A State Dinner held by the White House is one of the grandest and most glamourous White House affairs. The price tag of such occasions is estimated to be between $US400,000 ($600,000 AUD) and $US800,000 ($1,200,000 AUD).

This week, Prime Minister the Hon Anthony Albanese MP was hosted by President Joe Biden for an Official Dinner, the fourth hosted by President Biden since taking office in 2020. This marks the 7th time an Australian Prime Minister is to be hosted for an Official Dinner in the White House.

This week the Nexus team has examined past State Dinners, how they came about and who missed out.

First Official Dinner

As the Prime Minister is not technically the head of state in Australia, the White House calls dinner’s with the Prime Minister, “Official Dinners,” if coordinating a dinner party wasn’t already hard enough.

The first Australian Prime Minister to have an Official Dinner in the US was the Honourable John Gorton.

President Richard Nixon hosted Prime Minister Gorton in May 1969. The US and Australia were in the thick of the Vietnam War. At the dinner, Prime Minister Gorton affirmed Australia’s support for the US, proclaiming, “Wherever there is a joint attempt to improve not only the material but the spiritual standards of life of the peoples of the world, then, sir, we will go “Waltzing Matilda with You.”


Official Dinner Timeline 

When Prime Minister Billy McMahon visited President Nixon in 1971, his wife Sonia stunned the White House with a high split in her dress. One of the “most talked about costumes yet to appear in the White House,” said the Washington Post. “Sonia put Australia on the map for Americans without saying a word,” reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was not only hosted by one President but by three: Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.  

First hosted by President Gerald Ford in July 1976 at the Bicentennial of America, both leaders pointed to their British roots and strong relationships throughout the war.

President Jimmy Carter hosted Prime Minister Fraser for an Official Dinner in June 1977; President Carter unconsciously delivered the ultimate slip-up when he greeted Prime Minister Fraser on the White House lawn as “Australian Prime Minister John Fraser.”

President Ronald Reagan hosted Prime Minister Fraser in June 1981. Earlier that year, Prime Minister Fraser and President Reagan’s relationship was strengthened through the agreement of US B-52 Bombers to land in Darwin from their base in Guam. At the Official Dinner, President Reagan proclaimed that the two countries “do not stagnate in a planned and withering government-dominated existence. We’re free to be all that we can imagine.”

President George Bush Sr hosted Prime Minister the Hon Bob Hawke for an Official Dinner in June 1989. Despite their political differences, Prime Minister Hawke assured President Bush that he did not represent the “left-wing” of the Australian Labor Party and encouraged the President to visit Australia, which he did in 1992.

President Bush is reported to have “choked up” at the sight of the then former Prime Minister Hawke on the backbenches, as he came to Australia because of his relationship with Hawke.

The following Official Dinner was not to be until President George Bush Jr hosted Prime Minister the Hon John Howard in May 2006.

This was within the context of Afghanistan, for which Prime Minister Howard was facing significant domestic pressure to withdraw from. Prime Minister Howard had been with President Bush on September 10, 2001, the day before the 9/11 attacks. This no doubt informed the relationship between the leaders significantly.

President Donald Trump only hosted two Official/State Dinners in his entire presidency, one of which was for Prime Minister the Hon Scott Morrison MP in 2019.


Those Who Didn’t Get State Dinners

Out of all President – Prime Minister pairings, Prime Minister Harold Holt and President Lyndon Johnson had particularly warm relations. In 1966, Prime Minister Holt went to the US. The invitation had only been for a small, informal luncheon, but Prime Minister Holt discovered to his surprise, that President Johnson gave him an honour guard and a 19-gun salute.

A month later, President Johnson became the first sitting President to visit Australia.

Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, by contrast, had uneasy dealings with the White House. Prime Minister Whitlam did not get a dinner at all. Early in his Government, three ministers — Cairns, Cameron and Uren — bitterly condemned President Richard Nixon and the Administration, over Vietnam.

Prime Minister the Hon Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister the Hon Julia Gillard, Prime Minister the Hon Tony Abbott and Prime Minister the Hon Malcolm Turnbull – our revolving-door Prime Ministers – were hosted at what is classified as “Working Dinners” when they visited, which do not hold the same level of prestige as an Official/State Dinner.

However, President Barack Obama did travel to Australia and meet Prime Minister Julia Gillard. During the visit, President Obama delivered an address to a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament.

Nexus trivia:

What’s on the menu for Prime Minister Albanese and President Biden’s Official Dinner?

Answer – Butternut squash soup, a roasted beet salad, and sarsaparilla-braised short ribs with a chocolate mousse cake offered as dessert. 

Picture credit: Alex Ellinghausen