They know how to party

I can’t remember ever reading an article about a state dinner in the White House with such avid attention. But The New York Timesdescription of the dinner for India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh kept me riveted.

Sure, the President has a couple of wars to deal with, and that health care mess…oh, yes, and the limping financial situation…I’m following all that stuff. But it was with no little amount of relief that I turned to a description of how the First Family worked several messages into their menu.

Sustainable, healthy veggie items. Mixed collection of different china patterns. Very bright tablecloths and flowers that grew nearby instead of the usual flown-in-from-Holland varieties. And, lest anyone think this couple is all p.c. message and no fun, there were collard greens and cornbread on the table too.

Hail to the chief

A delayed flight led me to a long conversation at the airport with a charming 70-ish woman, on her way home from her mother’s 90th birthday party. The event had been a smash: all six children and a couple dozen grand- and great-grandkids in attendance, along with 75 guests.

With my mother-in-law coming up on a milestone birthday this spring, I recognized this valuable opportunity to get party tips from an obvious expert. After we’d covered the menu, music, centerpieces and invitations, she told me about the final touch.

Mother, it seems, had been quite firm about not wanting any presents. She plans to live to 100, she assured her children, but she has all the slippers, perfumed soap, nighties and framed photographs she needs. But would it be possible, she wondered, for the guests to get gifts to mark the occasion?

So that was how each of the attendees came to find a commemorative plate at his or her place. The back of each plate had the name and birthday of the guest of honor. The front? A handsome portrait of President Barack Obama.

“My mother, a black woman with a grade-school education raised a family of college graduates,” the woman told me. “She has a picture of President Obama in every room of her house. She told the guests that the day he was elected was the best moment of her 90 years.”

I wish I’d been at that party.

President Obama in Cairo

When I took Latin in high school in the 1970s, I stumbled through translating speeches written by brilliant men (and maybe some brilliant ghostwriting women) in Ancient Rome. I never got very adept at the process, but I did like the ringing brilliance that emerged once I (or the exasperated teacher) read them aloud in English.

President Obama’s Cairo speech will be studied centuries from now. The analysis of it so far has focused on the “something to make everyone mad/happy” angle, and that much is true. But more important are the courageous and intelligent stands taken on human rights, terrorism, women’s rights–and especially, the dangerous stereotypes of Muslim and Western peoples. It was a brilliant hour.

My message to the reluctant students of history who parse his transcript in the future: Hang in there, it will be worth it in the end. Oh, and if grades still exist, don’t panic if you get a C- in the course. Trust me, by the time you’re middle-aged, no one will know or care how bad you were at translating.

One of my favorite quotes from the speech:

“For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests.
Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating.
Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.
So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it.
Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.”