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Michael Kinsley

Love, Royal Style

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page B07

Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco (who died last week) were your textbook royal marriage. But for a royal romance that reaches depths of profound emotion that seem almost human, give me Charles and Camilla any day.

Could it all be a brilliant PR stratagem? Years of tawdry royal shenanigans have drastically reduced the British people's interest in being patronized by the royal family. But maybe some royal functionary ("Keeper of the Queen's Spin"?) had the brilliant insight that patronizing this collection of odd ducks and losers can be just as effective a bond as being patronized by them. Repeat after me: What an adorable pair of doofuses!

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Under the British system of government, the royal family is supposed to keep the nation supplied with gossip on the one hand and serve as a positive moral example on the other. This is a tough combo.

Here in the United States, by contrast, we believe in checks and balances. So we split these responsibilities. We have Hollywood celebrities to supply the fodder for gossip, and politicians to supply the positive moral. . . . Well, we have politicians to supply the gossip, and business leaders to supply the positive. . . . Okay, we have business leaders to supply the gossip and clergymen to supply. . . . Oh heck, I guess it's up to journalists to supply the positive moral example.

Here in the United States we don't split the role of head of government from the role of head of state. In Britain they do. And this is the best defense of the monarchy: People can express their love of country by adoring the queen, without implying any view either way about the prime minister. This is pleasant for the queen. And it's healthy for the prime minister. Keeps him humble. Or at least humbler.

By contrast, the U.S. presidency is an ego-inflating machine. The president moves in a vast imperial cocoon, unsurpassed in grandeur since the pharaohs. It would take a level of humility incompatible with running for public office in the first place for a president not to think, "Hey, I'm a pretty cool guy." Every time George W. Bush hears "Hail to the Chief," the odds go up that some unsuspecting country is going to find itself getting violently democratized.

By making itself a laughingstock, the British royal family has adapted to the needs of the current moment. We don't worry too much these days about the problem of politicians being held in excessively high regard. Thanks to modern political science, we enjoy politicians who dangerously overvalue themselves and a citizenry that dangerously undervalues them at the same time.

Once again, the royal family is there to help. Instead of an outlet for surplus admiration, the family turned itself into an outlet for excessive mockery and contempt. This allows the politicians to retain a minimum of dignity and respect as they go about the people's business.

British journos are doing their best, mocking Camilla Parker Bowles's dowdiness, Prince Charles's eccentricity, the bumbled details of the wedding. But they can't destroy the romance of a love story that exposes Charles and Diana, and King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson as the cold, calculated contrivances they were.

There's no special magic about a prince approaching middle age who marries a young society beauty. And the more we learn about Princess Diana, the less magical that story seems. And, of course, the abdication tale remains far from inspiring.

Now, what about a prince who marries a young beauty out of his sense of duty, who waits for decades until a car crash frees him and then marries the woman he really loves -- a woman whom almost everyone else in the world finds remarkably unattractive; a woman he didn't need to marry in order to enjoy her companionship as he had for decades; a woman his family and the world didn't want him to marry. And what about a woman who watched her longtime lover marry a much younger beauty; who married someone else herself out of some kind of bitter realism; who fell in love with a young future king but is marrying an old weirdo who very likely won't ever occupy the throne; a woman who is inviting a lifetime of public mockery for every aspect of her public appearance. . . . Now that is a love story.

And an instructive one. It teaches us about the virtue of patience, about the shallowness of physical appearance, about the courage to resist fashion. Camilla's values aren't original -- they're the values of the British upper class, and they're not as innocent as they seem. The shabby clothing and the perennial bad hair day are not the ingenuous result of indifference to fashion; they are a calculated statement of superiority to fashion.

But this isn't 1805. The global forces of fashion and celebrity are way more powerful these days than the once-triumphant British upper class. What once might have been seen as insufferable snobbery (and what may even now be intended as snobbery, which is endearingly hopeless right there) seems charming and touching.

So I'm going out on a limb here and declaring Camilla and Charles the greatest love story of the 21st century, so far. And they had better live happily ever after.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company