at our table, we do not raise campaign money for the president, and given the Times' independence, we don't make political contributions. At the moment, neither of us is even registered as a Democrat.

Because I went to law school in Scotland on scholarship, I wondered if the Brits might have put our names forward, but a friend in their embassy deflected any credit. "Ultimately," he observed, "these matters are always rather opaque."

Fair enough, so we shall simply enjoy good fortune, rather than press deeply into the reason for it. But if I had to guess, I would say the answer probably has something to do with Florida's largest newspaper, Nov. 6, and 29 electoral votes.

Paul Tash is chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times.