President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his partner Jodie Haydon for a state dinner Wednesday to celebrate the close alliance between the U.S. and Australia, but toned down the festivities in light of the suffering and death in the Middle East.
Instead, the White House planned a menu of "comforting" food and instrumental sounds, rather than the dance party music for the dinner.
Over 300 guests — members of Congress and other elected officials from both political parties, fundraisers for Mr. Biden's presidential campaign, labor officials, CEOs and at least one Hollywood actor, John Leguizamo — had returned RSVPs for seats at the fourth White House state dinner of Mr. Biden's term. Three of Biden's granddaughters were attending, as was his sister, Valerie.
The B-52s, an American new wave band, had originally been lined up to provide the entertainment. But first lady Jill Biden said the White House made "a few adjustments" to the entertainment at a time "when so many are facing sorrow and pain." She made no direct reference to the Israel-Hamas war sparked by the militant group's surprise Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, or Russia's continued aggression against Ukraine.
Guests now will no longer rock out to hits like "Love Shack," "Rock Lobster" and "Roam." Instead, U.S. military bands will provide instrumental tunes while B-52 band members attend the dinner as guests.
The menu features farro and roasted beet salad, butternut squash soup and sarsaparilla-braised short ribs. Dessert will be hazelnut and chocolate mousse cake with creme fraiche ice cream.
The White House said postponing or canceling Albanese's visit was not an option, casting his overdue engagement with Biden as part of the important diplomatic work that a U.S. president must undertake with allies, even while much of the world's attention is trained on the crisis in the Middle East.
"Nurturing our partnerships and relationships with our allies is critically important, especially in these tumultuous times," the first lady said Tuesday. "Food is comforting, reassuring and healing, and we hope that this dinner provides a little of that as well."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said as he arrived that the Israel-Hamas war was "absolutely very much on our minds tonight." He commended the Bidens for scrapping plans for rowdy dance music in favor of instrumental songs.
"I thought it was a good call," he said.
Jill Biden is wearing a silver blush gown by Beirut native Reem Acra that is embroidered with leaf motifs, according to the White House. Haydon wore a tulle gown by Paolo Sebastian featuring embroidered native Australian birds like the kookaburra and native flora.
Biden and Albanese were scheduled to meet last May during the president's trip to the Indo-Pacific, but Biden canceled his stops in Australia and Papua New Guinea so he could return to Washington for crucial budget talks with Congress. He then invited Albanese to Washington for an official state visit. It is the highest diplomatic honor, bestowed only on America's closest allies.
Biden also has honored the leaders of France, South Korea and India with state visits.
Dinner will be held in a temporary pavilion on the White House lawn decorated in pastel shades meant to evoke the feel of Australian spring, the current season there, and American autumn.
The first lady continued her practice of inviting an outside chef to work with White House staff on the menu. She selected Katie Button, chef and co-founder of Curate, an acclaimed restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, who said the invitation was "an incredible honor and true privilege."
Before dinner, Jill Biden and Haydon toured the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, to see how the National Cancer Institute supports pediatric cancer research, including through collaborations with researchers in Australia.
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