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State dinner includes damp hems, soggy tuxes

Alan Mulally Michelle Obama

Alan Mulally, Michelle Obama,

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:48AM

WASHINGTON — Hemlines were soaked and raindrops spattered tuxedos, but not even a thunderous downpour could dampen the excitement of guests flocking to perhaps the most exclusive social event on Washington’s fall calendar: a White House state dinner for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

“I love the rain. They don’t have rain in Arizona,” said Dr. Peter Rhee, the trauma surgeon who treated Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in the head earlier this year.

“So much for the hair salon,” said ABC News correspondent Juju Chang, holding up the floppy ends of her dark locks.

Even President Barack Obama took note of the soggy weather as he marveled at the intense day of diplomacy that took Lee from the White House to the Capitol and back again. “He’s had a very busy day — and a very wet day,” Obama said.

A driving rain began just as guests started to arrive for Thursday’s opulent East Room extravaganza, soaking many of the guests and their finery as they waited in line to come in from the storm.

Hemlines on many of the floor-length gowns were visibly wet. Raindrops dotted tuxedo sleeves and lapels. One sodden guest hid behind her husband and refused to look in the direction of reporters watching the guest arrivals.

Besides better weather, the dinner also lacked Hollywood star power. Billie Jean King, a tennis great from days of yore, was one of the biggest names among the 220-plus invited guests.

King said she’d spent the day reading up on the just-passed U.S. free-trade agreement with South Korea and was “just excited to be here and be a part of it and share.” It was her first state dinner.

For the occasion, Obama deployed maximum culinary diplomacy to signal his high regard for Lee. An intimate dinner at a suburban Korean restaurant on Wednesday was followed Thursday by lunch on the State Department’s fine china and the dinner at the White House.

Obama has developed a special rapport with Lee: The two clicked during Obama’s first trip to Asia in 2009, and the signs of friendship were manifold during his visit to Washington.

Obama and Lee shared a limo on the way to a Korean restaurant in a Virginia suburb for dinner Wednesday night. During the meal, Obama shared the long-awaited news — hot off his BlackBerry — that Congress had finished work on the U.S.-South Korea trade pact.

Vice President Joe Biden got in on the charm offensive at a lunch of lemongrass sesame chicken in the State Department’s opulent Ben Franklin Room. He took note of Lee’s nickname “Bulldozer” and said Lee, slight of build, doesn’t look anything like an NFL linebacker, but had earned his nickname by taking apart and reassembling a bulldozer to figure out how to make it work better.

Biden called that a testament to Lee’s perseverance and patience in pursuit of practical solutions. AP

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