WASHINGTON (AP) -- Caviar and cotton candy are on the menu. Bradley Cooper is on the guest list. Mary J. Blige is set to perform. Yet much of the focus for Tuesday’s glitzy state dinner for French President Francois Hollande centers on the fact that he’s flying solo following a very public breakup from his first lady after being caught in a tryst with another woman.
Call it dinner with a French twist.
The White House did its straight-faced best to keep the attention on anything but "l’affaire Hollande," preparing an outsized dinner-for-350 spread of pomp and pageantry in a giant party tent on the South Lawn. (There’s no room inside the White House that can handle that many guests.)
But all eyes focused on who would be seated next to President Barack Obama -- in the seat traditionally reserved for the guest of honor’s spouse or companion.
It was still a mystery even as Hollande arrived at the White House after dusk, stepping out of his limo and onto a red carpet to greet Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, who wore a black, hand-sewn beaded embroidery appliqui scallop-edged top with three-quarter length sleeves over a liberty blue silk gown designed by Carolina Herrera.
Leading businessmen, A-list actors and prominent politicians adorned the guest list, released by the White House just as guests were arriving.
In a midterm election year, the Obamas were packing in one of their largest-ever dinner crowds, and more than two dozen donors to Obama’s campaigns and the Democratic Party appeared on the guest list. Among them were Irwin Jacobs, the Qualcomm Inc. founder who has given more than $2 million to pro-Obama super PACs, and Jane Stetson, the Democratic National Committee’s finance chair.
In the kind of awkward timing that gives protocol officers ulcers, the White House last fall invited Hollande and his longtime girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, to come for a state visit, the first such honor for France in two decades. But then just weeks ago, the two abruptly split after a tabloid caught a helmeted Hollande zipping via motorcycle to a liaison with actress Julie Gayet.
Questions immediately began to swirl about who might accompany Hollande -- old girlfriend? new girlfriend? -- but the 59-year-old leader ultimately decided to come stag, forcing the White House social team to make behind-the-scenes adjustments after months of choreography and planning.
Just in case Hollande wanted to change his mind, Vogue, Washingtonian and other publications offered up all sorts of tongue-in-cheek suggestions for suitable dinner companions, heavy on actresses with a French connection. French-American Julie Delpy, perhaps? Paris-born Emmanuelle Seigner?
Lost in all the speculation: Hollande is far from the first world leader to sup at the White House sans companion.
China’s Hu Jintao didn’t bring his wife to a state dinner in 2011. Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, soloed at an official White House dinner in November 2007, a month after divorcing his wife.
The White House tapped into social media to gin up excitement for the French visit.
Michelle Obama’s team tweeted a photo of pickled vegetables from the White House kitchen garden to be used in the four-course dinner celebrating American cuisine, and a YouTube video shows the kitchen team at work. The main course: dry-aged rib eye beef from a family farm in Colorado, with Jasper Hill Farm blue cheese from Vermont.
The mansion’s chefs temporarily took over the White House Instagram account this week to document dinner prep. One behind-the-scenes revelation: They used a paint sprayer to distribute a micro-thin layer of chocolate over the creamy ganache cake on the dessert menu. Also part of the dessert lineup: cotton candy dusted with orange zest.
For all of the planning to ensure that everything is just right, Obama has had to contend with plenty of state dinner complications -- contretemps involving both who gets in and who opts out.
A 2009 dinner for India was overshadowed by revelations that aspiring reality TV stars Michaele and Tareq Salahi had managed to slip in without an invitation. A planned state visit and dinner for Brazil last October was scrapped with barely a month’s notice after President Dilma Rousseff opted to stay home to protest U.S. surveillance of overseas targets, including her own country.
The laws of supply and demand have made invitations to Obama’s state dinners especially coveted. Over the last five years, the president has held just six state or official dinners. George W. Bush also was stingy with state dinners, holding just six over his eight years in office, while Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan reveled in the glitzy affairs. Clinton played host to 30 state or official visits, and Reagan more than 50.
Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Jack Gillum contributed to this report.
State Dinner guest list: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/02/11/expected-attendees-tonight-s-state-dinner