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Obama's River Oaks Night

What really happened at President Obama's Houston dinner: Inside details on exclusive River Oaks fundraiser

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President Barack Obama speaking in East Room White House January 2014
President Barack Obama, pictured here speaking in the White House January, was guest of honor at the River Oaks fundraiser. Photo by Jacquelyn Martin
News_Astros Wives Gala_Sheridan Williams_John Eddie Williams
Sheridan and John Eddie Williams, pictured here at an Astros gala, opened their home for the dinner. Sheridan Williams, John Eddie Williams Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
Nancy Pelosi head shot
U.S. Rep. and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was a special guest at the fundraiser. Photo by Lauren Victoria Burke
President Barack Obama speaking in East Room White House January 2014
News_Astros Wives Gala_Sheridan Williams_John Eddie Williams
Nancy Pelosi head shot

When trial lawyer and tobacco buster John Eddie Williams and his glamorous wife Sheridan built their second expansive home in River Oaks, they made sure that there was ample room for lavish entertaining of large groups. But a posse of 200-plus Secret Service agents and Houston police officers?  

That's what comes with the territory when you host a sitting President of the United States for an intimate fundraiser. And that security detail, along with 55 deep-pocketed Democrats and President Barack Obama, turned the Williams home into security central on Wednesday night.

While guests such as Astros owner Jim Crane, Mayor Annise Parker and former Gov. Mark White mingled over cocktails, POTUS arrived via the underground garage, was welcomed by the Williamses and was whisked upstairs to the servants quarters where he dined privately with staff and security.

"I just want to thank John Eddie and Sheridan for building this house just for our fundraiser here. I  think it turned out just fine." 

His meal — butter lettuce salad with fried quail, chicken scaloppini with polenta and, for dessert, dark chocolate cake —was the same as that served to the guests who paid a minimum of $16,000 each. Some couples ponied up the maximum $64,000 for the privilege of attending the dinner.

Among those guests were former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her daughter Jacqueline Kenneally of West University, former Mayor Bill White, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and M.D. Anderson president Dr. Ron DePinho and Dr. Lynda Chin, the latter guests of the Williamses. 

Also in the mix were trial lawyers Amber and Steve Mostyn, who hosted a fundraiser with Obama earlier in the day at their Museum District home. Although First Lady Michelle Obama was originally expected to attend the fundraiser, she had dinner with a friend at Triniti, missing the Elizabeth Swift menu.

Obama joined the early evening party (guests arrived at 5 p.m and dinner service began at 5:40) for 20 minutes of remarks during which he took aim at Washington gridlock.

Referring to the recently-defeated equal pay for equal work issue, he said, "I use this as just one example of the scores of issues that are critical to advancing this country’s future in which not only is the other side blocking progress but aren’t even offering a persuasive alternative vision for how we're going to grow the economy and make sure that anybody who works hard in this country can get ahead. 

"This has become the least productive Congress in modern history, recent memory."

While Congress might be at a standstill, there was plenty of action at the Williams home leading up to the presidential visit. A cadre of 15 Secret Service agents began inspecting the house and grounds two weeks before the dinner, ordering security measures that would have challenged the most accomplished hostess. Windows had to be draped and the front entrance, an elaborate glass and iron work confection, had to be covered. Screens were brought in along with pipe and drape, transforming the European-style mansion into something quite different.

Additional security mandates required that guests relinquish their cell phones and Internet service to the residence be blocked during the visit. As for the Secret Service request to build a trench across the beautifully manicured lawn in order to place a special land line, the hostess refused. The secure land line went in but was not buried. Even that had a guard.

As the president noted in his remarks, "I just want to thank John Eddie and Sheridan for building this house just for our fundraiser here. I  think it turned out just fine."

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