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From London, a Blitz With Glitz

Princess Diana and Ambassador John Kerr leave a Red Cross gala in Washington. AP Photo

Diana and John Kerr leaving Red Cross gala
By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 1997; Page D01

Diana, Princess of Wales, came to Washington to call for an international ban on anti-personnel land mines, a cause she has embraced with great passion. The other 400 guests at the American Red Cross gala last night came to look at Diana.

"I came to see the princess," said Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). "After all, a man likes to look at a good-looking woman."

Diana was, in fact, looking radiant. Her red beaded dress was glamorous; her blond hair was swept back smoothly off her face. Divorce seems to agree with her.

But her friends say the biggest change is her deep commitment to causes near to her heart. Earlier this year, she turned the white-hot spotlight aimed at her onto the plight of land mine victims, especially children maimed or killed by devices left in fields and roads long after soldiers have stopped fighting.

"My purpose was to draw world attention to this vital but hitherto largely neglected issue," she told the audience at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. "Anyone would be drawn to this human tragedy and therefore I hope you will understand why I wanted to play my part in working towards a worldwide ban on these weapons."

Each month 800 people are killed and 1,200 others are maimed by stepping on mines. More than 70 countries, led by Canada, support a permanent ban on the weapons, but the Clinton administration does not, nor does China, Russia or India. Diana is trying to change that.

"I think she really does believe in this cause -- big time," said British Ambassador John Kerr, who is serving as Diana's escort. (His duties? "I'm the guy with the Rolls-Royce," he said.)

The princess was seated between Kerr and a relaxed-looking Bob Dole at the dinner. American Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) led the list of other VIPs at the sold-out gala, which was supported primarily by corporate donations. Tickets for the black-tie benefit ranged from $350 to $3,500. The evening raised $600,000 for prosthetic devices and international rehabilitation programs.

The princess also donated a small silver box engraved with her insignia and the words "With love from Diana 1997," which was auctioned off during the dinner. Washington author Gail Scott penned the winning bid of $21,000. "It's priceless!" she said.

This is Diana's second visit to Washington since her divorce from Prince Charles last summer and underscores her transformation from a miserable, fragile princess into an independent international spokeswoman. The Diana on the July cover of Vanity Fair is confident, tan and sleek as a model.

More important, this Diana -- who turns 36 in two weeks -- wants to be seen as the "Queen of Hearts" -- a mature, compassionate woman who uses her fame to benefit others. While her ex-mother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, and other royals frolicked at the opening of Ascot yesterday, Diana was decrying land mines, "these evil weapons," and raising money to help their victims around the world. She also stopped by Bethesda Naval Hospital, where she met with Rui Xavier da Silva, a Brazilian captain who lost a foot during a mission to remove land mines from the Honduras-Nicaragua border.

The princess has always had a knack for highlighting the emotional side of issues, and she's very savvy about timing her appeals to get maximum exposure.

Adding a little glow to the halo, Sens. Leahy and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), sponsors of a bill to ban the deployment of land mines, spent 40 minutes on the Senate floor yesterday praising Diana and calling for the passage of their legislation.

"This is the only weapon where the victim pulls the trigger," Leahy said last night. "This is the only weapon that keeps on killing decades after they sign the peace treaties."

Diana has drawn criticism from members of the British establishment by hinting she would like to become an ambassador-at-large. After Diana's January trip to see victims maimed by land mines in Angola, one Conservative Party minister called her "a loose cannon."

But the princess has received a warmer welcome from the newly elected Labor Party. She was briefed on land mine issues by cabinet ministers last week, although officials repeated that she is not representing the government during this trip.

Aside from the Red Cross gala, Diana's trip to the United States is considered a "private visit" by the British Embassy. She is staying at the residence of her friend Lucia Flecha de Lima, wife of the Brazilian ambassador. On Monday night, Diana and the Flecha de Limas attended an 80th birthday party for Katharine Graham, chairman of the executive committee of The Washington Post Co., in her Georgetown home.

Diana, stunning in a black pantsuit, inevitably took the spotlight from the likes of Supreme Court Justices William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O'Connor and Stephen Breyer, television anchors Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters (with Sen. John Warner), Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour and Vernon and Ann Jordan. Diana had teamed up with Graham and Wintour for a benefit last September at the National Building Museum that raised $1 million for the Nina Hyde Center for Breast Cancer Research at Georgetown University.

The Red Cross news conference and benefit yesterday were her only public appearances for the issue. Diana will visit with Hillary Rodham Clinton today at the White House.

She is also expected to go to New York, where 79 of her dresses will be auctioned at Christie's next week. Proceeds will go to five cancer and AIDS charities in Britian and the United States. It is a public relations bonanza for the princess: Diana gets to do good and shed her royal past at the same time.

And if she looks good while doing it? All the better. Even the waiters last night were impressed.

"Her arms are buffed out," said server Blake Yates. "Di's a big, tall babe."

Washington Post staff writer Annie Groer contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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