WASHINGTON (AP) — Famous people and people just famous-for-Washington scored coveted invitations to Friday night’s White House state dinner honoring the leaders of Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and Norway.
Will Ferrell, who famously parodied past President George W. Bush on “Saturday Night Live,” and Bellamy Young, first lady on the TV show “Scandal,” made the cut, as did recently retired late-night host David Letterman, “Girls” actress Allison Williams and actor-comedian Aziz Ansari.
Ferrell’s wife, Viveca Paulin, was born in Sweden, he told reporters as he arrived for what he said was his first White House dinner.
“I hope we don’t do anything wrong,” Ferrell said.
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Other guests with Nordic ties were Marcus Samuelsson, the Sweden-raised chef who was a guest chef for the President Barack Obama’s first state dinner seven years ago, and Joel Kinnaman, a Swedish-American actor who played a politician in “House of Cards.”
The Nordic party was a twist for the White House — state dinners typically celebrate a single head of state. But Friday’s affair capped a multilateral U.S.-Nordic summit, a gathering Obama used to laud the Nordic states as model global citizens on climate change, security, humanitarian efforts and economic equality.
Hours later, Obama used the dinner to rib the leaders about their countries all-too-perfect reputation.
As he toasted the leaders on the South Lawn, Obama promised the night wouldn’t deliver any entertainment as crazy as the popular Norwegian television program “National Firewood Night.” And he mocked their internal fights over which country is happiest or which is the true hometown of Santa Claus.
“These are fierce debates that take place,” Obama said, before raising his glass to toast President Sauli Niinisto of Finland and Prime Ministers Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson of Iceland; Lars Loekke Rasmussen of Denmark; Stefan Lofven of Sweden; and Erna Solberg of Norway.
In his toast, Loekke Rasmussen dished it back. He noted the region’s many gifts to the U.S. — including Scarlett Johansson, whose father is Danish, and Uma Thurman, whose mother is Swedish. Norway, he said, can claim GOP strategist Karl Rove. The joke was a hit in a room largely filled with Democrats.
On a more serious note, Obama added his own gratitude for the strong cultural influences the five nations have had in the U.S., in particular the Danish pastor N.F.S. Grundtvig, whose education philosophy inspired Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School, where several prominent civil rights leaders trained.
Grundtvig’s work “ended up having a ripple effect on the civil rights movement,” Obama said, adding he “might not be standing here” were it not for his teachings.
The White House used the dinner to laud Nordic cuisine, design and even climate.
Instead of sitting around circular tables, the guests dined at wooden farm tables set with white china, beveled crystal candlesticks and soaring ice vases with white field flowers. The sleek white chairs had a clear Ikea vibe. The dinner was held in a tent with a transparent ceiling, giving guests a view of the sky that cleared just in time for the event.
The White House said the decor was meant to evoke the “cycle of northern lights and shadows.”
The meal had nods to the modern simplicity of Nordic cuisine, with American twists. Appetizers included salt-cured fish — but Florida tuna, instead of whitefish. The waffles were to be served with chicken. The main course: braised beef short ribs from Nebraska, with creamy dumplings.
Dessert was an homage to the fishing industry in the form of a blue, glowing, edible fishing boat, displayed with elderberry custard pie, raspberry kringle and gooseberry cookies.
Michelle Obama didn’t keep up the theme with her choice of gown. She wore a blush-colored, off-the-shoulder dress by Naeem Khan, an Indian-American designer and a first lady favorite.
Pop singer Demi Lovato provided the after-dinner entertainment, belting out her songs “Stone Cold” and “Confident.”
The guest list included a large contingent from the media, including Fox News’ Bret Baier, ABC’s David Muir and NBC’s Al Roker and Lester Holt. Cosmetics giant Bobbi Brown, NCAA president Mark Emmert, fashion designer Rick Owens and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf also made the list.
The White House often uses state dinners as an opportunity for political outreach. But in Obama’s final months in office there is, perhaps, a sign of that effort winding down. Several Democratic lawmakers were on the guest list, but no Republicans.