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Royal Family Calms Sea of Troubles After Diana's Death

By T. R. Reid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 30 1998; Page A01

When the news from Paris reached here early on a Sunday morning one year ago, a tidal wave of shock and grief engulfed Britain. Then, fairly quickly, the sadness over the death of Princess Diana evolved into anger -- anger at Prince Charles, the cheating ex-husband, and anger at Queen Elizabeth, the seemingly cold and disapproving mother-in-law.

This weekend, as Britons troop to church services and memorial marches marking the first anniversary of the fateful auto accident on Aug. 31, 1997, the national sorrow persists. What has sharply changed, though, is the public attitude toward the royal family.

The anger has been transformed into widespread approval. A year after Diana's death, Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles and the monarchy itself are enjoying the strongest popular support that they have seen in years.

Opinion surveys taken just after the intensely emotional funeral service for Diana last September showed that only 42 percent of the country approved of Prince Charles's conduct; only 40 percent thought he would make a "good king." New polls published this week give the 49-year-old heir apparent an approval rating of 63 percent. For the first time in years, a majority -- 54 percent -- said he would make a good king.

A year ago, 72 percent of those surveyed agreed that the queen was "out of touch." This week, more than 75 percent were recorded as saying that she has "learned a lesson" from Diana's death. The queen's personal approval rating was above 70 percent in several recent polls.

The rage at Charles and his family was so strong a year ago that only 38 percent of Britons surveyed last September thought the monarchy would survive. Now, 54 percent of the British people say the monarchy will survive through Prince Charles's expected reign. Just 18 percent today agree with the suggestion that the country would be better off without the royal family.

Reserve and Dignity
This turnabout is partly due to the old-fashioned reserve and dignity of the royals, who have maintained a tasteful silence during a year when just about every governess, butler, driver, dressmaker or dog-walker who ever met the princess seems to be selling an "I-knew-Diana" story to TV shows or the tabloids.

Another factor has been Charles's emergence as an affectionate and supportive father for the two children of the marriage, 16-year-old Prince William and 13-year-old Prince Harry. The father and sons appear to thrive together. The boys pointedly chose to spend this anniversary weekend with their father in Scotland, passing up an invitation to a lavish beach resort with their mother's family.

But the royalty also has made adroit use of up-to-the-minute public relations techniques to regain public support. Beginning with Prime Minister Tony Blair, who advised the queen a year ago this week to forget protocol and lower the palace flag to half-staff, the royal family has retained some of the leading opinion molders in Britain. Buckingham Palace has hired pollsters and placed newspaper ads seeking a "top-class communications director."

The impact of the royal "spin team" is evident in the difference between the royals' conduct a year ago and their plans for the first anniversary of Diana's death.

On Sunday, Aug. 31, 1997, just hours after the fatal accident, Queen Elizabeth and her family attended church -- and there wasn't a single mention of the late Princess during the service. While millions of weeping Britons lined up for hours outside the various royal palaces to sign condolence books, the queen was silent and unseen.

It seemed to confirm what Diana had told her friends -- that the royal mother-in-law was cruel to her. As they often do, the cheeky London tabloids captured the public mood. The Sun gave its entire front page to a poignant plea: "Show us you care, Ma'am!"

This year, the queen is showing that she cares. She has ordered flags at half-staff atop every palace. The royal family, along with the prime minister and his wife, will walk past the TV cameras Monday morning en route to a special memorial service in Diana's honor.

On Friday, the queen's spokesman issued an unprecedented statement saying that Her Majesty had learned a lot from the late Princess.

"The queen has listened hard since the Princess died," the statement said. "The princess was . . . very good at keeping abreast of topics of public interest and concern. That was one of her strengths and a lesson that could be learned."

Burgers and Soccer
In the past year, the 72-year-old queen went to a pub for the first time in her life and ordered the obligatory pint of bitter. She was filmed emerging from her Rolls-Royce in the parking lot of a McDonald's, another royal first. When all of England was shattered by a controversial referee's decision in the World Cup soccer championship last month, the palace leaked word that Her Majesty was among the millions watching on TV and had responded to the decision by sarcastically quoting the most famous utterance of her ancestor, Queen Victoria: "We are not amused."

Prince Charles, too, has skillfully altered the image of a polo-playing fuddy-duddy that stuck with him for years. For example, he declared his devotion to the Spice Girls and even smiled when he was pinched on the bottom by Geri Halliwell, the former "Ginger Spice."

Another public relations plus for the queen's family is that one member of the younger generation seems to be taking on Diana's role as the royal matinee idol. This is Diana's eldest son, Prince William, now second in line to the throne after his father. The tall, thin Eton student bears a haunting resemblance to his mother. He responds to crowds with the same slightly embarrassed downward glance that was the trademark of the Princess of Wales in the early days of her marriage, when the world fell in love with "shy Di."

William demonstrated his international appeal when he accompanied his father to Vancouver this spring. Thousands of teenage girls lined the streets, screaming eternal love for "Wills." The British media were clearly thrilled that the royal family could still produce a global heartthrob.

Brother and Sister
If the past year has been a good one for Prince Charles, it has been a disaster for the other Charles in Diana's life -- her younger brother. Known simply as "Charles Spencer" when he was an occasional reporter for NBC News, the 34-year-old now uses his noble title, "the ninth Earl Spencer," and lives at the spectacular family estate, Althorp, about an hour's drive north of London.

Spencer won a flicker of global fame at his sister's funeral with an acerbic speech in which he accused the media of hounding his sister and the royal family of failing to appreciate her. Last winter, though, Spencer made a legal decision that turned into a public relations disaster. Sued for divorce by his wife of four years, he could have elected to try the case either in England or South Africa, where he has another home. He chose South Africa, reportedly because alimony awards there tend to be lower.

But unlike English courts, in which records are sealed, South Africa makes divorce pleadings public. The media -- the very editors whom Spencer had attacked -- had a field day reporting his alleged dalliances with a dozen or more mistresses. With an inheritance worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he offered his wife and four children a settlement worth less than $500,000 a year. His image was shattered.

At Diana's funeral, Charles Spencer said, "I always believed the press would kill her in the end." A few months later, though, it came out that he had turned his sister away when she asked for a home on the family estate to get away from prying photographers; he said he wanted to safeguard his privacy. This summer, he was again criticized when he opened a museum and souvenir shop at Althorp and began charging $16 admission for those who came to pay their respects at Diana's grave.

Another player in the Diana drama who has had a difficult year is Mohamed Fayed, the Egyptian millionaire who owns Harrods department store in London and the Ritz Hotel in Paris.

Fayed's son, Dodi, was dating Diana last August and was killed in the same car crash in Paris. Charges that the Fayed-owned Mercedes they rode in had bad brakes and that the Fayed-employed driver was drunk have put the hotel owner on the defensive. Fayed has offered different explanations for the crash, including the suggestion that it was the result of a conspiracy to prevent Diana from marrying his son, a Muslim. He has been feuding with the royal family, the Spencer family and the British press almost since the moment of the accident.

Various friends of Diana and family members who are now running a foundation set up in her name also have been raked over the coals. Among much else, directors of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund have authorized the use of the elegant Princess's name and likeness on bingo tickets and plastic margarine tubs in return for large cash payments. A proposal to use Diana's name on automobile seat belts was rejected after it provoked loud public complaints about bad taste.

In contrast, the society matron who was regularly portrayed as the "other woman" in Diana's unhappy marriage has emerged from the past year with an enhanced image. Camilla Parker-Bowles, a 51-year-old divorcee whom Diana dubbed "the Rottweiler," is now carrying on a more-or-less open love affair with Prince Charles. In recent months, news leaks from the palace have made it known that she has become friendly with Diana's sons and was invited to a gala birthday party the two boys gave for their father this summer.

Devotion and Charity
Finally, there remains Diana herself, who still probably holds the title Best Known Woman on Earth a year after her death. The dozens of books and documentaries about the princess who died at the age of 36 portray her generally as a reigning beauty and a loving mother -- but also as a victim whose life was a series of unhappy turns until she devoted herself to her sons and charity work after the royal divorce. Recently, though, commentators also have pointed out that this famous supporter of charities didn't leave any money to charity in her will.

The big question is whether the people of Britain will finally put an end to the obsession with their real life Fairy Princess once Monday's long-awaited anniversary is past. In recent interviews, several media titans have mentioned a growing "Diana fatigue" among the public here. They have promised to cut back on the constant coverage of the late Princess -- as soon as the current round of memorials is over.

Which is just about exactly what the same media moguls were saying here one year ago.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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