Camilla: Royal bore of America

When Diana danced the night away with John Travolta, she won over the White House and charmed America. But can Camilla's first visit as royal consort do the same? Andrew Buncombe reports
Click to follow
The Independent US

Such is the protocol surrounding the US visit of Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and their centrepiece event later tonight when they are the guests of honour at a state reception at the White House. The Prince will also have a private lunch today with President George Bush.

It has been almost exactly 20 years since Prince Charles had his last official dinner at the White House, and on that occasion it was his young wife who stole the headlines. This time around it could be Charles who makes the news.

That previous dinner took place on November 9, 1985. It was, famously, Diana, dressed in a formal ink-blue, silk and velvet gown designed by Victor Edelstein, who captured everyone's attention when she danced with Travolta, having presumably calculated that her husband was not up to the rigours of Night Fever. It was Nancy Reagan who sidled up to Travolta and passed on a request to dance from the princess. "I felt like a frog who had been turned into a prince," Travolta later revealed. "We were alone with the world watching. She started to dance kind of strongly. So I gently pressed her hand down and put my other hand on her waist. It was to say 'let me lead because I know what I'm doing'. She got the message and we went to town." Twenty years on a lot as changed. Diana, of course, was killed in 1997. Ronald Reagan, the couple's host in 1985 and who at one point fluffed his lines and referred to her as Princess David, died last year. Prince Charles will turn 57 this week, while his wife is 58, rather than 24.

The consensus of the US media has been that Americans are not interested by the royal couple, who last night started their eight-day visit in New York. According to a Gallup poll for USA Today, only 19 per cent of those asked said they would like to meet the couple.

Should we really be surprised? This, after all, is a country that fought a revolutionary war against a British king and whose founding fathers were immersed in the egalitarian language and ideology that opposes the class system that Prince Charles and his family represent. On the occasion of this royal visit it is worthwhile to remind oneself of the radical language used in the Declaration of Independence, which dates from July 1776. "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

It was Diana and not Charles who provided the glamour back in 1985 and who was responsible for the so-called Monarch Mania that gripped the US during their visit. To this day, travelling across this country one will encounter pleasant, well-meaning people, who - on learning you are British - wish to offer their condolences about Diana's death. They are so genuine and friendly that one simply nods and thanks them for their words.

Indeed, one group of Diana fans intends to demonstrate against the couple's visit. Lisa Stewart, 35, from Tampa, Florida, one of the members of the group which calls itself the Diana Circle US, told reporters: "They're not welcome here. To look at the both of them is to remember what they did to Diana." Given such an onslaught one cannot help but feel for Camilla, faced as she is by hostility and constant sniping about her looks and fashion sense.

If reports are true she has certainly been making no small effort to win over the US public on a trip that includes 21 public engagements. She is said to be have brought with her 50 dresses and her favourite hair stylist, Hugh Green, for the trip, paid for by Charles rather than the Government. Word is she is leaning towards a pearl-studded ivory evening gown for tonight's bash, which is expected to be attended by guests including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and broadcaster Tom Brokaw. Nancy Reagan - the co-host 20 years ago - is also set to attend.

While it may be tempting to look at 1985 as a more innocent, glamorous time, there are remarkable similarities with now. Back then, while it was not known to the public, the Reagan administration was involved in an illegal effort to raise money to fund the Contra forces fighting against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. This time around the current White House is mired in a very public scandal over its effort to smear the reputation of an ambassador who questioned the government's claims about Iraq's efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Will Lewis "Scooter" Libby be this administration's Oliver North?

It is tempting too, to see parallels in the official language used by the hosts. Back in November 1985, Ronald Reagan proposed a toast to the Queen in which he said: "Today we go on, shoulder to shoulder, in an alliance to protect freedom and democracy." It is not hard to imagine that George Bush, who refers to Britain and Tony Blair's Government in similar terms, will opt for similar phrases tonight.

None of this really matters, of course. What mattes is what Prince Charles and the Duchess achieve with their visit. Officials have said the Prince is representing the country and is "polishing" the "special relationship" between the US and Britain. One of his aims is to encourage US tourists to return to Britain after the attacks of 7 July.

But will Charles address those issues of concern not only to him but to millions of ordinary Britons? Not only was the Prince said to have privately opposed the war in Iraq but he has made clear he is concerned about climate change, and that economic progress is "upsetting the balance of nature". Officials said that today's private lunch at the White House has no fixed agenda and that the two men will discuss a "wide range of issues". Is it possible that Charles will button-hole President Bush about Iraq? Could it be that the heir to the throne will press the President on global warming and berate him over his refusal to adopt the Kyoto Protocol? Will he dare to do what Tony Blair was never able to? In an interview with CBS, the Prince complained that he struggled to be relevant. "It isn't easy, as you can imagine ... because if you say anything, people will say, 'It's all right for you to say that.' It's very easy to dismiss anything I say."

So put aside the visit to the site of the World Trade Center and the dedication of a memorial stone for the British victims. Put aside the celebrity reception at the Museum of Modern Art and the visit to a school in a poor, black district of Washington planned for later today.

Here in Washington, at the White House, when the hereditary heir meets the elected leader, Prince Charles finally has the chance to be relevant. If he is, no-one will be writing about the black-tie dinner, the menu or what his wife wore. For a moment, at least, people may even forget about his previous wife and her dance with John Travolta. For once we might all be writing about Prince Charles - for the right reasons.

Fred and Ginger? No, Fred and Ethel

"It's the un-Diana tour in which a couple of middle-aged, earnest eccentrics from the English countryside take an educational holiday abroad."
'Miami Herald', Matt Stearns

"Charles and Camilla are coming and I, for one, am thrilled. If Charles and Diana were Fred and Ginger, then these two are Fred and Ethel."
'New York Post', Andrea Peyser

"Unlike Diana, a brilliantly seductive mistress of spin who used the news media as cleverly and coldly as they used her, Charles and Camilla treat the media as an unnecessary evil, an unwelcome vulgarity."
'New York Times', Sarah Lyall

"Charles seems at his most content these days, all ruddy-cheeked and good cheer in the cotton and wool and leather of princedom."
'The Washington Post', Kevin Sullivan

"Quick! Throw Out the Tea! The British are coming."
'Time Magazine', Rebecca Winters Keegan

"If the trip offers a stage for presenting the royal couple, it's something of a political godsend for Bush [...]
'LA Times', Johanna Neuman

"Diana's successor is 58, shortish, very proper and handsome in that don't-care-a-fig British way. But should Camilla glam up her look?"
'USA Today', Maria Puente