He is a combination of James Baker and the Equalizer.
On the eve of Charles and Diana's arrival in Washington, Michael Shea, the press secretary to the queen, is facing the press -- British and American -- and fielding their questions with a little smile working its way onto his face every now and then.
"We will over the next few days give out what we perceive to be of importance to you -- details of the princess' clothes," Shea said matter-of-factly to the several hundred members of the press corps gathered in the British Embassy yesterday.
To the inevitable question of whether Diana spends zillions on her clothes and how many she will be bringing with her, Shea exhaled, smiled and began, "This gives me an opportunity to tell you all to beware of myth . . . The princess of Wales would probably agree with me that she's in a no-win situation. Either she is wearing the same thing twice or she's spending $20,000 a day."
He is the queen's diplomat to the often undiplomatic press. And as far as the prince and princess of Wales are concerned, Shea is as close as you get. Dressed in banker's dark-gray pinstripes, he took all manner of questions.
He dealt with the basics:
What if everybody is only interested in Charles and not Diana?
"I must say I haven't heard that . . . I have no doubt they will both be of interest."
And the controversial:
Is Diana pregnant again -- as Charles is reported to have coyly hinted to an Australian construction worker this week? (He was asked this twice.)
"We get about five of these a day," Shea said. "And one of these days, someone is going to be right."
And what about the poll that says a majority of Americans are not interested in Charles and Diana?
"Those who want to be enthusiastic, we're happy to have them be enthusiastic. Those who are apathetic," he said casually but cordially, "we leave them in their apathy."
Shea has no problem getting to see his royal employers. "I have plenty of access," he said, and he's free to call them whenever he wishes. "I can and do," he said.
Press secretary to the queen since 1978, Shea is 46 and lives in London with his wife, a Norwegian export counsel, and his two teen-age daughters (who have met the princess). Shea works out of a ground-floor drawing room in Buckingham Palace.
Dealing with four years of constant, often frenzied press reporting on Charles and Diana has not daunted him:
The experience has not left him disdainful of the press. And Diana, he said, feels similarly: "The princess recognizes that the press does a job, and she, as you, would differentiate between the press and the press."
When he's not dealing with press and palace, Shea writes thrillers and television scripts. Life with Charles and Diana won't be a topic, he said.
"I couldn't cope with it novelistically," he said with a smile. "It's too strange. You know, truth is stranger than fiction."