The Bidens start Thanksgiving early by serving dinner and showing 'Wonka' to service members

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President Joe Biden poses for a photo as he helps serve a "friendsgiving" meal to service members and their relatives at the Norfolk Naval Station on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in Norfolk, Va. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WILMINGTON, Del. – President Joe Biden visited naval installations in Virginia on Sunday to kick off the Thanksgiving holiday week, introducing an early screening of the upcoming movie “Wonka” and sharing a “friendsgiving” meal with service members and their relatives.

Biden also paid tribute Sunday to former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who died Sunday, and to President Jimmy Carter. “They brought so much grace to the office,” Biden said.

The president and first lady Jill Biden headed to a packed auditorium at Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads to introduce the new film centered around the early life of Roald Dahl’s fictional eccentric chocolatier, Willy Wonka. It will be officially released Dec. 15.

He joked to the many youngsters in the crowd: “I like kids more than adults” and added “I wish I could stay and watch Wonka with you.”

Instead, the Bidens helped serve dinner with service members from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the USS Gerald R. Ford at Norfolk Naval Station, the largest installation of its kind in the world, along with their families.

“You literally are the backbone, the spine, the spine of this nation," the president said. “Only 1% of you, that’s all, that protects the 99% of us.”

The event featured around 400 service members and their relatives seated in folding chairs and around wooden, circular tables inside a concrete-floored hanger that included three display Blackhawk helicopters, a towering American flag and a screen with the image of the White House surrounded by falling leaves and the words “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“I mean from the bottom of my heart,” the president said. “Family members, you are the heart of this operation.” He said he would be passing out dressing and joked, “If you don’t like dressing, just come up and pretend you do and say hi to me.’’

But the president actually served up mashed potatoes while attendees lined up for the buffet-style meal. Jill Biden spooned out sweet potato casserole to attendees. They stood on either side of Chef Robert Irvine, whose foundation helped organize the meal, and both chatted up those going through the line, which included a lot of children.

At one point, a child asked Jill Biden something. She laughed and served a portion of casserole that contained all marshmallows, forgoing any sweet potatoes.

The menu also featured slow-roasted bourbon-brined turkey topped with giblet gravy and cranberry-orange compote, maple-mustard glazed spiral-cut smoked ham, brioche-cornbread stuffing, candied walnuts, roasted garlic and crème fraiche, and a toasted espresso mascarpone Chantilly cream.

As the event was wrapping up, attendees presented Biden with a birthday cake. He turns 81 on Monday.

Meanwhile, Biden's 2024 Republican rival Donald Trump was scheduled for a military visit Sunday in Texas. The former president, who has a commanding early lead in the 2024 GOP primary, was in Edinburg after serving meals to National Guard soldiers, troopers and others who will be stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border over Thanksgiving.

Trump is promoting hard-line immigration proposals he argues will better secure the border. He and top Republicans have long criticized the Biden administration for failing to do more to crackdown on people entering the United States illegally.

For the Bidens, offering support to the nation’s military has a personal connection. Their son Beau served in Iraq as a member of the Delaware National Guard. He died of brain cancer in 2015 at the age of 46, when Joe Biden was vice president.

Jill Biden talked about Beau’s deployment at the Wonka event, telling the crowd: “I know there are many here who miss their mom or dad or spouse.”

“While nothing can make up for that empty chair at the table, for us, the kindness of our community and finding moments of joy helps make it a little bit easier,” she said.

As he prepared to celebrate with the troops at home, the war between Israel and Hamas and the fate of hostages, including Americans, being held by the militants in Gaza, were front and center for the president. A reporter asked Biden upon his arrival in Norfolk when more hostages might go free, to which he replied, “I'm not in a position to tell you that” and added, “I want to make sure they’re out and then I’ll tell you.”

The Bidens learned of Rosalynn Carter’s death during their visit, announcing her passing just before serving the friendsgiving meal. Jill Biden asked diners to “include the Carter family in your prayers” during the holiday season. Carter, she said, “was well-known for her efforts on mental health and caregiving and women’s rights."

Biden, speaking to reporters as he was boarding Air Force One to leave Norfolk, described the Carters as a couple of grace and integrity, and praised Jimmy Carter as a person who worked as hard for others after he left the White House as he did in office.

“Imagine, they were together for 77 years,” he added. “God bless them.”

Biden also talked at the dinner with service members about watching Beau Biden's children while he was deployed, but then appeared too overcome with emotion to continue and said, “I don’t want to talk about this.” The sadness was fleeting. A moment later he lightheartedly bent down and joked with a 6-year-old, saying “What are you, 17?”

“Happy, happy Thanksgiving," Biden said. “May God love you all.”

Friendsgiving with the military has become a tradition for the Bidens. Last year, they dished out mashed potatoes and other sides as part of the buffet-style meal in Cherry Point, North Carolina, home to more than 9,000 military personnel and roughly 8,000 military family members.

In 2021, the Bidens visited the Army’s Fort Bragg in North Carolina for an early Thanksgiving meal in a hangar for about 250 service members and their families. Troops got chocolate chip cookies bearing the presidential seal.

The president and first lady plan to spend this Thanksgiving on Nantucket, a Massachusetts island.