Sunday, June 23, 2024

How do you throw a state dinner on the South Lawn when the world is burning?

By their fourth time around, the Bidens know how to do this.

First, you call off a performance by an irreverent rock band. Then you dial down the celebrity wattage. And then you serve up some root vegetables and ice cream.

But, not a joke, you don’t cancel. The party goes on because if the president cancels an event every time there is an emergency or a conflict overseas or Republicans render Congress nonfunctional, he would never leave the White House. And this state dinner, held in honor of Anthony Albanese, the Australian prime minister, was an opportunity to express a show of nuclear-powered military force to a planet that feels that it is about to spiral away from its axis.

“We must continue to advance freedom, security and prosperity for all,’’ President Biden said somberly at the dinner, “and continue to build a future worthy of our highest hopes, even when it’s difficult — especially when it’s difficult.’’

He meant now.

Before the dinner was over, Mr. Biden had stepped out for a briefing from his advisers on the latest mass shooting, this time in Maine, according to a senior administration official. He also called several Maine lawmakers, including Gov. Janet Mills, Senators Angus King and Susan Collins, and Representative Jared Golden, to offer federal support. The president left the dinner shortly after 10 p.m.

But there is also Israel’s war against Hamas, a war in Ukraine against Russia and a new speaker of the House who tried hard to overturn Mr. Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. After reiterating his support for Israel and addressing the other serious news issues of the day at an earlier news conference, Mr. Biden pivoted from discussing politics and the toll of war to relishing a menu featuring a bounty of fall flavors.

He sat through the farro and roasted beet salad. The butternut squash soup. The sorghum-glazed young carrots. The short ribs. The crème fraîche ice cream. (“It makes him happy,” Carlos Elizondo, the White House social secretary told reporters during a preview of the dinner.) All of it was whipped up by a James Beard Award-nominated guest chef, Katie Button, and a phalanx of White House chefs.

“Please join me in a toast for our partnership, our mateship and the future that we will create together,” Mr. Biden said, lifting a glass. A burst of unrelated fireworks distracted both leaders for an instant, but they continued.

“I’m not quite sure how I top this for date night with Jodie any time, anywhere in the future,” the prime minister said. His partner nodded.

Mr. Albanese will take back to Australia a presidential promise that his country will receive nuclear-capable submarines, plus an antique writing desk and a vintage turntable. In return, the president will get support from the Australians, who have agreed to send over military personnel and aircraft to the Middle East, along with ramping up the shipment of missiles to Ukraine.

Among the guests were several Democratic donors, including Orin Kramer, Donald Sussman and Henry Laufer, who, along with nearly 300 others, breezed by a wall of reporters. The guests also included Naomi, Maisy and Finnegan Biden, three Biden grandchildren who enjoy the White House so much that one of them got married there.

Among the few Hollywood types was the actor John Leguizamo, also a fund-raiser, who was seated at the president’s head table. He said he thought Mr. Biden would do well in his campaign next year because he is “getting Latin consultants and talking to Latin experts who will tell him how to address us.”

There was also Caroline Kennedy, the American ambassador to Australia, whose cousin, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is running as an independent in the 2024 presidential election. She and her husband avoid reporters.

The list included Joe Kahn, who is the executive editor of The New York Times, which is the company that bought Wordle, and Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of The Atlantic. There was also Andrea Mitchell, a mainstay of NBC News, who said that the dinner was “appropriately” subdued. “The first lady canceled the music performance,” Ms. Mitchell told reporters.

That’s true. On Tuesday, Jill Biden, the first lady, canceled plans to have the B-52s play at the event, opting instead to seat the musicians as guests. The U.S. Marine Band and the Army and Air Force Strolling Strings played instead.

Another attendee, Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said he was happy about the change.

Mr. Wyden reminded reporters of the stakes: “My parents fled the Nazis in the ’30s. All got out. We lost family in Kristallnacht and Theresienstadt. And absolutely this is very much on our mind tonight, and I just want to commend the president and first lady because we would have loved to, under normal circumstances, had the music. That was a good call.”

In one gesture of bipartisan comity that is now largely relegated to state dinners, a Democratic colleague offered a few words of support to the new speaker, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, who was elected by Republican House members on Wednesday afternoon, after three weeks of congressional turmoil.

“He’s a very bright guy, and you know, hope for the best,” said Representative Joe Courtney, Democrat of Connecticut.

And Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas, predicted that Republicans would be united on sending more aid and defense support to Ukraine and Israel. On his way to the party, he just had one message for the president: “Work with us on this!”

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