Mark Riley: No Rock Lobster, but White House dinner struck the right tone

Headshot of Mark Riley
Mark Riley
The Nightly
President Joe Biden and Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese pose for photos at the White House Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023.
President Joe Biden and Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese pose for photos at the White House Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/ Manuel Balce Ceneta

Somewhere along the line, someone realised that having two world leaders doing the Rock Lobster on the White House lawns while bombs rained down on Gaza might not be a good look.

And so the plan for the B-52s to smash out their 1970s pop hits during the state dinner for Anthony Albanese yesterday disappeared as if it had been eaten by a giant clam.

The Bidens of the White House are known to book some unexpected acts to add a little interest to these otherwise stuffy events.

Sign up to The Nightly's newsletters.

Get the first look at the digital newspaper, curated daily stories and breaking headlines delivered to your inbox.

Email Us
By continuing you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

But turning America’s famed presidential home into a pseudo-Love Shack while Israel buried its dead and Gaza was being levelled would not just be unexpected — it would be unimaginable.

The guests were instead treated to the more sedate soundtrack of the “President’s Own” United States Marine Band.

President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his partner Jodie Haydon pose for a photo at the Grand Staircase of the White House during the State Dinner Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his partner Jodie Haydon pose for a photo at the Grand Staircase of the White House during the State Dinner Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

As this column pointed out last week, getting the tone of this event right was essential given the frightening geopolitical landscape of the times.

It was a difficult balance, but the leaders seemed to get it right.

There was ceremony without celebration, fanfare without festivity, recognition without revelry.

That balance was maintained through the precise pageantry of the military welcome to the respectful ambience of the state dinner — sans B-52s and bopping beehives.

But it was most notable in the words of the leaders.

Albanese’s address during the South Lawn welcome was the best speech I’ve heard him deliver as Prime Minister.

Sections of it were beautifully crafted and piercingly appropriate.

One line in particular appeared both poignant and packed with a none-too-subtle Trump thump.

“American leadership is indispensable. But it is not inevitable.”

That coached a wry smile from Albanese’s host, who in the coming year will devote himself to preventing the second coming of The Donald and his unique style of leadership.

Albanese continued: “It takes wisdom to show empathy, courage to provide humanitarian assistance — and true leadership to seek peace.”

The smooth soliloquy ended with the observation that: “Protecting innocent people is not a show of weakness — it is a measure of strength.”

And that became a major theme for the day: two leaders united in condemnation of Hamas but also in shared concern for civilian lives on both sides of Gaza’s fences.

It was a principle, Albanese said, which was rooted in the belief “that every innocent life matters, Israeli and Palestinian”.

It is a self-evident but difficult sentiment to sustain in the current climate, in which nuance is either dangerous to employ or absent altogether.

Many see Hamas and Palestinians as one and the same. But they are not.

The majority of Palestinians support sovereignty and an end to what they see as Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, but they don’t support Hamas’s methods.

Who could?

Biden branded Hamas’s attacks “despicable” and accused it of cowardice for now hiding behind Palestinian civilians.

And that’s the bind for Biden. Hundreds of those Palestinians in Gaza are American citizens and at least another 10 are being held hostage.

He revealed that on his visit to Tel Aviv last week he had implored Benjamin Netanyahu to do everything he could to ensure the safety of those and other innocent civilians before launching any land offensive into Gaza.

President Joe Biden and Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese walk along the White House Colonnade toward the Oval Office for a meeting at the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, in Washington.  (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool)
President Joe Biden and Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese walk along the White House Colonnade toward the Oval Office for a meeting at the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, in Washington. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool) Credit: Erin Schaff/AP

That might finally explain why Israel hasn’t mobilised to this point.

Biden said, though, he accepted Israel ultimately had the right to respond to the slaughter of its own people in the way it saw fit.

And he proved the crisis in the Middle East hadn’t totally distracted him from other strategic challenges. He recommitted to backing Ukraine for as long as it takes to repel Vladimir Putin’s invasion and offered some gentle advice for Anthony Albanese to take into his coming meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Asked whether Australia should trust China’s sincerity in reaching out for re-engagement with the West, Biden suggested Australia should “trust but verify”.

In other words, don’t accept anything without checking it first.

Advice his own team should have taken before even contemplating putting the B-52s on the White House’s South Lawn last night.

Latest Edition

The front page of The Nightly for 15-07-2024

Latest Edition

Edition Edition 15 July 202415 July 2024

Defiant Trump breaks silence on ‘miraculous’ survival after shock assassination attempt sparks search for answers.