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Chaudhary calls state dinner ‘critical step’ in Obama’s global policy efforts

State Sen. Satveer Chaudhary left, Steven Spielberg, and Col. Ravi Chaudhary.
Courtesy of Satveer Chaudhary
State Sen. Satveer Chaudhary left, Steven Spielberg, and Col. Ravi Chaudhary at last week’s state dinner.

The gate crashers at last week’s White House state dinner for India’s prime minister got most of the media attention, but Minnesota Sen. Satveer Chaudhary wants people to know there were some important global policy issues at stake.

And the food was great, too.

Chaudhary, D-Fridley, was at the Nov. 24 state dinner honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He was among many prominent Indian-Americans in the crowd of about 320 at the Obama’s first official state dinner.

When first elected to his current post in 2000, he was the first Indian-American to be elected to a state Senate. (He’d previously been elected twice to the state House of Representatives.)

Chaudhary said the state dinner was a “critical step” in the Obama administration’s global policy efforts.

“With a new century and a new administration that is interested in building ties across the world, we have an opportunity to shed some of those old Cold War misperceptions, and move toward  new world relationships. And the timing couldn’t be better, with the concerns about the global economy, climate change, energy development and health issues,” he said.

Did the gate-crashers — Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the Washington couple apparently trying to get onto a reality television show — create an unwanted diversion from the important matters at hand? Or did their antics draw additional media attention to the substance of the dinner?

Said Chaudhary: “I go back and forth on that. On one hand, I would rather see stories about the importance of the relationship between the two countries and why that’s important to all Americans. But it might not have been seen by so many without this type of exposure. The media needs something like that — a human interest angle — to bring an event to forefront.  So I hope that, after this blows over, the media comes back and covers the substance of the event and its importance to everyday Americans.”

Chaudhary said he saw the gate-crashing Salahis during the reception but didn’t get pictures with them. “We weren’t exactly the kind of people that others were rushing to get their pictures taken with,” he said.

The invitation arrives
Chaudhary said he isn’t sure who arranged for his invitation to the White House dinner; the hand-printed invitation came to his home about three weeks ago. Of course, he accepted.

“I was surprised; there are many more prominent Indian-Americans than me,” he said. “Usually these state dinners are attended by only about 150 people, but they doubled the number for this one, which is why they got to the C and D Listers, like me.”

A blogger has posted a list of many of the other guests and their affiliations.

Because his wife, Dee, couldn’t travel last week for medical reasons, Chaudhary invited his brother — Air Force Col. Ravi Chaudhary, who is currently assigned to the Pentagon after a stint in Iraq — to be his guest.

To get inside, they had to go through several checkpoints.

“At the first gate they checked our  names and IDs, then checked them against the invitation list,” he said. “It was never cursory. Then we went through another checkpoint to enter the East entrance to the White House and they checked again. I don’t understand, because the crowd was not that large, how those people slipped in.”

Military bling
The colonel wore a dress uniform, which attracted much attention in the room.

“Ravi was one of only two active duty military at the dinner; the other was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Chaudhary said. Former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell also attended, but he’s retired military.

“I’m fairly introverted at parties; usually my wife helps me make the rounds and be cordial, but my brother, in all his regalia, was a good substitute for her. His uniform was so shiny, and he’s a vet, so lots of people wanted to talk with us,” he said.

Like other guests, the Chaudharys were introduced to a roomful of media.

“We stood there, and the American media immediately put their cameras down. But the Indian media was clicking away,” he said.

They were quite impressed by the White House bathroom. Chaudhary even took pictures of his brother washing up in there. (They’re posted, along with dozens of other photos, at Chaudhary’s Facebook site.

In fact, they weren’t shy about getting photos of themselves with many of the celebrities at the event.

“We were almost giddy; so many important figures were there, and we kept wondering why, of all the people invited, we were here. Two brothers who used to fight each other in elementary school in Columbia Heights. It was an almost Forest Gump-ian experience,” he said.

“We were probably the hardiest clickers of the group.” There was another guy, I think a magazine publisher, who also had a camera, so we hung out together and took pictures of each other with the celebrities. For the most part, they were happy to pose with us. Steven Spielberg, though, wanted us to move away as soon as possible.

“Maybe we were a little starry-eyed, but I’m happy to have the pictures.”

In a reception line to meet the president, though, the Secret Service made them put away their camera. An official photo was taken, but hasn’t arrived back in Fridley yet.

“The reception line was in front of a Benjamin Franklin portrait. The handlers kept moving us along, but Michele Obama was interested in Minnesota and asked how things were there. We told her: 50 degrees and rainy. She was very cordial.

“My brother told the president that he’d been in Iraq, and had just landed his C17 in Baghdad when he heard the results of the election and he’d let out a big whoop. The president thanked him.”

Prawns, lightly curried
“Dinner was great: “Indian-American fusion, I’d call it,” Chaudhary said. The arugula in the salad came from the White House garden, and the main dish was grilled prawns, lightly curried. Dessert was pumpkin pie and a tart.

“I’d seen the menu in advance and told my brother it looked a little light, that maybe we should eat something beforehand because we’re pretty big buys. But it ended up being very filling.”

The evening’s entertainment included jazz singer Kurt Elling; a troupe performing Bhangra dances, which originated in India’s Punjab region; and was topped by songs from Jennifer Hudson. “I thought the glasses were going to break on her high notes,” Chaudhary said.

President Obama and Prime Minister Singh gave toasts, and Chaudhary felt the Indian official was much impressed by the event.

“He is not known for his passionate oratory, but he sounded more passionate than I’ve ever seen him,” Chaudhary said. “He talked about great opportunities ahead for great relations between the two countries.”

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