Rupert Cornwell: Our Man in Washington

Are there late nights ahead for our teetotal Texan who likes to be tucked up by 9pm?

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So it was a real treat last week, when Mr Bush gave what was just the fifth such dinner of his four and a half years in charge. (By way of comparison, his father gave 20 in a single term, the Clintons threw 30 over eight years, while the modern champions of Presidential entertaining, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, held 50, at one point at the rate of roughly one a month).

Technically, the occasion was only an "official dinner" since the honoured guest, Manmohan Singh of India, was not a head of state but a mere prime minister. But no matter. It was black ties for the gentlemen while Laura was resplendent in a yellow and orange ruffled gown by Bill Blass. The 134 guests could contemplate gorgeous flower arrangements in the shape of elephants as they sat in the State Dining Room, at tables covered in saffron silk edged with gold.

One way and another, it was a graceful way of saying that the world's most populous democracy was now too important for the US to ignore and that India now had been quite forgiven for that unscheduled nucular (oops, nuclear) test it carried out back in 1998. Oh yes, and if the US isn't yet ready to support India's campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, then a lavish dinner is the next best thing.

Poring over the published guest list was heaps of fun - what on earth did they do to get invited, I wondered, and why wasn't Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and Mr Bush's political svengali, there? Might Mr Rove have temporarily fallen from Presidential favour because of his involvement in the great CIA leak saga?

Then there was the menu, featuring pan-roasted halibut accompanied by basmati rice, followed by chocolate lotus blossoms and exotic glaces fashioned from mango, cardomom and cashew. (Why is it, incidentally, that food always sounds so much tastier in American English than English English?) Probably, you can get much the same at the hot new Asian-themed restaurant on Connecticut Avenue near where we live. But dishes don't come embossed with the White House seal.

So why aren't there more of these occasions? Some would argue that the very rarity of the state dinner only enhances its value and distinction. But everyone knows the real reasons why Mr Bush doesn't care for them. Famously, he likes to be in bed by 9 or 9.30 p.m, which tends to put a damper on the party mood. He visibly detests pomp and ceremony (unless of course the military is involved) and hates the Washington social scene (such as it is in this era of tee-totalling, homesick Texans).

Who gets the nod

In fact, there is a subtle pecking order in the treatment accorded to foreign leaders visiting the capital. To be sure, a meeting with the President is the status symbol to end all status symbols. But not all foreign leaders are the same. The nearest protocol equivalent to a brush-off is the basic 20-minute-and-not-a-second-longer session in the Oval Office, with a photo-op to prove it really happened.

One notch-up is is an expanded White House visit, including some weighty conferring with the President and some top advisers around the table in the Cabinet Room next door to the Oval Office. Better still is a "working lunch or dinner - which is what Tony Blair usually gets when he comes here. Top of the list is a state dinner. But if truth be told, even that isn't the supreme accolade.

Mr Singh will only know whether he really connected with Mr Bush if he's asked to stay at Camp David, the Presidential retreat in the wooded Catoctin Mountains half an hour by helicopter from the White House lawn, or down at the Bushs' Prairie Chapel ranch at Crawford. When you're taken for a drive in the Presidential pick up truck, invited to clear some brush, and fêted with barbecue and cowboy music under the Texan stars, then and only then is all set truly fair between you and the world's lone superpower. Mr Blair, needless to say, has sampled both.

But change may be on the way. Earlier this year Laura sacked Walter Scheib, White House chef for 11 years but whose most demanding chore of late has been preparing the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of which the President is especially fond. "Sacked" is probably too brutal a way of putting it - Mr Schieb was apparently summoned by the White House chief usher (who acts as a kind of staff manager behind the Presidential green baize door) thanked for his services and gently informed that the First Lady intended to "go in another direction". Mr Scheib at the last check had still not been replaced.

But the word is that "another direction" means more state dinners. I for one can't wait, even though an invitation will never grace my mantelpiece.

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