Smiling in the rain, Obamas host gala at Phipps


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For nearly two hours under an occasional drizzle, President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, warmly greeted the world's leaders and their spouses at the lower entry of the Phipps Conservatory in Oakland for a welcome reception, the G-20 Summit's first official event.

Although a crowd of demonstrators in nearby Schenley Park spent the evening battling police, few sounds of protest could be heard at the Phipps -- save for a few distant shrieks -- when the president and first lady arrived at the elegant, glass-domed conservatory at 6:05 p.m.

Mr. Obama, dressed in a dark blue suit, seemed relaxed and eager to show the city off. "Welcome to Pittsburgh," he could be heard greeting visitors as they came down the rain-spattered walkway to the Phipps, chosen in part because of its environmentally sustainable new addition, the first LEED-certified public garden in the world. Mrs. Obama was wearing a long pearl necklace and a Grecian-style draped dress in a shimmering beige and pink print, with spaghetti straps.

First to arrive was Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and his wife, Shelley. "Dan, how are you? Thanks for welcoming us. Good to see you," Mr. Obama said, before introducing Mr. Onorato to the first lady. The foursome posed for photographs, and Mrs. Obama put her arm around Mrs. Onorato at one point and made conversation with her.

It was an extraordinary scene: as world leader after world leader paraded past in a relatively enclosed space in front of the Phipps entrance, the mood between the president, the first lady and the press corps seemed joking, almost intimate. At one point, while waiting for the dignitaries to arrive, Mrs. Obama turned to the press corps and said, "Somebody talk, somebody sing!" No one took her up on it, but Mr. Obama started joking with aides about their singing abilities.

When the rain intensified, Mr. Obama ducked inside the entrance, but called out to the press: "Sorry about how all you guys are waiting in the rain."

Around 6:18 p.m., Mayor Luke Ravenstahl arrived with his wife, Erin. Mr. Obama called out, "How are you? How about those Steelers, man?" Mr. Ravenstahl could be heard saying, "How are you Mr. President?"

They were followed by U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and various banking officials, including Robert Zoeller, president of the World Bank, who engaged in quiet conversation with the Obamas before heading inside.

When South African President Jacob Zuma and his wife arrived, Mrs. Obama just took Mrs. Zuma by the hand to pose for photographs separately, and the first lady was heard to say, "I'm very honored," when she shook Mr. Zuma's hand.

Perhaps the most flashbulbs of the evening, though, were reserved for French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, former supermodel Carla Bruni Sarkozy, who arrived just as darkness was beginning to fall. The glamorous Mrs. Sarkozy was dressed in a simple dark blue sheath, an austere contrast to Mrs. Obama's shimmering silk dress -- which was designed by Thakoon Panichgul, who outfitted Mrs. Obama for the final night of the Democratic National Convention and the first debate between her husband and John McCain.

The couples exchanged kisses and engaged in conversation, with Mr. Obama walking over to Mrs. Sarkozy, asking if she was well. Mrs. Sarkozy laughed and motioned to Mrs. Obama and said, "We're having a good time tomorrow," in apparent reference to Mrs. Obama's tour of Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts High School this morning with the spouses of the summit's leaders. Mrs. Sarkozy then gave Mr. Obama two air kisses on each cheek before she entered the Phipps.

A little less than an hour later, the spouses began streaming out of the Phipps to attend a dinner at Teresa Heinz's farm in Fox Chapel, "Rosemont," while the world leaders continued their evening at the conservatory.

One of the last spouses to leave was Mrs. Sarkozy, who smiled demurely and called out to one member of the press corps, "Bonsoir, m'sieur," before walking away.


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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