Obama's Second State Dinner Celebrates Mexico

For the first time since 2001, the White House is hosting a Mexican president for a state dinner. The party for the Mexican President Felipe Calderon came complete with all of the trimmings, including an Oaxacan-inspired meal catered by celebrity chef Rick Bayless. Robin Ghivan, fashion editor of The Washington Post, reports on the night’s pageantry. And Univision Washington correspondent Fernando Pizarro talks about how the visit is playing in Spanish-language media.

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ALLISON KEYES, host

I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

It's the day after an official White House state dinner for Mexico's visiting president. So you now we're talking about all the issues and complications. Coming up, the view from Congressman Luis Gutierrez, a thorn in the side of players in the immigration reform debate. For some reason, he wasn't invited to the dinner.

But first, the view from inside the White House, the state dinner and the Calderon visit, including a trip to the elementary school where a little girl seemed to discuss her undocumented mother with the first lady. Let's listen to the exchange between Mrs. Obama and a second grader at a Washington area elementary school, who you'll hear say that her mother believes in her words, Barack Obama is taking away everyone that doesn't have papers.

Unidentified Child #1: My mom - Barack Obama my mom said that she says that Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesn't have papers.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Yeah, well, that's something that we have to work on, right? To make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers, right? That's exactly right.

Unidentified Child #1: But my mom doesn't have papers.

Unidentified Child #2: Could you make paper?

Ms. OBAMA: Yeah, well, we have to work on that. We have to fix that and that everybody's got to work together in Congress to make sure that that happens. That's right.

KEYES: You might have barely heard the girl say, but my mom doesn't have papers.

Univision's Washington correspondent Fernando Pizarro is here with me in the studio. And Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan, who was at the dinner, joins me from the Post. Welcome both of you.

Mr. FERNANDO PIZARRO (Washington Correspondent, Univision): Thanks for having me.

Ms. ROBIN GIVHAN (Fashion Editor, The Washington Post): Thank you.

KEYES: Fernando, let me start with you. How did those words from the little girl play on Univision?

Mr. PIZARRO: Well, were they a moment. I think, you know, they showed the drama that illegal immigration still is in this country and it was a shock. It wasn't seemed to be an unscripted moment. I think the first lady handled it very well. But, you know, it showed the fact that this can happen in any moment and this is an issue that continues to reverberate through our society. So it did play out very well. I mean, locally and nationally, we led with these stories. And after the visit, that exchange, you know, was a whole piece in itself.

KEYES: Were people upset? Were they worried? Were they sad?

Mr. PIZARRO: No, I think they were surprised by the setting. I don't think people were worried. I mean, it just showed that the situation continues to haunt the White House in this case.

KEYES: How closely are the viewers on Univision following President Calderon's visit here?

Mr. PIZARRO: Very closely. I don't think they expect much.

KEYES: Why not?

Mr. PIZARRO: Well, because, you know, presidential visits don't tend to have a lot of results. However, it has been refreshing from President Calderon since he was president-elect and he first came to the White House in 2006, the day after Republicans had lost control to Congress...

KEYES: Right.

Mr. PIZARRO: ...he came here as president-elect. And he did say and he did take responsibility, perhaps the first Mexican president to do so publicly, for the fact that they did not create enough jobs in Mexico to prevent people from coming.

But this time, what was very different is the fact that he pointed fingers, usually Latin American presidents who come to visit the White House do not point fingers at the United States. But he did, not at the White House, where he did say that this has been a historic visit, where they have found so much agreement on so many issues, including immigration and, you know, border security, the issue of border violence related to drugs.

But he did point fingers at Arizona and he did say that this law was discriminatory. And the Mexican embassy and government are taking a very aggressive role in this issue and they're filing amicus briefs and all the lawsuits by organizations against the Arizona law.

KEYES: Was that seen by Univision viewers as a sign of strength. There have been some stations here that have suggested that President Obama looked bad by having the Mexican president basically, as you said, point fingers?

Mr. PIZARRO: I don't know about President Obama looking bad. But, you know, I think it was unexpected, unprecedented that a Mexican president would come, again, as I said, to point fingers. And I don't know, I leave it for others to analyze whether this made the White House look bad. Because, as we know, Obama and Calderon are on the same side on this issue.

KEYES: Robin, you were at the dinner.

Ms. GIVHAN: Yes.

KEYES: And I wonder, were people talking about the exchange between the first lady and that little girl?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, at that point it was sort of pushed into the broader conversation about immigration in general. I mean, I think that was sort of the undercurrent that went throughout the dinner. And whether it was, you know, the mayor of Los Angeles or it was the actress Eva Longoria Parker, that was the number one topic of conversation right alongside who made your dress?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Wait, did that beat out the who made your dress?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I think Eva Longoria made balanced it quite nicely. She gave a very nice comment, an interesting and a smart comment about immigration and then she quickly pivoted and described her dress. So...

KEYES: What did she say?

Ms. GIVHAN: She really just discussed that the issue of immigration was something that was, you know, that the timing of the dinner was particularly apt because the issue had really come to the fore to such a degree. And certainly the recent law that was passed in Arizona was something that was on her mind. She is of Mexican-American descent and she was talking about how it was distressing to her to think that people who look like her could be stopped simply because of the way that they looked. I mean, that was her interpretation. And, you know, she was happy to hear President Obama speak directly to that.

KEYES: Did people also talk about the immigration reform legislation or the Arizona law or after that did they basically get back to the, oh, that's a cute outfit?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: And Beyonce singing.

Ms. GIVHAN: And Beyonce singing, yeah. You know, I think it was a nice balance, actually. You know, every lawmaker who came through during arrivals, you know, we asked, is this going to be business or pleasure and true to form, you know, it's a little bit of both. But for them it's really an opportunity to perhaps address some of these more substantive topics. But to do it in a setting that is, you know, glamorous and majestic like a state dinner.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking about Mexico president Felipe Calderon, his visit to Washington and the fancy state dinner at the White House held in his honor. We're speaking to journalist Fernando Pizarro of Univision and Robin Givhan of The Washington Post.

Fernando, before the dinner kicked off, President Obama called President Calderon a neighbor, friend and partner and even spoke a little Spanish. What did they say and how did they couch it when they spoke about the anti-immigration law in Arizona?

Mr. PIZARRO: Well, I wanted to say, actually, if I may to add that, you know, these visits, these state visits take months in planning. So the whole fact that this three weeks ago, the Arizona legislature decided to pass this bill, it just made immigration be the main topic of this meeting, which probably wouldn't have been.

But it's interesting that immigration has still been the topic and they've kept on bringing it up. President Calderon brought it up at the arrival ceremony yesterday. I mean, in a very subdued way. But then he was a lot more direct in the press conference and then again at the dinner. And, remember, they only took two questions and they took questions from our network and a Mexican outlet. They did not allow any U.S. media to take questions at the press conference, which was, I would say, a little unusual to say the least. And the two questions were only directed to President Obama.

KEYES: What did they say about the law? Do they agree on opposing it or was it more complicated than that?

Mr. PIZARRO: Well, President Obama has said repeatedly, you know, some media reported yesterday that he had brought it up a notch. He did say that the law could be discriminatory. But President Obama has been criticizing this since the legislature passed it.

Attorney General Eric Holder has been criticized last week for saying that he had not read the full content of the law. President Obama made a big point at this press conference yesterday saying that by reading the statute, you could get to the impression that the law could discriminate. But he just did not say much that he hasn't said before that the Department of Justice is taking a legal review, and he expects a report soon. Now...

KEYES: But did it not mean more saying that standing next to President Calderon?

Mr. PIZARRO: Well, I think it meant a lot. But as I said before, on this particular issue, they're both on the same side. President Obama has spoken publicly against the Arizona law. And but what was different this time was that President Calderon was so openly critical.

KEYES: At the dinner, Robin, were people speaking about the immigration reform law at all?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, you know, I just wanted to add, just before the dinner portion that, you know, I don't necessarily think that when the little girl sort of raised the question during the school visit that it was as much of a surprise to the first ladies, as it might have been to the media.

KEYES: What do you mean?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I say that because Mrs. Obama made her first foreign trip and it was to Mexico City. And she spent a significant amount of time with Mrs. Zavala. And one of Mrs. Zavala's issues is the situation with migrant children and kids who are often crossing a border alone because their parents have either, you know, have come into the states before them. I mean, so this was something that was already sort of on the table.

And I would also add that, you know, Mrs. Obama does a lot of these sort of Q&A sessions with children. And she's been asked some pretty substantial things from kids ranging from questions about immigration to questions about, you know, her own obesity campaign. So, you know, there's the cliche, sort of, out of the mouths of babes. But in many ways, that has been true in a lot of the events that she's done.

KEYES: Fernando, we're running a little short on time, but I want to ask you, President Calderon is going to address a joint session of Congress today. What kind of things should we expect to hear from him, briefly?

Mr. PIZARRO: I think we're going to hear the same thing again. I think we're going to hear a lot about what his government is doing to cooperate with, you know, against the fight against drug trafficking, against border violence, how many resources he's allocating to that.

But of course, you know, you're going to have a very divided audience here many people who are open supporters of the Arizona law are going to be sitting before him. So there's going to be a lot of skepticism to what he may say today.

KEYES: All right. Fernando Pizarro is Washington correspondent for Univision. He was kind enough to come to our studios here in northwest Washington, D.C. And Robin Givhan is the fashion editor from The Washington Post. She joined us from her office not wearing the dress from yesterday. Thanks so much for coming.

Mr. PIZARRO: Thank you.

Ms. GIVHAN: Thanks.

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