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MEMBERS ONLY: The White House Protects State (Dinner) Secrets and An American Hero Burns Himself

With exclusive photos and video, Banter White House reporter Tommy Christopher takes us behind the scenes at the top-secret briefing on the White House dishes, plus introduces us to a genuine historical figure.
state dinner preview

Welcome to this week's look behind the curtain at the White House, Banter-style. We've got an embarrassment of riches for you, literally and figuratively, as we take a deep look at something we barely care about (the plates they used at last Tuesday's state dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan), but learn some surprising things. Later, we also got the chance to speak to a towering figure in U.S. history, and kind of blew it. Let's just jump right in, because there's a lot to get to. As always, you can view all of this week's photographs here.

Last Monday's  state dinner preview presented several rare opportunities in one, as it was organized by First Lady Michelle Obama's press shop (my schedule rarely lines up with such already-sparse events), it was in an area of the White House I've never visited before (the State Dining Room), and it was a chance to talk with the regular, non-political staff of the White House. There were a couple of unusual things, though, the first being that the press office insisted that the "staff question and answer" period be on background (here's what that means).

At first, I assumed this was because we'd be speaking with rank-and-file household staff whose individual identities were less newsworthy and more desirous of privacy, but this was not the case. The preview was attended by staffers like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and the White House chefs.

The second unusual thing I noticed in the planning for the preview was the credentialing process. Anyone who attends these events has to be specifically credentialed for the particular event, and those requests usually require reporters to submit things like name, social security number, and country of origin for the Secret Service background check. For the state dinner preview, however, there was an additional data point requested (emphasis mine):

This event is open press to credentialed media, but space is limited. Members of the media interested in covering this event must RSVP by 12:00 PM ET on Friday, April 24. Press who do not have a White House hardpass must include their full name, date of birth, Social Security number, gender, city and state of residence, country of birth and country of citizenship.

My inner Don Draper was immediately convinced that this was to show favorability to female journalists, since we'd be covering "lady stuff," after which my inner Alan Alda became supremely offended at the stereotyping of the subject matter, but I honestly have no idea why they asked for reporters' gender.

The most surprising thing about the event itself was that it was a complete zoo, packed to the gills with reporters, cameramen, and staff. They really weren't kidding about space being limited. The crowd consisted of a large contingent of Japanese media, lots of American cameramen, and reporters like me. The American reporters were, as it turned out, mostly female.

As is my wont, I shot video of the final gather, as well as the walk to the State Dining Room, mainly to give you guys that "you are there" feeling, but listen to the very end of this clip:

That was a Secret Service guard telling me not to record in the Great Hall, a part of the White House that is open to the public, and for which there is no reason to prevent someone from filming. "This is not an event," he explained to me when I asked him why I couldn't record. Along with their background briefing rules, this was another reflexive, unnecessary attempt to manage the press just because they can. An East Wing press staffer would similarly admonish me on the way back from the event. I let it go both times, first because there is just no winning an argument with the Secret Service, and second, because the event was over, and I had already gotten my fair share of forbidden photos.

As much as I joke about the subject matter of the briefing (because it is absurd for it to be anonymous), it was fascinating, and a really great experience to cover. They delivered a round-robin of on-the-record remarks first, with sample place-settings and a display of the new china behind velvet ropes, but then they dropped the ropes and let everyone take close-up photos and video, and mingle with the chefs and other staffers who were present. Aside from the heavy-handed rules, it was a great event that allowed terrific access to the subjects, and a seemingly unavoidable chance to break some expensive-ass dishes.

We were all given hard-copies of the state dinner Japan-2015, many of which ended up on the floor, and from which most of the on-the-record briefing was culled, word-for-word. I've posted all of the raw video from the event separately, but here's a snippet in which my phone goes off (again), reminding everyone else to turn theirs off. I thought about just leaving it in my pocket until it stopped, but it was just too damn loud:

As you can see from the full video, the place was absolutely jammed, so even after they dropped the ropes, it was a bit of a madhouse. This also wasn't the usual gang of White House reporters, who are generally pretty cordial and collegial with each other. I was instead competing with cameramen who were trying to get b-roll and lifestyle reporters who are deadly serious about their coverage of tableware. If you ever want to feel hornet-like wrath at a press event, try getting within five feet of some dude's b-roll shot. Cameramen and photographers are not a sharing and caring lot.

Neither is the Associated Press' Darlene Superville, as it turns out, who gave me a death stare when I asked if I could get a shot of a bowl that she was standing next to, and snapped, "Is there anything else you want?" It's possible she felt I had interrupted her quizzing of the White House curator with several questions of my own, but I waited for significant pauses before asking anyone questions. Overall, it was a surprisingly cutthroat affair, much more so than any hard news event I've covered. After the event, I heard one reporter complain that they needed to get their coverage up "before we get beat by all the iPad people."

Even the White House chef, Chef Cristeta Comerford, got into the act. She was holding the first course for the dinner, a take on Caesar salad, and I asked what I thought was the most natural question in the world, especially given that the press packet already gave a detailed description of the ingredients in each course. What's the first thing a person might wonder about the dinner after that? The calorie count, of course, but you'd think I had asked for nuclear launch codes. She told me the salad was about 350, but wouldn't give me a count for the whole dinner, then quizzed me about why I'd even ask such a question, and briefly conferred with an eye-rolling press aide:

I don't know if you can fully appreciate how super-weird this was, but I've never had a White House official react that way even to questions of national security, let alone the most predictable, in-the-wheelhouse question in the world about the food being served at a state dinner. Maybe the right-wing obsession with attacking Michelle Obama has made the paranoia just run that deep. There's no way Chef Comerford didn't know how many calories were in the meal, yet hell if she was going to tell me. I didn't even bother asking the pastry chef, for fear I'd end up counting calories in Gitmo.

As an avid home cook, the entire scene was of intense interest to me, and the event was a terrific chance to take some beautiful photographs of the place settings, once I got over all the dirty looks from the TV cameramen. Here are a few of my favorites.

This is a table-level view of the state dinner place-setting, exactly as it would have looked Tuesday night if you were at the dinner:

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This is the dessert course, complete with a blown sugar teapot, so you really could even eat the dishes:

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And here's Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes carrying around a binder marked "Top Secret" in a room full of staffers from Redbook and Family Circle:

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Monday's briefing was a bit of a washout, but behind the scenes, I was making some headway reporting on TPP.  Josh Earnest didn't have any presidential reaction to share regarding former President George W. Bush's remarks, and said he'd let his exchange with Fox's James Rosen stand. Reading between the lines, I'd say Earnest's rebuttal about the consequences of the Iraq invasion was carefully prepared ahead of time, and likely reflective of President Obama's views. He also hooked me up with some staffers from the USTR who were very helpful.

After that, it was off to the RT America studios for my Thom Hartmann hit. About half an hour before showtime, Thom stopped by the green room with another guest, and introduced me. It was Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers and a genuine American hero. I really wanted to talk to him about the issue of this bullshit "war on whistleblowers" narrative, especially because within seconds of meeting me, he was pushing the idiotic comparison of people like Edward Snowden with his own actions. Ellsberg did his whistleblowing the right way, first trying everything he could to sound the alarm through proper channels, then carefully releasing his documents.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ellsberg isn't able to hear all that well, and the TV in the green room was too loud to make that debate possible, so we have to settle for this brief introduction to a great American:

While we waited in the green room, a steady stream of young honeys kept coming in to get selfies with him (if he wanted to, Ellsberg could probably get more ass than a proctologist with a Groupon), so it occurred to me that I was truly in the presence of a history rock star, and I got one, too. Then, the poor guy comically burned himself with chamomile tea and let out a really offbeat string of profanity that I can't remember exactly, but was something like "Fuck! Shit, fuck me from a clock tower!", and I was kicking myself for being on my phone instead of filming the greatest YouTube clip ever. These are the surreal contours of my job, being persecuted for asking about caloric content by day, and watching a legendary whistleblower curse out a chamomile tea bag by night.

I took a bunch of other video that you can see here, including some footage of a "Free South Yemen" demonstration in front of the White House Monday morning. As always, be sure to leave feedback and suggestions, and check back as the week progresses, as will I. See you next week, friends.