John Baer: State Dinners: Wining & dining on taxpayers' dime

First lady Michelle Obama is seated with President and Chief Executive Officer of Ford Motor Company Alan Mulally as President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak offer toasts during a State Dinner in the East Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
First lady Michelle Obama is seated with President and Chief Executive Officer of Ford Motor Company Alan Mulally as President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak offer toasts during a State Dinner in the East Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (AP)
Posted: October 24, 2011

WHAT FOLLOWS IS a premeditated populist rant, so if that sort of thing irks you, go read something else.

Ever since the recent White House State Dinner honoring South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, I'm bothered by a couple of questions, not least of which is: What the hell are masago rice pearl crispies? More on that later.

First, why are tax dollars spent on lavish events while so many are unemployed, underemployed or otherwise suffering in economic conditions not of their making?

Second, why won't the White House, whose current occupant jets around claiming he's a "warrior for the middle class," say, "Hey, maybe we can show some economic empathy by cutting back on our customary excess"?

I understand that maintaining relations with leaders of allied nations is part of what's on every president's plate - so to speak.

I get that the tradition dates to President Ulysses Grant, who held the first State Dinner in 1874 honoring (I'm not making this up) the king of Sandwich Island, which actually worked out since that's Hawaii, and Hawaii became our 50th state.

But like all things governmental, State Dinners grew exponentially. That first one had 36 guests; President Obama's first, in 2009, had 320.

Why?

If the president wants to host another nation's leader, why not do so with a small, intimate dinner? More personal chat time, less expense for taxpayers.

Speaking of which, these gigs (Obama's had five: for leaders of China, Germany, India, South Korea and Mexico) are four- to five-course gourmet affairs, each course accompanied by a different wine, followed by entertainment.

Invitations are engraved, gold-embossed and hand-addressed by calligraphers.

The menu for the Oct. 13 dinner was butternut-squash bisque with honey poached cranberries, Virginia-cured ham, pumpkinseed praline and crème fraîche; fall harvest salad on daikon sheets with masago rice pearl crispies (seems masago is an Icelandic caviar favored in Asian cuisine, so I guess we're talking rice crackers with caviar) in a rice-wine vinaigrette; Texas Wagyu steaks (like Kobe beef, very expensive) with orange-ginger fondue, sautéed kale and roasted Kabocha squash; chocolate-malt devil's food layer cake with pear and almond brittle. And, of course, all that wine, none of which, I'm sure, came in a box.

I figure a feast for so many (guest list of 225) carries a per-plate price slightly more than Denny's daily dinner special.

Finding exactly how much more isn't all that easy.

The White House refers me to the State Department, where an aide says she doesn't know but will look into it. Days later, I'm still waiting.

In the past, CBS News and others reported that the cost of a State Dinner approaches $500,000 paid through the State Department, and nobody discusses specifics.

Oh, what's that? The price of 225 Waygu rib-eyes is a matter of national security? Then I'll have a serving of selective transparency, please.

Also irksome is the guest list. It's full of campaign donors, members of Congress, celebrities and network-TV types presumably capable of buying their own eats.

Why taxpayers feed Whoopi Goldberg, Billie Jean King, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Katie Couric or Brian Williams is beyond me.

So here's the deal. Since these dinners won't ever end (too many in both parties and atop the media pyramid enjoy them), how about a modest compromise?

Any time unemployment, now at 9.1 percent, tops, say, 8 percent, no State Dinners. No engraved invites, no endless wine, no masago rice pearl crispies.

That way, a president who claims to be a "warrior for the middle class" can, on occasion, back it up with more than words.


For recent columns, go to

philly.com/JohnBaer. Read his blog at philly.com/BaerGrowls.

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