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Royal Couple Able to Exhale in Capital

After a rough greeting in New York, Prince Charles and Camilla find common ground at the White House and an urban school.

November 03, 2005|Johanna Neuman and Emma Vaughn | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — In New York, the newest member of Britain's royal family, the Duchess of Cornwall, was criticized for wearing a pink Italian wool crepe dress to ground zero, pickets denounced her as "Cam-zilla" and one headline read: "Queen Camilla is New York's Frump Tower."

But by the time the heir to the British throne and his bride of seven months arrived in Washington on Wednesday, they had turned a corner. In the nation's capital, where sober-minded, middle-aged people in ordinary clothes are the norm, Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla fit right in.

President Bush had them over for lunch with members of his family. At Washington's only live-in public school, the royals listened attentively as officials described how they were sending 100% of their poor, inner-city students to college.

And a formal White House dinner stood in marked contrast to one 20 years ago, when Charles brought Princess Diana to town and she danced with actor John Travolta during a star-studded evening at the Reagan White House. This time, the only actor on the guest list was Kelsey Grammer. The entertainment was cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

"Safe, safe, safe," observed one Washington social hand.

For the prince, who turns 57 in two weeks, and his 58-year-old bride, it may have been a plus that Washington feels comfortable with understated.

For once, the royal couple may have felt less under siege than their hosts.

At the White House dinner, they mingled with guests such as retired television news anchor Tom Brokaw and historian Michael Beschloss. Mary Cheney, the vice president's daughter, and her partner, Heather Poe, were there, as were Los Angeles financier Bradford Freeman and Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

In a bow to the past, the guest list included former First Lady Nancy Reagan, who was accompanied by Merv Griffin.

The menu at the black-tie dinner, the big-event debut of White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford, featured buffalo tenderloin and fall vegetables, with petits fours and Chartreuse ice cream for dessert.

The British Embassy packed the royals' trip to Washington with substance.

Accompanied by Reagan, they toured the SEED School in southeast Washington, a public boarding school that provides its urban students with rigorous academic training.

"They were the most down-to-earth people I had ever met," said Davon Jenkins, a senior who served as tour guide for the royal couple and who hoped to attend Georgetown University. "And Duchess Camilla was so nice. The media just isn't right about her.... And Prince Charles actually told me that I reminded him a little of himself."

Charles, who attended boarding schools and sent his sons -- William and Harry -- to Eton, looked comfortable at the school. After moving some dirt ceremoniously for an English oak planted in his honor (Prince Valiant variety), he held the shovel aloft triumphantly.

Then the royals met the students, with Camilla noting their uniforms and Charles complimenting one student on her big hoop earrings.

Today, the duchess, whose mother and grandmother suffered from osteoporosis, will attend a seminar on the topic at the National Institutes of Health. The prince, a critic of contemporary architecture, will receive the Vincent Scully Prize at the National Building Museum.

After visiting with Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans, the couple will head to Marin County in Northern California to share camaraderie, meals and perhaps recipes with fellow disciples of organic farming.

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