A Final State Dinner Note

As a last entry in this space before turning things over to the guest team, and while the Hu-Obama State Dinner has not entirely faded from the news cycle, here is an atmospheric note, which I haven't seen much about elsewhere. It involves this scene:


One of the implied background themes of this state visit, from the U.S. side, was calmly reasserting that the U.S. has not, in fact, fallen completely apart or gone away. A year ago, during President Obama's visit to China, there was much hyperbolic moaning about America's desperate position as supplicant to its new Chinese paymasters. Since then, in various ways I won't belabor now, the U.S. has asserted some of its ability to recover (except of course in job-creation), its long-term commitment to Asia and the Pacific, and its diplomatic and institutional resilience. In this same year, the Chinese leadership has in many ways overstepped in military, economic, and diplomatic terms. Indications are that the Chinese leadership recognizes that it has overstepped, and realizes that these moves have made nearly all its neighbors warier of it, and closer to the US, then they have been in years. This doesn't mean the U.S. should launch some new bragging contest or doesn't have some serious problems. Rather it helps restore a situation better for all sides: a recognition that these are two powerful countries that will have ups and downs but will both be around for the long haul.

The other, complementary message - which ran through every statement by the President and his officials (and was even part of Henry Kissinger's essay just before the meeting) -- is that the United States is not trying to bottle up, contain, or thwart China. As Obama said again and again, China's getting richer doesn't make us poorer -- or shouldn't. It should make everyone better off. Because of sheer triteness, I don't like the term "win-win," but in whatever wording that was the message coming from every U.S. official. The logic here is that China will be the best version of itself if it doesn't feel hamstrung, constrained, disrespected, or resented, and recognizes that America's disagreements on human rights, or trade policies, are not attempts to block China's progress.

Now, suppose you thought those were two big US themes -- and then you considered the musical entertainment after the dinner. Here is what you might have noticed:

The program was nearly all jazz, by American performers of the first rank doing classic American numbers. To me the showstopper was the phenomenal singer Dianne Reeves --long famous in the jazz world and known more generally from her role as the 1950s singer in Good Night and Good Luck -- performing with pianist Peter Martin. And of course Herbie Hancock and DeeDee Bridgewater and Chris Botti and more. It was very good, very up-paced, very loud, and very lively jazz, performed with Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese delegation ten feet away in the front row. Obviously music does not prove national economic vitality. (Cf Buena Vista Social Club.) But if you wanted, well, theme music for an America that still had some zip, this would be an artful choice.

And for the "win-win" concept? There was this improbable bit of showmanship: Herbie Hancock and the young Chinese-born, US-trained pianist-phenom Lang Lang, doing a four-hands rendition of a piece by Ravel with a Chinoiserie theme. They enjoyed each other, and embraced when it was done. Again, it doesn't prove anything, but it was a good choice. Lang Lang on his own then played a Chinese song.

My wife and I were seated two rows behind Bill Clinton during the music, and -- what a surprise! -- you could see him moving, bopping, smiling the whole time. When the event was all over, at the moment pictured above, Obama made the normal statesmanlike remarks -- and then had a nice ad libbed comment, that he thought he had detected Hu Jintao tapping his foot during some of the numbers. If you have seen the normal immobile public mien of Chinese leaders you get the joke. Hu gave the standard "heartfelt greetings!" response, but I mainly thought: it's a performance that made you proud and happy to be an American and had to have had some infectious effect. (Like the great Chinese-folk-blues performance I described here.)

The photo: OK, it's blurry, but it was with a camera phone in the dark at short notice. If you click, it's bigger but still blurry. Facing the camera, from left to right, you can more or less make out: Lang Lang, Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, trumpeter Randy Brecker (standing back by the portrait), Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, DeeDee Bridgewater, bassist James Genus, Chris Botti holding trumpet, and Michelle Obama. That's the white-maned back of Bill Clinton's head you see in the front row on the right, and the back of Robert Gates's head in the very corner. While I'm at it, that's the back of John Kerry's head at the lower left -- and the baldish head in the center belongs to former SecState George Shultz. If you could see right through his head, you would detect Jimmy Carter, whose wife Rosalynn's head is visible immediately to Shultz's right. Joe and Jill Biden are standing directly in front of Obama. While I'm also at it, how incredibly small-minded was it of Harry Reid and John Boehner to decline invitations to this event?

Now you know, and I'll see you in a while.

UPDATE: Thanks to reader JE, I see that Lang Lang has posted the video of his duet with Herbie Hancock here:

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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