By Dana Milbank
The President Learns It's Good to Be the King
Mon May 7, 2007 22:28

The President Learns It's Good to Be the King

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, May 8, 2007; Page A02

With etiquette handbooks at the ready, the White House was in a high state of faux pas alert for Queen Elizabeth II's visit yesterday. Still, President Bush lasted only about 14 minutes into the state arrival ceremony before implying that the British monarch was 300 years old.

"You've dined with 10 U.S. presidents," Bush said on the South Lawn with the 81-year-old sovereign at his side. "You helped our nation celebrate its bicentennial in seventeen s --" -- here the president caught himself -- "in nineteen seventy-six."

The crowd laughed. Bush looked sheepishly at Elizabeth, who glanced up from the text of her own speech, smiled politely, and said something that sounded like "some year," or "you're near," or even "oh, dear."

"She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child," a quick-thinking Bush reported back to the assembly.

At least he didn't credit her with signing the Magna Carta.

In the days before yesterday's state visit, the talk was all about how the regular-guy president disliked all the pomp that comes with a royal function. Don't believe it. As they say in Texas: Balderdash and poppycock.

True, the state dinner last night forced Bush to stay up beyond his bedtime, and wearing tails is a hassle for pretty every much man who doesn't sing with the Whiffenpoofs. And such events bring bad memories: At a similar pageant last year, the Chinese president was heckled by a Falun Gong protester and the White House announcer confused China and Taiwan.

But the president seemed to be enjoying himself mightily yesterday. After Bush and the first lady took an impromptu walk with the queen and Prince Philip across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House, White House pool reporter Tara Copp of the Austin American-Statesman reported that "the president was in as sunny a mood as the sky above."

And why shouldn't he be sunny? The queen would not bicker with him about the Baghdad security plan, and there would be no prickly news conference where Bush would be asked about the Newsweek poll putting his support at 28 percent, equal to Jimmy Carter's in 1979. Yesterday gave Bush a chance to put aside the messiness of being head of government and enjoy the trappings of being head of state: cannons on the Ellipse, an Army fife-and-drum corps, a troop review, and red geraniums on the South Portico.

The profusion of pageantry evidently overwhelmed "Good Morning America" anchor Robin Roberts, who, having secured an invitation to the state dinner, began the day with a breathless interview from the White House with Laura Bush.

"The excitement continues to build," Roberts reported. "The White House is taking on an air of royalty this morning. . . . And I'm telling you, what a delight."

"A very happy occasion," the first lady agreed.

Roberts followed up aggressively: "I mean, truly, everyone is buzzing around here."

"That's right, they are," the first lady confessed.

The two briefly discussed Bush's 28 percent standing and the Virginia Tech shootings, before turning back to the president's consent to a white-tie dress code ("He was a very good sport") and the pea soup for dinner ("You'll really like it, Robin").

"Oh, I can't wait," the questioner responded. "And the lamb, always a favorite."

"We're doing a fish course, too."

The president couldn't help injecting a bit of his political agenda into the royal visit. "We're resisting those who murder the innocent to advance a hateful ideology, whether they kill in New York or London, or Kabul or Baghdad," he read with the queen at his side.

That met with a dissonant answer from Queen Elizabeth, who read: "A state visit provides us with a brief opportunity to step back from our current preoccupations to reflect on the very essence of our relationship."

But enough with the heavy stuff. Tony Snow, the president's press secretary, announced at his briefing that he would take no questions about the queen's conversation with Bush. "We're going to allow them to go ahead and have very pleasant conversations," he said. "It's a pretty cool day, you know?"

In lieu of news, the White House sent out a flurry of press releases about the state dinner: a guest list (Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning!) at 4:03 p.m.; a dinner menu (Dover sole amandine!) at 4:07 p.m.; and the East Room entertainment (Itzhak Perlman!) at 4:08 p.m.

Some of the royal visit's pleasures were inaccessible to the president; he would not, for example, taste the dinner red wine, the $200-per-bottle Peter Michael 2003 Les Pavots, with its "notes of melted licorice." But there was much to raise the president's spirits, including the silver dish the queen gave him with the royal cypher, the presidential seal, and a Texas lone star. The magnanimous president even brought out the Clinton china for dinner.

The informal Bush enjoyed the formality so much that he even took time out to torment an underdressed photographer. After his walk with the queen after lunch, Bush got the photographer, Newsweek's Charles Ommanney, to agree that it was "a special day" at the White House. "Then why," the president asked, "didn't you wear something other than hand-me-down clothes?"

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?: Books: Lee Iacocca


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