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White House party turned into somber affair


Published: December 21, 2012

IT MAY be difficult to envision a more lavish and festive setting than a cocktail party in the White House at Christmastime, but considering the timing of the celebration — the night of the tragic shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. — the evening took on a somber tone that particularly struck home for Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett, who is practically famous for doting upon and talking about his 1-year-old son, Sebastian.

Burnett, who was invited by the White House to attend the party with his wife, Mel, became tearful as he recalled President Barack Obama’s words to guests that night.

“It was probably the worst day in the president’s time, given the tragedy in Connecticut, but he did say that this reminds him of the fragility of human life and appreciating what we have,” Burnett told The Pine Cone Thursday. “And the holidays are the time to recognize the importance of family. This is a further reminder of the importance of hugging the people that you love. Let them know that they matter.”

While he resisted engaging in too much networking at the party, which was mostly attended by VIPs from Southern California, he took the opportunity to encourage Michelle Obama to visit Carmel and the Peninsula with her husband for their anniversary next year.

“I had a chance to talk a bit that evening with the first lady, and I joked with her that I recognized how she spent their anniversary this year was maybe not ideal, at a presidential debate, but fortunately next year, they won’t be spending their anniversary that way,” Burnett said.

Two decades ago, the First Couple honeymooned on the Central Coast and in Big Sur, according to Burnett. “They commented recently that they want to retrace their steps they took on their honeymoon,” he said. “And we told her how much we’d be honored if they had the chance to do that.”

Burnett said he also talked with Mrs. Obama about childhood obesity — another issue close to his heart, as Sebastian’s generation will be the first in recorded history with a shorter life expectancy than the previous generation — and the role California produce growers have in enabling a healthy diet.

“Most of the emphasis has been on encouraging exercise, but diet is a huge part of that,” he said. “We on the Central Coast produce much of the food that diet is composed of — it’s exactly what can be part of a solution toward addressing this obesity epidemic.”

The party part

Burnett said he didn’t know why he had received the invitation, “although I could speculate — and I’m sure it didn’t hurt that we hosted the vice president earlier this year.”

The celebration took up the first floor of the White House, and guests, who underwent background checks in advance and security screenings at the door, were invited to wander and explore the first and second floors at their leisure.

“There was a library, and I pulled a book off the shelf and leafed through it, and that was completely fine,” he recalled. “We were encouraged to explore and enjoy ourselves.”

Being at the White House at Christmastime was especially special for the Burnetts, since they met and married in D.C. Burnett donned a black suit, while his wife wore “a really cute Kate Spade dress.” Sebastian, meanwhile, was left in the care of a friend.

“It was a treat on a professional level as well as on a personal level for Mel and me, and hopefully it will contribute to the president and the first lady coming visit the Central Coast at some point,” he said.