WASHINGTON – Prince Charles dryly pronounced himself "still here" and "alive" Wednesday on his arrival at the White House for a visit showing off his new bride, Camilla. The Duchess of Cornwall (search), hoping to impress American Diana-philes on her first overseas trip as a British royal, was decidedly more enthusiastic.
Greeted by President Bush and his wife, Laura, with a no-pomp welcome, the all-smiles Camilla could be heard declaring something Mrs. Bush said was "fabulous." As the foursome headed inside for an intimate lunch, Camilla briefly lagged behind, straying off the red carpet and showing the jostling media horde a shy grin and a little wave.
There was no shortage of pageantry for the royal couple in the evening. A rare White House black-tie evening featured buffalo for dinner, music by cellist Yo-Yo Ma (search) and dancing with several dozen luminaries from the worlds of politics, history, writing, diplomacy and sports — but few high-wattage celebrities.
Bush toasted the royal couple before dinner, saying their visit was a "reminder of the unique and enduring bond between the United Kingdom and the United States."
"The people of the United States draw a lot of strength from having the United Kingdom as an ally," Bush said in an apparent reference to British support for the president decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.
In return, Charles quoted former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (search) as once saying the friendliness of Americans toward British travelers was "something to marvel at."
"Well, nothing has changed, Mr. President," the prince said, as Camilla smiled throughout his toast.
With an American tour that began Tuesday in New York, Charles and Camilla were looking to stoke trans-Atlantic enthusiasm for their new marriage. Camilla was long reviled in the British press as the woman who broke up Princess Diana's marriage to Charles, but has begun gaining acceptance with increasingly high-profile appearances since the longtime loves wed in April.
Bush had something to gain as well. With the recent indictment of a top-level aide and the Iraq war among the troubles rocking his White House, a day feting royalty and underlining U.S.-British ties provided a welcome change of subject.
The visit invited comparisons to Charles' 1985 U.S. trip with Diana. Then, the young princess wowed America with her demure smiles, fashion sense and well-remembered turn around the White House dance floor with John Travolta.
On Wednesday, no military bands or ceremony heralded the royals' arrival — only the president and first lady waiting in the White House driveway. No one anything more exuberant than handshakes and smiles.
"I'm still here. I'm alive," Charles replied drolly when a British reporter about the trip.
Other than the two countries' ambassadors, the only guests invited to lunch of lemon sole in the Bushes' private dining room were members of the president's family, including his mother, Barbara.
Then a lavish gift exchange. The Bushes presented custom-made his-and-hers leather saddles, each engraved with the crests of Charles' and Camilla's titles. The royal couple brought Churchill essays, a sterling-silver-and-turquoise pill box and a cachepot of English bone china (search).
The conversation apparently did not turn to a potentially embarrassing issue — Charles' passionate position on global warming that conflicts with Bush's. Instead, the discussion topics over the meal and a tour of the Oval Office (search) ranged from sustainable farming and education to their children.
From the elegance of the president's residential quarters, Charles and Camilla traveled to one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods to tour a public boarding school that Mrs. Bush wanted to showcase as an example of American educational innovation. A welcome banner held up by students proclaimed enthusiastically — but inaccurately — "Welcome Prince Charles and the Duchess of Wales."
"There's obviously no slacking around here," the duchess said as she examined one eighth-grader's work.
The early to-bed Bush typically shuns late nights and black-tie attire. Wednesday's formal dinner — not termed an official state dinner, but little different in practice — was just the sixth in Bush's presidency.
With the Bush White House not known for its love of flash and celebrity, Washington's A-list was heavily represented on the guest list but Hollywood's was not.
Among the well-known types seated for dinner were former first lady Nancy Reagan — accompanied by television personality Merv Griffin — and former NFL star Lynn Swann, newly installed Chief Justice John Roberts and Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, the military coordinator in the Gulf Coast region following Hurricane Katrina.
Bush daughter Jenna was bringing a date — boyfriend Henry Hager, the son of former Virginia lieutenant governor John Hager, now an assistant secretary at the Education Department.
De la Renta designed Mrs. Bush's off-shoulder gown, in deep amber silk with taffeta leaves and flowers embroidered with sparkly beading. The duchess wore a black cashmere jacket trimmed with sparkly trim at the edges and a floor-length, pleated skirt of silk taffeta, dangling earrings and a diamond necklace.
The 130 guests were seated in a State Dining Room (search) outfitted in a simple gold-and-white decor. The four-course menu — the debut of new White House chef Cristeta Comerford — featured celery-and-shrimp soup, buffalo medallions, salad, with petits fours and chartreuse ice cream for dessert.