Samuel Langhorne Clemens, whose 150th birthday we celebrate this month, had the final word on royalty, of which we have had enough this month to last several lifetimes. He gave that word to Huck Finn, who as he floated down the Mississippi with his friend Jim made the notable -- and irrefutable -- observation that "all kings is mostly rapscallions, as fur as I can make out," and then added: "All I say is, kings is kings, and you got to make allowances. Take them all around, they're a mighty ornery lot. It's the way they're raised."
A few years before that another notably outspoken American, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had his say on the same subject and reached more or less the same conclusion. In his poem "Boston Hymn" he wrote: "God said, I am tired of kings,/ I suffer them no more;/ Up to my ear the morning brings/ The outrage of the poor." Had Emerson been in Washington this week, heaven only knows how he would amend that sentiment; "tired of kings" scarcely begins to say it, to put it as mildly as possible.
The one consolation is that by the time these words appear the royal visitors will almost -- not quite, but almost -- be gone, winging their way down to Palm Beach, where, with all due respect, they belong. Soon it will all be over: the tree-planting and the wreath-laying and the White House dinner and the gallery gala and the J.C. Penney (!) tour and the groupie-packed media reception, not to mention the service at Washington Cathedral at which the principal objects of worship were He and She. Soon Washington will be able to get back to its ordinary business, the nature of which is not a fit subject for a family newspaper.
But we will be left with what television people, their voices oozing sincerity, like to call Memories, or Magic Moments, or Magically Memorable Moments, all of them preserved on the videotapes of our hearts. For the truth of the matter is that our soon-to-be-departed visitors have set us atwitter not because they are royalty but because they are celebrities, and our excitement has much less to do with having the House of Windsor in our midst than at being in the presence of what our visitors would call Glamour. Indeed, the number of Americans who are even aware that this is the House of Windsor probably could convene in a small movie theater; what all of us know is that this is Chuck-'n'-Di, once and future monarchs of People magazine and all that it surveys.
What is amusing about the state of terminal gaga into which we have collapsed is that while we are going berserk at the sheer ecstasy of it all, our royal visitors are taking us to the cleaners. As the Economist pointed out last week, the "Treasure Houses of Britain" exhibition at the National Gallery that the famous pair visited yesterday is nothing so much as "a shameless sales pitch for the British heritage," a brilliant piece of public relations designed to lure American tourists to Britain and to encourage them "to extend their next trip to view the treasures hidden in the British countryside."
Who, you may ask, is picking up the freight for this "shameless sales pitch" to which we are so blissfully succumbing? Well, the British taxpayers are shelling out all of $70,000, in the form of staff time at the British Council and a payment -- obviously a very small one -- to the National Gallery. The rest of the tab is being picked up right here in the colonies: $1.2 million from the Ford Foundation and $2 million from the taxpayers, through a special congressional grant. It's as if we went into the grocery store, handed the manager a $100 bill and said: "Here. Try and sell me some toilet paper."
To be sure, when British royalty comes to the United States it always has something to sell, since in its present condition the British throne is reduced to little more than an agreeably housed and over-remunerated promotions office. Perhaps the most notable royal sales trip to America took place in 1939, when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth paid a call on the Roosevelts and their constituents. Say it for them, though, that their pitch was rather more elevated than the advancement of tourism: They knew that their country would soon be under attack by Nazi Germany, notwithstanding the previous year's capitulation at Munich, and their urgent mission was to renew and intensify American sympathy for all things and causes British.
George and Elizabeth advanced upon the United States in full pomp and circumstance, though they were careful not to overdo it. They seem to have been rather nice people -- William Bullitt, advising Roosevelt about their care and feeding, called them "the little king" and "the little queen" -- and the Roosevelts, as was their style, treated them more or less as just folks. Eleanor Roosevelt fretted that "so many people are worried that 'the dignity of our country will be imperiled' by inviting royalty to a picnic, particularly a hot-dog picnic," but a picnic was just what they had: hot dogs and beer, on the lawn at Hyde Park, accompanied by entertainment that the king and queen "were very polite about," according to one present. The visit was probably as happy and successful as any such inherently artificial occasion can be, though at its end Mrs. Roosevelt reflected sadly that "we all knew the king and queen were returning home to face a war."
The only war that He and She will return home to face, after their immersion in the vulgarities and vanities of Palm Beach, will be their unceasing battle against the British press. Such is war, and such is monarchy, in the age of celebrity, that the British throne is reduced to sniping with the tabloids over what goes on in the royal bedroom and whether She has tired of Him, or vice versa, ad infinitum and ad nauseam. Here in America of course we have no time for such matters, and on the subject of Chuck-'n'-Di our press has behaved with the utmost decorum, reticence and restraint, and if you believe that you also believe in the tooth fairy.
Oh well, tomorrow it will be over, at least Washington's end of it. We can go back to the important things -- log-rolling, influence-peddling, social-climbing, what have you -- and let the royal wedding-cake couple retreat into the mists of Magic Memories. Then perhaps we can even get around to putting these young celebrities in perspective, though as they say Over There: Not bloody likely.