WASHINGTON – There was the usual pomp and pageantry afforded to a visiting head of state, including an elaborate welcome ceremony on the White House South Lawn and a formal, black-tie dinner that lasted late into the night.
But Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s state visit to Washington on Wednesday also came against the backdrop of conflict in the Middle East, where thousands have died in the two weeks since Israel and Hamas went to war following the Palestinian militant group’s surprise attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7.
President Joe Biden and Albanese carried on with all the formalities surrounding the visit. But several times throughout the day, the two leaders reflected on the events in the Middle East as they celebrated the historic friendship and ties between their own countries.
Here are some memorable moments from the Australian prime minister’s visit:
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A red-carpet welcome for Albanese
The president and first lady treated Albanese and his partner, Jodie Haydon, to a red-carpet welcome on a chilly fall morning in front of 4,000 invited guests crammed onto the White House South Lawn.
The two leaders strolled along the White House grounds to review the military honor guard before climbing onto a stage to watch the formal ceremony. A drum and fife corps paraded across the well-manicured lawn. A band played the national anthems of both countries.
The ceremony was a make-up moment of sorts. Biden invited Albanese to pay an official state visit to Washington – the highest diplomatic honor offered to U.S. allies – after canceling a trip to Australia and Papua New Guinea in May because of ongoing debt ceiling negotiations with Congress.
Albanese arrived late Sunday and visited Arlington National Cemetery on Monday to commemorate the Americans and Australians who have fought alongside each other over the years.
In his remarks at the White House ceremony, Biden paid tribute to the longstanding alliance between the two countries while Albanese said the nations are bound by belief that “freedom, peace and equality” are not just American or Australian ideals.
Turning to events in the Middle East and Russia’s war against Ukraine, Biden said the U.S. and Australia are “standing with Israel against Hamas terrorism and “standing with Ukraine against (Vladimir) Putin’s tyranny.” Albanese condemned Hamas for “atrocities,” “terror” and “brutality.”
A stark warning for Iran
After the arrival ceremony, Biden and Albanese huddled in the Oval Office, where they were expected to discuss the Indo-Pacific, joint cooperation on science and technology and their countries’ support for Ukraine and Israel.
Later, during a joint Rose Garden news conference, Biden said he had issued a stark warning to Iran’s ayatollah that the U.S. would respond if Tehran tries to harm American troops in the region.
At least two dozen U.S. military personnel have been injured in drone and rocket attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria since Hamas’ attack on Israel this month. The U.S. has deployed two aircraft carrier strike groups to the region to deter hostile actors from striking.
“My warning to the ayatollah,” Biden said, “was that if they continued to move against those troops, we will respond, and he should be prepared.”
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A split-screen moment for Biden, new House speaker
While Biden was speaking from the Rose Garden, over at the U.S. Capitol, a couple of miles down Pennsylvania Avenue, House Republicans were voting to elevate Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana as the new House speaker.
The vote was wrapping up just as Biden’s news conference was beginning, providing a dramatic split-screen moment and ending a chaotic 22-day stalemate triggered by the GOP’s ouster of Johnson’s predecessor, Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy’s removal left the speaker’s chair vacant for over three weeks and caused congressional business to grind to a halt.
Johnson helped recruit House Republicans to sign a legal brief seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election, when Biden defeated Republican Donald Trump. Asked if he was worried Johnson would try again to overturn the election if he wins in 2024, Biden said he was not, adding, “I know the Constitution.”
The White House said Biden later called Johnson to offer congratulations and say he looks forward to working together to find common ground.
Gift exchange: What did Biden give to Albanese?
When foreign leaders come calling, custom dictates an exchange of official gifts.
At a private dinner Tuesday evening, Biden and the first lady presented Albanese with an antique writing desk, designed in 1886 by an American furniture company in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The desk’s side panel was to include an inscription in gold to commemorate the official visit. Biden also gave the prime minister – a music buff – a custom signature turntable from a family-owned American audio manufacturer.
Jill Biden presented Haydon with a green enamel and diamond petite necklace designed and hand-crafted by an American jeweler.
Albanese and Haydon gave each of the Bidens paintings by Australian artists, while Jill Biden also received a silk scarf and a silver leaf brooch.
A toast to ‘mateship’ and the future
The grand finale for any state visit is the official state dinner, a black-tie affair that draws a curious mix of celebrities (actor John Leguizamo, violinist Itzhak Perlman, Australian rapper Kid Laroi) and political powerbrokers (Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Transportation Secretary Pete Buittigieg, U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy).
Some 400 guests at Wednesday evening’s soiree gathered inside a pavilion set up on the South Lawn, where they dined on farro and roasted beet salad, butternut squash soup, sarsaparilla-braised short ribs and sorghum-glazed young carrots. For dessert, there was crème fraîche ice cream and hazelnut and chocolate mousse cake.
Biden raised a crystal wine glass and toasted his guest of honor and “our partnership, our mateship and the future we’ll create together.”
Albanese said he has just one regret: He’s not sure he’ll be able top the evening on his future date nights with Haydon, he said.
Sorry, mate, but no ‘Love Shack’
The White House initially chose the new wave band The B-52s to provide the night’s entertainment but changed course at the last minute.
The night before the dinner, Jill Biden announced “a few adjustments” to the entertainment portion of the evening. Rocking out on the South Lawn would be inappropriate at a time when “so many are facing sorrow and pain,” she said, without referring explicitly to the war in the Middle East.
So instead of dancing the night away to tunes like “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster,” guests were serenaded with instrumental music by the Marine band and the Army and Air Force Strolling Strings.
The B-52s weren’t shut out completely. The ultra-fab band’s members still got to come to the dinner as guests.
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.
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Contributing: Joey Garrison and Francesca Chambers
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Memorable moments from Australian prime minister’s state visit
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