Prepping for the Queen Tests the Commoners
Many Are Dizzy With Protocol Anxiety

By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

Jacqueline Bowens knows how to decipher the intricacies of life or death trauma, but the directives from Buckingham Palace have her flummoxed.

" 'Day Dress' for the women," frets the Children's National Medical Center vice president. "We're thinking that's Business Attire."

"Or are we supposed to wear dresses?" worries Terry Orzechowski, the Washington hospital's director of volunteer services. " Can women wear pants to meet the queen?"

"Have you ever seen a woman wearing pants and meeting the queen?" Bowens asks. Orzechowski doesn't answer.

Today, on her private charter British Airways Boeing 777, Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Richmond, accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip. On Sunday, they will head to Washington with their entourage of 35 -- a group that will not include a private chef but does include dressers and hairdressers.

Mastering the royals' esoterica is sending American staffs from Richmond to Washington to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt into a fear-tinged tizzy. E-mails are pinging back and forth between the queen's page and the director of the Virginia Governor's Mansion. In the last week alone, 300,000 people have clicked on a special Virginia Web site, seeking info about the arrival of Her Majesty. At NASA, when Goddard officials offered a chance for 200 employees to simply sit in an auditorium with the queen, 900 responses immediately flooded back.

We may have won the Revolutionary War, unpowdered our wigs and freed ourselves from monarchical conventions. But that has not kept Bowens, at Children's -- where every first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy has visited and foreign dignitaries regularly stop by -- from enduring two months of meetings and walk-throughs. She has created for hospital staff a six- to eight-page "protocol paper" on "the dos and the don'ts and the activities" of a royal visit set to last 40 minutes, max. For those more actively involved in the visit, there is "a full notebook."

So will Children's serve the queen tea -- or a juice box? (Probably tea, Bowens says: "Lipton works for us," but they expect to offer British and green teas, too.) Is it proper to Purell royalty before she meets kids on the cardiac unit? (No need, Bowens says. The playroom she's visiting is not susceptible to infection.)

Similar vapors are evident in Richmond, where Virginia first lady Anne Holton will host the queen, and 30,000 people are expected to jam into a square that holds 13,000.

"Hats are a big topic -- lots of questions about hats," says Amy Bridge, director of the Governor's Mansion. "The first lady did a lot of thinking and lot of consultation about that."

She will forgo the hat Thursday but wear a new navy-blue topper with a short brim and silk bow Friday, when she accompanies the royals to Williamsburg -- all the better to take advantage of the out-of-whack ratio between hat-shopping time and hat-wearing time. Because finding this hat was no easy feat, Bridge says. Not even for Holton, who herself has a distinguished history of manorial politesse: Before returning to the mansion with her husband, Gov. Tim Kaine, she lived there as a teen when her father, Linwood Holton, governed the commonwealth.

"I think you have to do a lot of trying on to find the right hat for the right look," Bridge says.

The right look . . . The right greeting . . . The right tone and atmosphere . . . It's all such an obsession that the U.S. State Department has appointed someone to work with Bridge on royal protocol. Buckingham Palace flew in about 15 others -- including the queen's personal assistant and Buckingham Palace's deputy master of the household -- for consultations.

To further her aristocratic knowledge base, Bridge has immersed herself in "Windsor Castle: A Royal Year," a PBS documentary with such stunning details as: The queen's dining table is such a vast expanse that simply setting the table requires a servant to don special socks, climb aboard and skate the candlesticks and centerpieces toward the middle.

"That's been a little intimidating to watch," says Bridge. The governor's dining table can seat a prodigious 28. But compared with the castle's capacities? "Well," Bridge says modestly, "ours is nothing."

The royals are coming to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, and the rest of their visit will "celebrate the exploration of new frontiers -- to push the boundaries of our worlds and knowledge. A common spirit from the settlers of 1607 to the astronauts of 2007," as one of the queen's spokesmen describes it. She'll make a detour, midtrip, to Kentucky and pop into the Derby. No word on whether she'll explore any new frontiers by betting the ponies: "I couldn't possibly speculate as to whether Her Majesty will have a flutter at the big race," says a not-to-be-named, and somewhat horrified, spokesman.

Apparently, Buckingham Palace isn't so different from official Washington -- all the spokespeople insist on anonymity, though their royal reasons sound more gracious than Capitol Hill's. Palace protocol requires that spokespeople remain unnamed because "our stars don't rise higher than those we speak on behalf of."

Next Tuesday, after a dinner with President Bush and the first lady at the British ambassador's house, the queen will board her Boeing 777 for a red-eye flight.

Just don't call it that.

"It's not a scheduled" -- pronounced shed uled -- "flight," one of the nameless spokesmen says, sounding as though only flights with (shudder) coach class can be called a name that reeks of the hoi polloi.

So, it's not a red-eye because the queen has her own bed -- queen-size? -- aboard and will arrive home rested, refreshed and oblivious to the very existence of jet-lag?

Sputter . . . then silence. Such details are kept absolutely private, he finally says. And the subject is demurely changed.

Over at Goddard, they're all about engineering, not etiquette. This is, after all, where a team of Hubble Space Telescope astronauts is preparing for next year's repair mission, and one of Goddard's physicists, John C. Mather, shared last year's Nobel Prize for proving the big-bang theory.

So while others fret about hats and dresses and tea service and polished silver, Goddard is mostly worried about ensuring that the queen and prince "don't trip over extension cords stretched across the aisle," says Mark Hess, chief of public affairs.

The royals will be, after all, spending a couple of hours at a place whose purpose is "plumbing the mysteries of the universe -- looking back to understanding how we came to be what we are," Hess continues. "We're all stellar material: How did we get here? And what's the ultimate fate of it all?"

Questions fit for a queen.

Staff writer Tim Craig and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company