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White House Sets Stage for Female Leadership at State Dinner

First lady Michelle Obama delivered a modern message today about the importance of women in diplomacy to invited high school girls against a traditional backdrop: a preview of the arrangements for tonight’s state dinner honoring German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Obama told about 30 high school girls from the Washington area that Merkel’s life story, from growing up in communist East Germany with limited opportunities to becoming the first woman to lead Germany, “reminds us of the opportunity that women have to lead our governments and strengthen our world.”

“No matter where you come from, what you look like, or how much money your family may have, you can have a real impact on the world,” she said in the State Dining Room of the White House during a pre-dinner preview for the media, which included the unveiling of the table settings, food and entertainment for the administration’s fourth state dinner.

The students came from Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington, Thomas S. Wootton High School in the suburb of Rockville, Maryland, the Girl Scouts and Girls Inc., a nonprofit group promoting female empowerment.

Women in Leadership

This afternoon’s event, held hours before the state dinner, was designed to teach the students “about women’s leadership and diplomacy, which is uniquely relevant to the day’s honored guest,” the first lady’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, said in an e-mail.

Obama, 47, was joined by National Security Staff Chief of Staff Brooke Anderson, who told the girls that the dinner -- the first official visit and state dinner for a European leader during Obama’s presidency -- is an “opportunity to get important business done” behind carefully choreographed events.

The students got to sample the evening’s dessert as they sat at three round tables with the same place settings as tonight’s dinner. According to the White House, the inspiration for the décor, which featured shades of mostly white, gray and apple green, came from the German Bauhaus school of design.

The dinner will be served on china used during President George W. Bush’s administration and the tabletops will be ornamented with floating candles, white silver-rimmed votives and floral arrangements of yellow calla lilies, yellow oncidium orchids and green viburnum.

Rose Garden Dinner

Dinner will be served in the Rose Garden and will feature a menu including vegetables and herbs grown in the first lady’s garden on the executive mansion’s South Lawn. White House executive chef Cris Comerford and White House executive pastry chef William Yosses designed the menu.

The evening’s first course is a garden chopped salad tossed in honey vinaigrette, using honey harvested on White House grounds and apple cider vinegar, and spiced Mammoth pecans from Georgia. Guests will then be served tuna tartare, from Hawaii, served with rye crisps, pickled young carrots and mustard oil, a spring pea salad, and shaved ham and ginger snaps. The main course is a petite filet with Maryland crab ravioli served on a bed of wild ramp puree from West Virginia.

The dessert is German: apple strudel served with schlag, an unsweetened whipped cream.

The guests, whose names have not yet been released, will be entertained by the National Symphony Orchestra and singer and songwriter James Taylor.

Policy and Pageantry

The more serious issues that were part of today’s meeting between Merkel and President Barack Obama should be separated from the pageantry of the evening’s state dinner, said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

Young boys should also be invited “to learn about why it’s so important that a woman is running Germany,” Schiller said. “That’s what this lesson should be about, not where the fork and spoon go.”

Anita McBride, who served in the Bush administration as an assistant to the president and chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, said the event is a natural extension of Obama’s work with young women. She called it a “brilliant idea.”

“You cannot overstate the importance of using social entertaining in diplomacy,” McBride said. “The first lady is hosting this, and she is sharing with these young women a portion of the role that she’s playing in the state visit.”

The Obamas have held three state dinners: the first honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November 2009, notable for its party-crashers; the second in May 2010 honoring Mexican President Felipe Calderon; and the third in January for Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The first lady worked as a lawyer before her husband won the White House, Schiller said, and now is playing a traditional role: “It’s very old-fashioned, it’s very Jackie O,” she said, referring to President John F. Kennedy’s wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

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