WASHINGTON – Washington turned out adoring schoolchildren and ladies in hats for Queen Elizabeth II's visit. The White House laid on special touches, too, at President Bush's first-ever white-tie state dinner to honor America's closest ally and make the queen feel welcome.
The centuries-old vermeil flatware and candelabras came from a London silversmith. A made-of-sugar replica of the queen's 1953 coronation rose graced the cake. English farmhouse cheeses accompanied the salad course.
And the traditional "special guest" invited only at the last minute was sure to be of interest to an avid horse enthusiast such as the queen: Calvin Borel, the jockey who rode Street Sense to victory in the Kentucky Derby this weekend with the royals in attendance.
"It's an honor," Borel said as he arrived for the dinner. "It's just like winning the Kentucky Derby -- it might even be better."
On the other hand, there was the president suggesting Queen Elizabeth was over 230 years old.
The president's slip of the tongue during welcoming speeches was inadvertent, of course, and quickly smoothed over with humor. But it wasn't exactly the flawless effort Bush had hoped would erase memories of the "talking hat" episode during the queen's last U.S. visit. (In 1991, during Bush's father's administration, a too-tall lectern left the audience able to see only the queen's hat behind microphones.)
The queen, a sprightly 81, gave an embarrassed Bush a gracious nod after he suggested she had celebrated the United States' founding in 1776. He meant to say she had attended 1976 bicentennial festivities.
"She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child," the president quipped, earning a reserved chuckle from his guest.
Later, Laura Bush made her own minor calendar mistake. She flubbed the year that she and her husband attended the state dinner hosted by President George H.W. Bush in honor of the queen, saying it was in 1993.
The president and the queen took markedly different approaches to their formal remarks.
Bush focused on the partnership between the United States and Britain in Iraq and against terrorism. In just four minutes, he mentioned "freedom" and "liberty" seven times. "Your majesty, I appreciate your leadership during these times of danger and decision," he said.
By contrast, the queen said her fifth journey to the United States was an occasion to "step back from our current preoccupations."
Gaffes aside, the day had the White House at its freshly painted best and brought excitement inside and outside its gates.
Under lampposts adorned with the two countries' flags, throngs hoping for a rare glimpse of royalty lined Pennsylvania Avenue for much of the day. Hats of all shapes bobbed down the street.
Mrs. Bush insisted that the president was enthusiastic about wearing white tie and tails -- though admittedly after being persuaded by his wife and secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to elevate the dinner to that exalted level in the first place.
"We thought if we ever were going to have a white-tie dinner, this was going to be it," Mrs. Bush said.
Presidential spokesman Tony Snow disputed any notion that the royal visit was a welcome break for a White House burdened by low approval ratings and acrimonious tussles with congressional Democrats over the Iraq war.
"There's a lot of other activity going on," he said tersely.
The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, were treated to a trumpet fanfare, a 21-gun salute and a parade by the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps at an arrival ceremony attended by thousands of guests. From there, the Bushes and the royals repaired to a very exclusive lunch, with only the two countries' ambassadors and a few family members.
Later, the two leaders mingled briefly on the street with dozens of British and American schoolchildren. Bush, in the unusual position of playing second fiddle, followed while the queen accepted bouquets of flowers and signed autographs.
For the sixth state dinner of Bush's presidency, the State Dining Room was decked out in white and gold.
Accompanied by a full honor cordon, the Bushes greeted the royals at the White House's north portico, helping the Queen from her car. Coordination ahead of time kept the ladies' attire from clashing. Mrs. Bush wore an aqua creation by Oscar de la Renta with silver beading and rhinestones and a bolero jacket, while the Queen had a cream gown with a sparkling bodice, a blue sash, gloves and a diamond tiara. After a quick photo in the Grand Foyer, the foursome went in to join their guests for dinner.
Among the 134 guests were scores of diplomats, businessmen and members of Congress. But other than Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and golfer Arnold Palmer, the celebrity quotient was low.
Manning was just at the White House two weeks ago for a ceremony honoring his championship football team. Comparing that event with a state dinner in the presence of the queen, Manning diplomatically said both were honors -- but this one didn't carry quite the pressure.
Guests included a number of top Bush fundraisers. Invited Rangers, who raised over $200,000 for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, were automotive executive James Click, investor Brad Freeman and former Enron president Richard Kinder. Former Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, who ran Bush's campaign fundraising in 2000, was also in attendance.
The menu and entertainment were designed as a showcase of America's best: spring pea soup with U.S. caviar, Dover sole almondine, spring lamb with chanterelle sauce and local vegetables and an arugula, mustard greens and romaine salad, said executive chef Cristeta Comerford.
Virtuoso Itzhak Perlman was playing violin.
But despite the excitement and hundreds of hours of preparation, Mrs. Bush suggested that this white-tie affair could not only be their first -- but last. She called the dinner, somewhat wistfully, "the most elegant and most formal that we'll host."