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White House scraps plan for B-52s to entertain at state dinner against backdrop of Israel-Hamas war

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House scrapped plans to have the new wave band the B-52s perform at Wednesday’s state dinner for Australia’s prime minister after deciding that it would be inappropriate at a time when “so many are facing sorrow and pain,” in the words of first lady Jill Biden.

Without directly referencing the devastation of the Israel-Hamas war, the first lady announced Tuesday that “we’ve made a few adjustments to the entertainment portion” of the dinner. Instead of the band best known for “Love Shack” and other hits, the entertainment will be instrumental music provided by the Marine band and the Army and Air Force Strolling Strings.

“Nurturing our partnerships and relationships with our allies is critically important, especially in these tumultuous times,” she said. “Food is comforting, reassuring and healing, and we hope that this dinner provides a little of that as well.”

Members of the B-52s will instead be guests at the dinner honoring Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who is being accompanied by Jodie Haydon.

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The first lady has lined up Katie Button, chef and co-founder of Curate, an acclaimed restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, to help the White House kitchen staff prepare the night’s dinner courses of farro and roasted beet salad, butternut squash soup and sarsaparilla-braised short ribs. Dessert will be hazelnut and chocolate mousse cake and creme fraiche ice cream.

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President Joe Biden invited Albanese to the U.S. on a state visit, the highest diplomatic honor that Washington reserves for its closest allies, after the president cut short his trip to the Indo-Pacific by canceling a stop in Australia last May to return to the White House for crucial budget talks with Congress.

Albanese is the fourth world leader Biden has honored with a state visit, after the leaders of France, South Korea and India.

The visit, which ends with the White House state dinner, was a consolation prize of sorts for Albanese. His long-awaited engagement with Biden takes place not only amid the Mideast conflict but also as Washington is dealing with the chaos on Capitol Hill, where the Republican-controlled House remains without a speaker three weeks after the unprecedented ouster of the previous office holder.

More than 300 lawmakers, business titans and celebrities have been invited, but the White House keeps the guest list secret until just before guests start to arrive for the black-tie affair. The dinner program, including an exchange of toasts, will unfold in a temporary pavilion being built on the White House lawn. The decor of shades of green, pink, blue and orange was chosen to evoke the feeling of spring, the season now in Australia, said White House social secretary Carlos Elizondo.

The first lady and Elizondo worked on the decor with Bryan Rafanelli and his design and production firm, Rafanelli Events. The firm also worked with Biden last year for the November wedding of granddaughter Naomi Biden on the South Lawn.

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The White House said postponing Wednesday’s event was not an option, casting Albanese’s visit as part of the important diplomatic balancing act that a president must undertake with U.S. allies worldwide.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “there is no more important time than now” for Biden and Albanese to meet, describing their upcoming conversations as “incredibly important.”

And John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, said: “Being president of the United States means balancing an awful lot of priorities and challenges, whether they’re domestic or foreign, and oftentimes the line between those gets blurred pretty dang quickly.”

Before the more formal events, President Biden and the first lady hosted Albanese and Haydon at the White House on Tuesday night for a private dinner.

As an official gift, the Bidens gave their guests an antique writing desk. President Biden also gave Albanese a custom turntable, while Jill Biden gave Haydon a green enamel and diamond petite necklace.