When Donald Trump asked one of his favorite musicians, Elton John, to perform at his 2017 inauguration, the knighted singer politely declined in an email:
Friday night, Sir Elton offered a different statement in the form of the ebullient six-song, solo piano concert he played to a crowd of 2,000 people on the South Lawn of the White House at the invitation of President Biden and first lady Jill Biden.
“I don’t know what to say. What a dump!” said John, laughing, in a sparkling black blazer as he peered through red-tinted glasses at the floodlit columns of the South Portico towering above him, playing under a glass-paneled tent, while members of the Marine Corps band fanned out along the steps to the Truman Balcony in red dress uniforms. “I’ve played in some places before that have been beautiful, but this is probably the icing on the cake.”
Tears and joy were more the order of the day than politics at an event the Bidens said they intended to be a concert for the American people called “A Night When Hope and History Rhyme.” The evening ended with the president surprising John with the National Humanities Medal, to which the singer welled up with tears, but that felt like a capstone to the larger message of celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the bipartisan unity needed to bring an end to the disease by 2030 — as John and the United Nations have said is the goal.
The last time John played the White House was at a 1998 state dinner during the Clinton administration honoring British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
According to a video feed of the event and interviews with those in attendance (media access was restricted), John appeared genuinely thrilled as he played beneath a glass-paneled tent, with the audience surrounding all sides of his stage. He plowed through several greatest hits: “Your Song,” “Tiny Dancer,” “Rocket Man,” “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” “Crocodile Rock” and “I’m Still Standing.”
Teachers, first responders, and LGBTQ activists made up the largest portion of the crowd, and had all been allowed to bring plus ones. They were the ones John thanked first, well before he acknowledged the Bidens: “They’re the heroes to me.”
Other guests included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, and Attorney General Merrick Garland — not to mention actress Anna Kendrick and John’s dear friend Billie Jean King. To those who recognized her, Ruby Bridges, the civil rights advocate who became one of the first Black children to integrate New Orleans’ all-White public school system when she was 6 years old, might have been the most impressive luminary there.
Charlotte Clymer, a D.C.-based writer and LGBTQ activist who was pleasantly surprised to get the invite, found herself overcome with emotion. “I wouldn’t even say bipartisan, it felt more nonpartisan,” she told The Washington Post. “Everyone was there because they cared about folks with HIV and AIDS. And of course, they wanted to see Elton John perform.” The White House had focused on inviting members of vulnerable communities, and Clymer said the crowd felt notably diverse — racially diverse, politically diverse, even gender diverse. For once, she added, “I was not the only trans person at one of these events, which was nice to see.”
As appealing as the narrative is of Dark Brandon sub-tweeting his predecessor by feting his favorite musician, this was not an event instigated by John as a form of high-level trolling. The conversation had started with an invitation to a “History Talks” symposium on Saturday at Constitution Hall, featuring the likes of Serena Williams and former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, sponsored by the History Channel and A&E, which also sponsored the concert. But that set date was also the day of John’s concert in the District at Nationals Park, “so it evolved into the opportunity to perform the night before on the South Lawn of the White House. And, you know, what a spectacularly beautiful setting,” David Furnish, John’s husband and manager, said on Sunday.
“Elton loved the idea and the whole evening was pitched to us as a nonpartisan event even though President Biden is in the White House,” Furnish continued, “but a nonpartisan event which was really to talk about common humanity, healing through unity, philanthropy.”
In the past, though, John did have a friendly relationship with Trump. He played at the former president’s third wedding, and Trump had even gone around telling people he’d secured John for the inauguration. Despite John asking him not to, Trump frequently used “Tiny Dancer” at his rallies. He also gave the nickname “Rocket Man” to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Instead, at this concert, John acknowledged a different Republican, former first lady Laura Bush, who had come with daughter Jenna Bush Hager and her children, saying that the Bush administration’s creation of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, “was the most incredible thing,” adding, “We never would have got this far without the President Bush administration giving us that money.” He even gave a shout-out to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) as a supporter in the fight against AIDS, who, said John, “to his credit has always come through.”
As John came up with his set list, Furnish said, there was only one song he wanted to make sure to sing: “Crocodile Rock.” Years ago, when he and Biden, the vice president at the time, were on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” the same night, Biden told him that, as a single father, he used to drive his two sons around and sing that song in the car. Later on, said Furnish, he and John went to visit President Barack Obama in the White House during the time when, unbeknown to them, Biden’s son Beau was terminally ill with brain cancer and unconscious in the hospital.
Biden had asked John to meet with his staff, “which I thought really said so much about him,” said Furnish. As Furnish remembers being told, Biden went to the hospital and told the unconscious Beau that Elton John had come by the White House that day and he sung “Crocodile Rock” to him. “He didn’t come back to consciousness. But we’d been told that he smiled and it definitely, you know, triggered something,” said Furnish. “So we knew that was a song with a real journey that had been on a real journey for the president. And so it was important for Elton that it was included in the set.”
Before he launched into “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” John also acknowledged Jeanne White-Ginder, the mother of Ryan White, who had died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 and in his short life had become a symbol of the cruelty endured by the epidemic’s victims. The White family was John’s entry into becoming an AIDS activist. He’d met them, “and I got to love them and look at them and they faced such terrible hostility,” he said from the stage. “And yet when Ryan was dying in the hospital in Indianapolis, the last week of his life where I went and tried to help Jeanne do menial things, there was no hatred. There’s no hatred. There was just forgiveness.”
“It was a very heartwarming experience to see somebody that gives so much of themselves and wants no attention whatsoever,” White-Ginder told The Post on Sunday, recalling those days. Six months after White’s death, John checked into rehab for cocaine and alcohol addiction and got sober. Onstage Friday he said the family “saved my life.
The moment when Biden gave John the National Humanities Medal was a complete surprise not just to John, but also to Furnish, who as his manager usually knows everything. John had said he was completely “flabbergasted,” and burst into tears during his citation.
“Elton had absolutely no idea he was getting the medal. It’s very rare to see Elton rendered speechless on anything, and when that came out, he was completely gobsmacked,” said Furnish. “And just everyone felt the love.”