State Dinner: Obama, Merkel toast freedom in Rose Garden

President Obama hosted a state dinner Tuesday for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, using his first lady’s favorite real estate -- the Rose Garden -- for the soiree.

About 206 guests, long on German heritage but short on Hollywood glitz, gathered on a balmy late-spring night for the outdoor party.

Obama presented Merkel with the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor a president may bestow.

First-rate American fare, including food, wines and performer James Taylor, was showcased.


Notable guests included architect Helmut Jahn and conductor Christoph Eschenbach, plus diplomats and members of the Cabinet, Congress and Bundestag. 

Obama told Merkel he chose the Rose Garden as the venue because it hearkened back to a 2008 rally in Berlin’s Tiergarten during his presidential campaign.

The dinner menu, centered on petite filet with Maryland crab ravioli, featured a nod to Obama’s heritage (Hawaiian tuna tartare) and Merkel’s (apple strudel and schlag, which is unsweetened whipped cream, for dessert).

It was dubbed “a spring harvest dinner,” a tribute to the White House herbs, vegetables and honey interspersed in the cuisine.


First Lady Michelle Obama selected -- again -- Indian American designer Naeem Khan to design her dress, a glimmering, cream-colored, sleeveless gown.

The dinner was a test for the Obamas’ new social secretary Jeremy Bernard, the third person to hold the post in less than 2 1/2 years.

Dinner guests sat at round or rectangular tables adorned with gold-rimmed china from the George W. Bush administration, yellow Calla lilies, green viburnum and yellow oncidium orchids.

Merkel, 56, grew up under communism and earned a Ph.D. in physics before turning to politics. She is the first East German and first woman to lead Germany, where East and West joined hands in 1990.

Chancellor since 2005, she’s become one of Obama’s closest partners on the world stage. Her trip this week -- technically an official visit, not a state visit -- represented her 10th meeting with him, White House officials said.

The Medal of Freedom is most often given to Americans, though Pope John Paul II and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl are past honorees. White House officials dubbed Merkel a symbol of the “triumph of freedom” given her roots in communist East Germany.

She was accompanied by her spouse, Joachim Sauer, a chemistry professor at the University of Humboldt.

Earlier Obama state dinners feted the leaders of India, Mexico and China. Given Germany’s size (81 million) and stature (Europe’s economic engine) -- plus the fact that more than one-quarter of Americans claim some German heritage -- the latest event was a savvy choice.


About 30 musicians with the National Symphony Orchestra were to perform, but Merkel’s favorite composer, Wagner, wasn’t on the program. Instead: Beethoven, Handel and Mendelssohn.

Space was tight -- too tight for the full orchestra’s 108 musicians. “Wagner needs a full orchestra,” Eschenbach shrugged.

The wines were from the U.S. -- most often they are at state dinners -- but another nod to Germany came in austere and sculptural Bauhaus touches in the topiaries and floral arrangements.

Obama, in raising a glass to Merkel, toasted freedom, “which must be struggled for and then defended anew, every day of our lives.”

Merkel recalled being a girl of 7 when the Berlin Wall was built, driving her parents into tears and separating her mother’s family. “For many years, I dreamt of freedom,” she remembered, saying neither dictatorship nor oppression “can keep down the forces of freedom for long.”

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