By Darlene Superville and Fatima Hussein | Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The White House took the pizazz down a notch for Wednesday’s state dinner, but more than 300 guests from politics, business, government and beyond turned out to celebrate close U.S. ties to ally Australia while striking a measured tone in a time of death and suffering in the Middle East.
The celebrity quotient was lower than usual for the fourth state dinner of President Joe Biden’s term, but actor John Leguizamo was happy to represent Hollywood and guessed that he’d snagged an invite because of all his work helping to elect the president.
As for what legislator he’d most like to be cast as, Leguizamo thought for a minute and declared “Schumer” — as in Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York — and joked he might get a chance to talk it over with the lawmaker during the dinner.
The gowns were more muted for this fall soiree than the eye-popping colors prominent at the state dinner for India last spring, but Caroline Kennedy stood out in a black lace gown that featured colorful peacocks embroidered on the lower half.
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 by the B-52s in favor of instrumental songs from military bands.
“I thought it was a good call,” he said.
With a menu of what Jill Biden called “comforting” food and lower-key music, the White House was intent on honoring Prime Minister Anthony Albanese after the president earlier this year scrapped plans to visit Australia at the last minute due to the debt crisis in Washington.
Wednesday’s dinner was something of a family affair: Three of the Bidens’ granddaughters were attending, as was the president’s sister, Valerie. Jill Biden’s sister Bonny Jacobs also made the guest list.
Jill Biden turned up for the evening in a silver blush gown embroidered with leaf motifs by Reem Acra. Albanese’s partner Jodie Haydon wore a tulle gown by Paolo Sebastian featuring embroidered native Australian birds like the kookaburra and native flora.
The B-52s, an American new wave band with hits like “Love Shack,” had originally been lined up to entertain guests after dinner. But Jill Biden said the White House decided to make ” a few adjustments ” to the entertainment at a time “when so many are facing sorrow and pain.”
Even if they lost a gig, the B-52 band members were invited to attend the dinner as guests.
On the menu: a dinner of farro and roasted beet salad, butternut squash soup and sarsaparilla-braised short ribs, with dessert of 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.
Biden condemns retaliatory attacks by Jewish settlers
White House releasing $3.7 billion in home heating aid. See if you’re eligible
US developing plans to evacuate Americans from Mideast
By cracking down on millionaires, IRS collects $160M in back taxes
Biden asks Congress for $108B for Israel, Ukraine, border, more
“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.”
A state visit 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 was 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 Down Under, 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.