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Roses. Butter-poached lobster. Obama cameo. Takeaways from the White House state dinner

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WASHINGTON – Gussied up in gowns and sharp suits, guests stepped onto the red carpet as their arrivals were announced at Washington’s most lavish affair: a White House state dinner.

On Thursday night, President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed Kenyan President William Ruto and his wife, Rachel, to the glamorous event filled with pomp and circumstance. State dinners are often viewed as a tool of soft diplomacy used to court leaders of countries with whom a strong partnership is sought.

“We share a strong respect for the history that connects us together,” said Biden as he toasted his guests. He then quoted former President Jimmy Carter, who in 1980 hosted President Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya, saying: “Neighbors do not share a border but share beliefs.”

Biden announced Thursday that he would work with Congress to designate Kenya as a major “non-NATO Ally” as the U.S. looks to deepen 60 years of official U.S.-Kenya partnership. The designation is granted by the U.S. to countries with close and strategic working relationships with the U.S. military and defense civilians.

Ruto’s trip is the first state visit by a Kenyan president to the United States in two decades and the first by an African leader since 2008. The last African leader to address Congress was Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who spoke in the House chamber in 2006.

Thursday’s state dinner had about 500 attendees and was the sixth hosted by Biden.

Throughout the evening, guests enjoyed musical selections by the Howard Gospel Choir, award-winning country music artist Brad Paisley, and “The President’s Own” the United States Marine Band Chamber Orchestra and the Army and Air Force Strings.

What was the décor like at the state dinner?

American red roses and vibrant fuchsia and purple African orchids were featured throughout in a nod to “unity and friendship” between the United States and Kenya. Glowing candles displayed along the walls of the pavilion made for a cozy ambiance while a suspended centerpiece with 15,000 pieces of layered reflective metallic strips sparkled with gold and silver hues.

The invitees, who ran the gamut from business leaders to movie stars to a couple of former presidents, were ushered into a glass pavilion with over 1,000 glowing candles, where they dined on chilled heirloom tomato soup, fruitwood-smoked beef short ribs, and butter poached-lobster.

The décor for the evening reflects the first lady’s love of candlelight which she favors to make guests feel as if they’re at home, even when they’re part of a large group, said Bryan Rafanelli, the event planner for the evening.

“As guests leave their path illuminated by our one moon,” said Biden, during a preview of the décor earlier. “I hope they will be filled with the same warmth that I felt on my visits to Kenya.”

What was on the state dinner menu?

The three-course meal, developed by White House Executive Chef  Cris  Comerford and White House Executive Pastry Chef Susie Morrison, started with a chilled heirloom tomato soup, followed by short ribs and butter-poached lobster with a side of baby kale and sweet corn puree. For dessert, guests were treated to a white chocolate basket with banana ganache and raspberries, peaches, and candied lime zest.

Who were some of the famous guests at the state dinner?

Former President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, made a cameo appearance at the event. His name had not been circulated earlier in the list of attendees. The former president stopped by but did not stay for dinner.

Among other guests at the soiree were former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and actor Sean Penn. There were members of Congress and administration as well as business leaders such as Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer.

Gifts for the Kenyan president and wife

As the official gift, the president and first lady presented the Rutos with a set of rocking chairs produced by a family-owned company in Troutman, North Carolina. The wooden rocking chairs have a cane seat, steam-bent back posts, and personalized inscriptions commemorating the state visit on the armrests.  

Biden also gifted Ruto with the first edition of the book “The Trumpet of Conscience” by Martin Luther King Jr. in a custom leather clamshell case with a hand-tooled inscription commemorating the state visit. The first lady presented Rachel Ruto with a custom pearl and Arizona peridot gemstone necklace that was crafted by a jeweler in Philadelphia.

Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is a White House correspondent for USA TODAY. You can follow her on X, formerly Twitter, @SwapnaVenugopal

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