White House throws lavish state dinner for Australia but turns down pizazz a notch in time of war

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House turned down the pizazz 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 happily represented Hollywood and guessed that he was invited because of 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 — and joked that he might get a chance to talk it over with the New York Democrat during dinner.

Most women wore gowns in more muted tones for this fall soiree than the eye-popping colors prominent at the state dinner for India earlier this year. Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Australia, stood out in her black lace gown with colorful parrots embroidered on the lower half.

Most guests rushed past a group of reporters watching the arrivals, but some lawmakers approached to offer comments about the Israel-Hamas war or the three-week fight among House Republicans to elect a new speaker so Congress could get back to work.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said as he arrived that it 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.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who heads up the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the political parties “have to stand together” because of “what's happening in Israel right now.”

With the pairing of what Jill Biden described as “comforting” food along with lower-key entertainment, 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 Biden family affair: Three of the president's granddaughters attended, as did his sister, Valerie. Jill Biden's sister, Bonny Jacobs, also made the guest list.

Jill Biden turned out in a silver blush gown embroidered with leaf motifs by Reem Acra. Albanese's partner Jodie Haydon wore a tulle gown on loan from Paolo Sebastian that featured embroidered native Australian birds and native flora.

The B-52s, an American new wave band with hits like “Love Shack” and “Roam,” had originally been lined up to entertain guests after dinner. But Jill Biden said “ a few adjustments ” to the entertainment were necessary at a time "when so many are facing sorrow and pain.”

Even if they lost a gig, the B-52 band members attended the dinner as guests.

On the menu: farro and roasted beet salad, butternut squash soup and sarsaparilla-braised short ribs, with dessert of hazelnut and chocolate mousse cake and 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.”

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 served in a temporary pavilion on the White House lawn decorated in pastel shades and sparkling floral chandeliers meant to evoke the feel of Australian spring, the current season Down Under, and American autumn. Chiffon-like fabric draped the ceiling and walls, and large cloth flowers were affixed to the light cerulean walls.

Biden offered a toast “for our partnership, our mateship and the future we’ll create together” with Australia while Albanese said his country "has no greater friend than the United States of America.”

Leguizamo, Schumer and two Biden granddaughters, Finnegan and Maisy, were seated at the head table with the president and first lady and Albanese and Haydon.

The first lady continued her practice of collaborating with an outside chef 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.

Albanese's office said the prime minister, during an exchange of gifts at a private dinner Tuesday, gave Biden a painting by Australian artist Katherine Boland and Jill Biden was given a silver leaf brooch along with a silk scarf.