NATIONAL NEWS

White House fetes Kenya with state dinner featuring sunset views, celebrity star power

May 23, 2024, 10:35 AM | Updated: 7:56 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — Thursday’s White House state dinner honoring Kenyan President William Ruto offered around 500 guests stunning D.C. views, a knockout menu, a dose of celebrity star power and even a little family drama.

“I’m looking forward to having all the conversations,” Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar declared as she arrived, no doubt speaking for many a guest at one of the largest-ever White House state dinners.

Country singer Brad Paisley showed up in his signature cowboy hat, and was wearing dual hats as both dinner guest and featured entertainer. He joked that a pavilion largely made of glass that was erected on the South Lawn for the dinner was the world’s fanciest greenhouse, then led off his set with his hits “American Saturday Night” and “This is Country Music.”

Singer-songwriter Don McLean attended the festivities, as did Barbara Kingsolver, author of “The Poisonwood Bible,” set in Africa. Asked what about the continent inspired her, Kingsolver replied, “Everything.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms brought her 16-year-old son — but she confessed to reporters that he didn’t want to hold her hand. Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker brought his mom, pronouncing her “the greatest woman in the world.”

The dinner entertainment mixed Paisley’s country music and the gospel choir of Howard University. It was designed with the tastes of Ruto and his wife, Rachel, in mind, with first lady Jill Biden noting the Rutos’ “love of gospel and country music.” The Kenyan president is a former evangelist and often leads praise and worship songs when he speaks in churches in his country.

The menu featured fruitwood-smoked beef short ribs, poached lobster, chilled heirloom tomato soup and a white chocolate basket.

Guests made their red carpet arrival in an entryway adorned with red roses and hot pink orchids while Toto’s hit “Africa” played on violin. The extra-long guest list did require cutting some corners: The typical presidential receiving line was nixed because it would have taken too long to get everyone through.

Actor LeVar Burton of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Reading Rainbow” fame joked that his word of the day for the modern political climate was “fraught,” but clarified that he meant it was fraught “with possibilities.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was there, as was his NBA counterpart, Adam Silver, who declared, “We need another basketball court at the White House.”

Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, were on hand, as was another ex-president — Barack Obama — who popped by briefly early in the evening but didn’t stick around. During his toast to Ruto, President Joe Biden joked that attendees included “many members of the African diaspora, one who just left, Barack.”

Hillary Clinton pronounced it “wonderful to be back.” Her husband told reporters he particularly liked ”the girl behind you,” pointing to a portrait on the wall of his wife from her first lady days.

The gathering was the first White House state dinner for an African nation since 2008, and it was the sixth and largest of the state dinners thrown by Biden.

The event was part of the administration’s efforts to build ties with Africa. Biden failed to keep a promise to visit the continent last year, but this week he said he plans to visit “in February, after I’m reelected” — a show of optimism about his prospects in November’s election.

Ruto is on a three-day state visit that coincides with his East African nation prepares to deploy forces to Haiti, part of a U.N.-led effort to try to calm a spiraling security crisis there.

Biden said the U.S. and Kenya “share a strong respect for the history that connects us together.”

In his toast, Ruto said, “We proudly take a firm stance, shoulder to shoulder, for democracy in a world where troubles have shaken the faith of men.”

Other actors on-hand were Wilmer Valderrama, Sean Penn and Michaela Coel. But even celebrities felt a wow factor. Coel, wearing a red and gold dress borrowed from a Sudanese friend, said it was “my first time in Washington — the closest I’ve had to this is ‘Hamilton,’ the musical.”

NBC news anchor Lester Holt said it was his second state dinner, joking, “I don’t get out much.”

Other attendees included former “Top Chef” contestant Kwame Onwuachi and top Democratic donor Mark Gallogly. Sheryl Sandberg, who helped to transform Facebook from a tech startup into a digital advertising empire, philanthropist Melinda Gates and Hunter Biden, the president’s son, who is scheduled to stand trial next month on gun charges in Delaware and on federal tax charges in September, were also there.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a longtime, leading Democratic voice and former presidential candidate himself, was asked while arriving about Biden’s chances against his predecessor and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. He responded that “democracy is going to win in ’24” while adding that Africa has not been properly recognized on the world stage — which he said made Thursday night’s dinner especially important.

The decor featured fuchsia and purple African orchids and American roses. That’s a pairing that symbolizes enduring U.S.-Kenyan friendship, Jill Biden said, while recalling her own visit to Kenya as part of a five-day, two-country 2023 African tour.

Guests dined in the sprawling, transparent pavilion meant to afford sweeping views of the sun setting over the Washington Monument and, later, stars overhead. More than 1,000 candles were placed along the pavilion walls, while a suspended centerpiece with 15,000 layered reflective metallic strips was there to amplify the candlelight.

Kenya last had a White House state dinner in 2003. No African nation has had one since President George W. Bush honored Ghana’s President John Kufuor five years after that.

The Bidens previously hosted post-pandemic state dinners for France, South Korea and India — which featured the Biden administration’s previous attendance high of nearly 400 guests — as well as for Australia in October and Japan last month.

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Associated Press writer Evelyne Musambi contributed to this report from Nairobi, Kenya.

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White House fetes Kenya with state dinner featuring sunset views, celebrity star power