Korean Dressing, Irish Poetry and ‘American Pie’: A State Dinner of Harmony

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WASHINGTON — Presidents traditionally invite foreign leaders visiting the White House to give a statement in front of cameras, to make a toast at a dinner, maybe even to address reporter questions. They don’t usually ask them to sing.

But there was President Biden on the stage of the State Dining Room late Wednesday night, coaxing President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea to perform one of his guest’s favorite songs, Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Mr. Yoon did not look like he needed much convincing.

And so the leader of more than 50 million South Koreans began belting out one of the most iconic American songs of the modern age to the delight of a crowd of diplomats and celebrities cheering him on. Throughout a long day of public appearances up to that point, Mr. Yoon had not uttered a word of English, speaking carefully through a translator, but he knew every word as he crooned about driving his Chevy to the levee on the day the music died.

The rollicking finale to the second state dinner of the Biden era made for a more memorable evening than most at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The 80-year-old president, who had been questioned about his age just a few hours earlier, pumped his fists and whooped along with the crowd as Mr. Yoon performed.

“The next state dinner we’re going to have, you’re looking at the entertainment,” Mr. Biden told the audience, referring to Mr. Yoon. Turning to his guest, he added, “I had no damn idea you could sing.”

In fact, he did, or his staff did, since the whole thing was a planned surprise that had been carefully mapped out in advance but left off the official program for maximum impact. The president even presented Mr. Yoon with a guitar signed by Mr. McLean.

The moment was reminiscent of another visit with another pair of leaders. Back in 2006, President George W. Bush took Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi of Japan, an avid fan of Elvis Presley who wore his hair in a pompadour, to visit Graceland in Tennessee — whereupon Mr. Koizumi sang “Love Me Tender” and other lyrics popularized by the King.

In the case of Mr. Biden and Mr. Yoon, the two leaders were trying to out-flatter each other throughout the evening. During the toasts that opened the state dinner, Mr. Yoon went straight for Mr. Biden’s weak spot by quoting one of the president’s favorite Irish poets, Seamus Heaney. “Behavior that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere,” Mr. Yoon said.

If that were not enough, the South Korean leader wrapped up his toast with what he said was an old Irish saying: “A good friend is like a four-leaf clover — hard to find and lucky to have.” That generated “awwws” and applause from the crowd.

It was all four-leaf clovers and bonhomie as the two chummy leaders put on an elaborate show of friendship while ignoring the recent tension over revelations of American spying on South Korean officials. The first lady, Jill Biden, arranged for a classic American menu with a Korean flair.

The Maryland crab cake was accompanied by a cabbage, fennel and cucumber slaw in a gochujang vinaigrette. The yellow squash soup was followed by braised beef short ribs with butter bean grits, sorghum-glazed carrots and pine nuts. And dessert was a banana split with fresh berries, gingersnap cookie crumble and doenjang caramel.

The East Room, where the dinner was held, was festooned with arrangements of cherry blossoms, and the head table included stars like the actor Angelina Jolie and the Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim, as well as lesser lights like Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader who opted for a suit rather than a tuxedo. (“This is as tux-ey as I get,” he explained.)

Before the dinner began, Vice President Kamala Harris, who brought her niece, Meena Harris, chatted up Ms. Jolie, who brought her 21-year-old son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt. Other guests included Samantha Cohen, the daughter of Michael D. Cohen, the longtime lawyer and fixer for former President Donald J. Trump who turned on him and provided testimony leading to the recent indictment in a hush money case.

Ms. Kim, who is described by some as the greatest female snowboarder in history, admitted to jitters upon entering the White House. “I am very nervous,” she said. She revealed that she had lost her Olympic gold medal.

“I didn’t wear my medal,” she told reporters. “I don’t know where it is.”

The evening’s official entertainment was a collection of Broadway tunes sung by the stage stars Norm Lewis, Lea Salonga and Jessica Vosk. They performed a brisk set that energized the audience. The veteran member of the Coalition of the Willing rock band Antony J. Blinken, who has a day gig as secretary of state but is known on Spotify as Ablinken, seemed so into the moment that he could have leaped onto the stage to grab a guitar of his own.

But as the Broadway stars wrapped up their last listed number, they offered an unannounced encore, saying they had heard “American Pie” was one of Mr. Yoon’s favorites. Mr. Yoon clapped to their rendition of the song, and when it was over, Jill Biden grabbed his arm and practically pushed him onto stage.

At that point, her husband told the South Korean leader, “We know this is one of your favorite songs, ‘American Pie.’”

“Yes, that’s true,” Mr. Yoon said through a Korean translator. “When I was going to school, it was one of my favorite songs.”

“We want to hear you sing it,” Mr. Biden declared.

“It’s been a while but — ” Mr. Yoon replied, not truly resisting.

And then the South Korean president took the microphone and launched into the first few stanzas of the song as the crowd went wild.

Mr. Biden was ebullient — but wary of any more encores. “Don’t expect me to sing it!” he said.

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