A memorable White House lunch

rufus dinkus


In just a day or so our Prime Minister Scott Morrison will attend a formal State Dinner in Washington hosted by US President Donald Trump.

As one who has attended several such events over my long career as an adviser to politicians and governments of all political persuasions, the news that Mr Morrison was to be treated to such an event warmed my heart.

It caused me to recall the first visit I made to the White House as a member of an Australian PM’s travelling party.

It was way back in June 1962 and the Oval Office was then occupied by a handsome young man, John F Kennedy, who was to host a working luncheon for our Prime Minister Robert Menzies. At that stage our PM had not been fingered by Her Majesty as a member of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, so he was yet to be Sir Robert. That came in the following year.

But I digress.  At the time of the visit to Washington I was on secondment to the Prime Minister’s office from my usual position as Acting Assistant Under-Secretary in what was then the Department of Roads, Irrigation, and the Arts.

It was quite a feather in my cap to accompany the PM and to meet and chat with the President over lunch.

Certainly we did not enjoy a lavish state dinner of the type Mr Morrison will enjoy, but it was an important event nonetheless.

Looking back I am grateful that the visit took place in a somewhat more innocent and less pressured political atmosphere.

Today such events are carefully planned, fully rehearsed, and heavily scripted. But in those days we just sat down to a somewhat freewheeling lunch as if we were at our favourite club.

It was par for the course in those days that such a lunch would be pretty much an all-male affair too. President Kennedy made a point of apologising for the absence of his lovely wife Jackie whom he had sent on what was essentially a campaign visit to what he said would be a key state for him to win in the election to be held in November the following year.

The conversation and the wine flowed, although I have always been a teetotaller and did not partake. The PM and the President always got on famously and had developed quite a rapport. Both had more than a couple of wines and were soon very relaxed.

Towards the end of the lunch the President – several times – asked the PM if he wanted to join him upstairs in his private White House quarters where someone named Marilyn was located. The President said the PM would not regret it. But the PM declined.

I could not quite fully comprehend the arrangement, but I gathered from snippets of his comments that whatever her title, Marilyn had the head job.

I decided to ask the President himself what position he had put her in. He just chuckled and said: “All of them, Rufus.”

He winked at me and the PM. It was then that Mr Menzies took to his feet and advised the President that he would, after all, pay a courtesy visit to Marilyn.

The President asked an aide to escort the PM upstairs, leaving me to fill the conversational void with the President.

I steered the conversation back to politics and asked about the President’s prospects at the 1964 election and which states in particular might be a roadblock to his re-election.

Immediately he became very serious and said Texas was a huge problem state for him. I asked why, and he explained: “It’s full of nut jobs. They hate me there. Really hate me. Intensely.”

I asked what he planned to do about that. “Stay the hell out of Texas,” he replied. He mentioned Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and others in his Democratic Party were trying to convince him to make a campaign trip there either that year or the next. His mind was made up. He would not go.

I took this as somewhat of a challenge and began to mount an argument in favour of the President making the Texas visit.

Our discussion went on for some time. I argued that the President needed to show strength and not to be cowered by his opponents.

“Looking scared and weak would be very bad for you as President,” I told him. “You need that like a hole in the head. You must go to Texas.”

The President looked at me long and hard and finally said: “Rufus, you’re right. I’ll go. I’m not changing my mind this time.”

It was then that the PM returned to the room, albeit with his tie wrapped around his head and his trouser fly undone.

I did not have time to ask why. We were already running late for our next Washington appointment.

The President saw us out of the White House (main picture) and a few days later we were back in Canberra.

I can only hope Mr Morrison’s visit and dinner with Mr Trump is just as memorable.

Rufus Badinage MBE, now retired, is one of Australia’s leading experts on politics and public administration having worked as a senior bureaucrat for various state and federal governments.