Maybe it was the white tie and tails. Or maybe it was the backdrop of a four-year-old war and 28 percent approval ratings.
But the state dinner at the White House on Monday night was an otherworldly event—marking if not the end of an era, then the beginning of the end.
It was also, of course, a splendid party fit for a queen: Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip. The Queen's tiara sparkled enough all on its own to qualify the event as glittering. Itzhak Perlman's after-dinner performance on the violin was virtuosic and all too brief. And the White House looked immaculate: from the gold-rimmed Clinton china to the fields of roses that must have been cut down for the evening.
Yet it was the Queen herself—whose speeches are often rather milquetoast—who helped remind the audience that a leader's time in power is fleeting, and that the harsh judgment of history is close at hand. She spoke of the chapters she herself has witnessed—of the alliance between Churchill and Roosevelt that rescued Britain, of Truman's reconstruction of postwar Europe and of the triumphant end of the cold war.
"That is the lesson of my lifetime," she concluded. "Administrations in your country, and governments in mine, may come and go. But talk we will; listen we have to disagree from time to time we may; but united we must always remain." The words hung heavy in the room-a reminder that the clock is ticking on both the Bush administration, which is fighting to stay relevant as talk of the 2008 campaign takes over, and the Blair reign in Britain. Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to announce his resignation Thursday, after a decade in power (his foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, was one of the dinner guests).
After 55 years as head of state, the Queen can talk with some authority about the lessons of her lifetime. In spite of her schedule and her age, the 81-year-old Queen was a spritely presence in the nation's capital—especially at a champagne-and-cucumber-sandwich garden party at the British Embassy earlier in the day. But it's been 15 years since her last visit to Washington and whatever her health, nobody at Monday's dinner expects her to return when she's 96.
Bush is unaccustomed to white-tie state dinners (this is the first in his White House and almost certainly the last; his wife had to twist his arm to dress in tails). So he made sure to invite a big crowd of close friends from Texas. Among them, the mood was subdued. Seven years ago after President Bush came to office (and even two years ago after he won re-election) this was an ebullient group with an unfailingly confident and optimistic view of their friend's potential in the White House.
Today, there is a deep sense of dismay and irritation at the president's situation, most of it vaguely directed at the outside world. The president is misunderstood, they suggest, just as Truman was on his departure from power. It's not clear if they know they're indulging in wishful thinking. The biggest bright spot for the friends: how Laura Bush was looking forward to returning home to Texas in 2009.
Elsewhere around the room, the rich and powerful reveled in each other’s company. California Republican Rep. David Dreier pointed out the portrait of Franklin donated to the Kennedy White House by the Annenbergs, with Leonore Annenberg alongside. Former First Lady Nancy Reagan walked hand in hand with former secretary of State George Shultz out of the state dining room. Among the head-turners on hand for pre-dinner drinks: golfing legend Arnold Palmer and Superbowl champion quarterback Peyton Manning.
Then there was the royal couple themselves. All day long, hard-bitten Washington insiders were swooning in the presence of Her Majesty. One journalist confessed to babbling some weak joke to the Queen, and then feeling giddy at the sight of her laughing gently at his humor. For this British journalist, whose closest contact with royalty was a distant wave to a limo 20 years ago, the moment of the royal greeting was a nervous one. Fortunately, the nerves were quickly dispatched by a silent queenly handshake that left no doubt about the need to move on.
And the food? It would be rude to say anything critical about the fare at a state dinner. It was obviously an enormous challenge to cook for 130 guests at the biggest social event of the Bush presidency—among them this hyperpicky White House reporter, who just happens to have coauthored a cookbook. That said, the dover sole was excellent, but had nothing to do with the almond crisp on top of it. The saddle of spring lamb was, er, chewy—but the accompanying chanterelles were perfectly done. And the dessert, a gooey meringue and chocolate sauce, was not as good as the delicate chocolate petit fours. There's gratitude for you.
Somewhat less palatable: the primary topic of conversation at dinner, the war in Iraq. Senators pulled aside White House staff to suggest strategy over the deadlocked war-funding legislation. Bush's aides admitted they had no idea how the impasse would be broken. Henry Kissinger buttonholed national-security adviser Steve Hadley, pressing him to respond to several unspecified memos. Hadley promised a swift and detailed reply.
Perhaps most revealing, the timeline for results in Iraq—real, tangible progress—seems to have shortened substantially. At the start of the so-called surge, members of Congress and the Bush administration spoke of a six-month window to show progress and buy more time—both for the Iraqi government and the White House. Now, after a bruising debate over war funding, officials are talking about the need to demonstrate progress in just two months.
Power comes with its burdens, which might help explain why the Bushes and the royals soon took to their bed. Left to party the night away were a crowd of after-dinner dancers in the White House lobby. Among the most exuberant hoofers: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chief Justice John Roberts. Dancing to the Marine Band's homage to Glenn Miller, the Pelosis glided along—while the Robertses engaged in what the French would call “le roc”—a kind of jive thing. Pelosi and Roberts are both relatively new to their leadership posts. It showed, in the lightness of their steps.