Pleasant Evening at the White House

  • Capital Connections ®
  • |
  • April 16, 1999

by Karen Feld

Pleasant Evening at the White House, But No Thanks to Sleeping Over

Not many folks turn down an invitation from Bill Clinton, the U.S. president, to spend a night in the acclaimed Lincoln Bedroom at Washington’s most coveted “B & B,” the White House. Certainly, not Tom Hanks, Barbra Streisand, or Steven Spielberg, but the Reverend Billy Graham and his wife did. The Grahams came to Washington to attend the official White House dinner for Zhu Rongji, the Chinese premier. After all, the Mr. Graham says he’s preached “with care” in China and calls the premier “a good friend. He has a great sense of humour and is very personable,” says the Mr. Graham, who added: “I’m not going to get involved in political things like human rights.” Mr. Graham said he’s known Mr. Clinton since the president was 17. The Grahams asked Mr. Clinton for “a rain check” on the overnight invitation, “because we knew he’d be worn out and we were somewhat tired,” said Mr. Graham.

The mood was friendly and the 224-person guest list included mostly political contributors, policy leaders, and businessmen, including Steve Case, CEO of America Online; John Smith, CEO of General Motors; Leo Mullin, CEO of Delta Airlines; and Edgar Bronfman Jr., president and CEO of Seagram. An informal consensus showed that China should be embraced as a trading partner and taken into the World Trade Organization. Author Amy Tan, filmmaker Joan Chen, and Michelle Kwan, figure skating star, were also on the list, as was Dr. David Ho, who discovered the AIDS cocktail, and acknowledged, “yes, there’s sex and drugs in China too.”

Yo-Yo Ma, an old pro when it comes to performing at White House dinners, didn’t want to talk politics. “I do music. I’m a cross-cultural kind of guy,” he said. The cellist and 12-time Grammy award winner was challenged by the Chinese leader who said that “Western opera makes him want to take a nap.” Fortunately, Mr. Ma’s after-dinner performance in the East Room made him feel differently. Mr. Zhu is himself a musician and plays what Mr. Clinton called “a Chinese fiddle.” The president presented Mr. Zhu with the perfect gift, an Arkansas dulcimer.

Taking a cue from Mrs. Clinton, Madame Lao An, Mr. Zhu’s wife, visited Sidwell Friends, the private Quaker school where the son of Al Gore, the U.S. vice-president, is a student and Chelsea Clinton is an alumna.

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