The Waleses, as Charles and Diana are known in Washington, are coming. Washington is ga-ga. "Title Wave hits Town," announces the cover of Washington Dossier. The gossip columns run a daily Royal Watch ("nine days and counting"). Life magazine gives the pair a 30-page spread, five devoted just to Diana's jewels. And for a chance to be reflected in them, people here are ready to barter life, fortune and sacred honor.
Try as I may, I can't get into it. True, she is beautiful and he is, well, gainly. They are, by most accounts, nice people and they fit splendidly into their uniforms. And then? Why does the sight of the Waleses make Americans, normally fixed in sturdy republicanism, go dopey? Because we love royalty, it is said. More likely, because we love camp. In a town full of people with pompless power, it is a kick to see powerless pomp, like seeing a vice president in sash and sword.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I have not been invited to dine with the Waleses. You may think me nursing a wound, but, in fact, on the subject of royalty, I speak with (for an American) unusual authority. Having spent a considerable chunk of my childhood in Canada, I can recite -- sing, if pressed -- a flawless "God Save the Queen." And living in one of her many dominions, I got to see quite a lot of her.
When she came there was real excitement. I'm not talking parties, I'm talking revolution. In Quebec in the 1960s the queen was not camp. She was the enemy -- in the eyes, that is, of French-Canadian radicals, still smarting from yesterday's defeat at the hands of the British. (The year was 1759. Look at a Quebec license plate. It reads "je me souviens," meaning "I remember.") You may think of her as Her Royal Frumpiness, but in French-speaking Quebec she was English colonialism made flesh. Rioters greeted her in Quebec City in 1964.
The Quebec Liberation Front, a kind of poor man's PLO, fancied to overthrow her and her English underlings in Ottawa. Unfortunately, they did not have a guerrilla army. (They could, often did, fit in one caf,e.) Accordingly, their preferred mode of struggle was placing bombs in mailboxes, a tactic that could appeal only to intellectuals. Their favorite target was my English-speaking suburb. When royalty came, for me it meant dull speeches, exploding mailboxes and trips to the post office until it was over.
There was a time when Americans, too, took royalty seriously. Big Bill Thompson, campaigning in 1927 to become once again mayor of Chicago, promised personally to "punch King George in the snoot" if he dared visit his town. ("Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," elaborated Barry Goldwater some years later.) I wonder: Would Shane have left his horse for Di?
I could, of course, wax grim about all the current fuss, noting how this celebration of self-consciously empty glitz is the perfect expression of the wealth worship and limo culture of the new, imperial Washington, where courtier to the president and million- dollar influence-peddler are the highest callings. But, as Richard Nixon -- whose plans for plumed White House guards made royalism ridiculous, one of the many services he has rendered the republic by inadvertence -- once said: that would be wrong.
It would spoil the fun. And besides, I am not a Labour Party radical who wants to rob Charles of his rents or stash Diana's tiara. I don't want them to work in an office or, worse, have them ride around on bicycles, like the Dutch royal family.
I'm grateful to them. With the Waleses here, our attention will be so diverted from the summit that President Reagan will be able to go a week without having to make a concession to the Soviets just to keep up in the presummit propaganda race. World opinion (i.e., the press) will be busy elsewhere, counting the sapphires on Di's ears and scrutinizing Americans for any hint of a bended knee. (Last time Charles was here, chief of protocol Lee Annenberg offered a curtsy, and from the ruckus you'd have thought she had voided the Battle of Yorktown and called for a rematch.)
Quite a fuss. In "A Man for All Seasons," Sir Thomas More addresses the court in his treason trial and reveals that his chief betrayer, Richard Rich, has been appointed, as obvious reward for his testimony, attorney general for Wales. More turns to Rich and "with pain and amusement" says, "For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales!"
I can see going slightly off one's head for, say, Churchill, or John Paul, or -- forgive my idiosyncrasies -- Gary Kasparov. But for the Waleses?
Dinner with Di? If you like cotton candy. I prefer steak. Give me brunch with Clare Boothe Luce.