The invitation read, “The President and Mrs. Obama request the pleasure of the company of Ms. Smiley at a dinner.” In the weeks leading up to the White House State Dinner honoring French President Francois Hollande, this was probably my favorite part of the whole thing. After 37 years of being someone’s military “dependent,” I was finally the principal invitee, and my Navy commander husband would be my date.
Not even the invitation with my name on it, however, could compare to the moment when Dustin — after a day of work at the Pentagon, freshly showered, shaved and dressed in his formal mess dress uniform — arrived in a car to pick me up at the hotel lobby.
That’s when it hit me: we were going to the White House for a State Dinner.
But if the magnitude hadn’t occurred to me then, it certainly would have when we arrived at the White House and went through the usual security checkpoints, including standing before bomb-sniffing dogs, all while dressed in heels and a floor-length formal gown. Once that part was over, though, it felt like any other black-tie event where, you know, Mrs. Obama’s Chief of Staff, Tina Tchen, is leading you through the East Colonnade to the famed Booksellers room of the White House. That is to say, I’d never in my life done anything like this.
The first room Dustin and I explored at the White House was the Library on the right. This is where we quickly huddled in a corner to pinch ourselves (We were at a State Dinner — what?) and talk about the movie theater we saw on the right before we were announced to the press pool (us, announced to the “press pool”?).
In the Library, we met Stephen Colbert from “The Colbert Report” and his wife Evie. Colbert was just as I imagined him to be in real life: funny, yes, but also exceptionally humble and gracious. His wife, Evie, is elegant and personable. We talked about kids, military families and “Dinner with the Smileys.” Then we did what every other couple does in situations like this: swap phones to take pictures — the whole will-you-take-our-picture thing — in front of the shelves of books.
Next, we went up the marble staircase and into the East Room. Beneath three enormous cut-glass chandeliers, Dustin and I gazed at famous portraits of Theodore Roosevelt and George Washington. OK, I also gazed at Bradley Cooper standing between them. And here, in front of a portrait of Martha Custis Washington, we met Julia Louis Dreyfus.
On our way to the Blue Room to meet the Obamas, we stumbled upon a man who looked very familiar to me. I stupidly asked, “How do I know you?” and then I learned what happens when you lose an election: people forget your name. But Rep. Paul Ryan couldn’t have had a better sense of humor about my faux pas.
In the receiving line, Dustin spoke French with Francois Hollande, and President Obama was gracious as he thanked Dustin for his service. But, honestly, all politics aside, I can’t say enough about the First Lady. She is absolutely beautiful in person, and she is astoundingly regular. And by that I mean, she is not pretentious or overly formal. She embraced me in a warm hug, with no worries of messing up her gown, and she genuinely seemed excited to have us there.
Outside, heated trolleys waited to take us to a tent on the South Lawn where the dinner was waiting. I was at first concerned about the “tent,” given the frigid temperatures. But if this elegantly lit room with florals hanging from the ceiling was a “tent,” then everything I’ve ever camped in was merely a nylon sack.
Our table was one away from the head table. Essentially, there was only the Rev. Al Sharpton between us and the Obamas. Well, Sharpton and about 400 different forks, spoons and goblets. And those were just next to my plate! Not really, but it felt that way. I had no idea which glass or silverware to use first.
Dinner was elegant and 1,000 percent more impressive than anything I served at “Dinner with the Smileys.” The meal was punctuated by us meeting Dr. Jill Biden and Bradley Cooper, and seeing Sharpton dance to the music of Mary J. Blige.
The night ended the same way it began, with me and my man in uniform (even more handsome than Bradley Cooper) walking hand-in-hand down the sidewalk, past the security check-points, to a cab waiting on 15th Street, and back to our regular lives.
Despite knowing Dustin since we were babies, I never got to go to the prom with him. I’m forever grateful he agreed to be my date for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend a State Dinner.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.