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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 May 2007, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Washington diary: Royal jitters
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Queen Elizabeth II and George W Bush at the White House for a state dinner
The Bush White House hosted its first white tie dinner for the Queen

I have seen George Bush fumble for grammar, cringe in front of the cameras and shrug off insults from world leaders.

I have seen him joust gamely with opponents and stare down enemies with a cold eye.

But I have never, ever seen the commander-in-chief of the mightiest nation on earth look utterly terrified.

This week an elderly lady, who is at least a head smaller than the president and who, by all accounts, has never harmed a fly, achieved - unwittingly - what Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Nancy Pelosi have all tried and failed to do: reduce George Walker Bush to a quivering mass, make his lower lip tremble and - I promise you I saw it with my own eyes - make him blush to the roots of his Texan rind.

Yes, the 43rd President of the United States was smitten by her Britannic Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

Memorable gaffe

The endearing thing about George Bush is that his body language and the spoken variety both betray his true emotions at every turn.

At Monday night's state dinner, the first white tie event in the Bush White House, a pair of lacquered black shoes could be seen virtually tap dancing with jitters on the red carpet next to the royal footwear.

George W Bush welcomes the Queen to the White House
Her Majesty was not amused by President Bush's gaffe - and wink

Then there was George Bush's hesitant "should I sit or should I stand" toast which left the Queen on her feet, sipping her Riesling all by herself.

The most memorable gaffe had been committed earlier that day, when the president almost implied that the Queen was 200 years older than her current age by thanking her for attending America's bicentennial celebrations in 1776.

He corrected himself mid-date, then did what he often does in sticky circumstances. He winked, smiled and lunged for recovery.

The Queen was heard to mutter: "Wrong year!"

The president responded with disarming honesty. The Queen had given him "a look that only a mother could give a child" he told his guests and the world, under a glorious Washington May sky.

Call me churlish, but I thought this was a charming escape from Royal Protocol Armageddon.

To my knowledge no reigning Queen of England had ever been winked at.

The first Elizabeth would surely have had George Bush's guts for garters. This one responded with dead-pan aloofness. Her Majesty was not amused.

There wasn't even a flicker of a smile and the stiff upper lip of the House of Windsor remained resolutely stiff in the land of the free.

Shared ancestry

If I may take the presumptuous role of presidential shrink for a moment, I would say there are three reasons for George Bush's quivers.

Barbara Bush and her son George W Bush
Does the Queen remind Mr Bush of another matriarch in his life?

It is not royalty per se that makes American presidents nervous. It is British royalty.

For all the loathing of the Red Coats, Mad King George and British colonial rule, America feels the Stockholm syndrome of its ancestry. Even an abused child sent for adoption is fascinated by his or her real mother.

Secondly the Queen probably reminds George Bush of his own Mama, the formidable Barbara, the matriarch of the Bush clan, who apparently raised her eldest son with a patrician mixture of love and discipline.

He may argue with his father over Iraq and diplomacy. They have a vexed relationship. But, I'm told, it is the mother he cherishes and dares not contradict.

Britain is to history what Saudi Arabia is to crude oil. We have lashings of it and don't feel the need to draw attention to it

The third point is a more general one about the role of Britain's history in the United States.

Americans nurture their historical shoots like a gardener fusses over a sapling. In Virginia, where the rich earth moans with the memories of the civil war, the war of independence and the lives of the founding fathers, every brick and beam dating back a hundred years or more is festooned with a plaque.

History is such a precious commodity because it is so rare in a young nation.

By comparison Britain is to history what Saudi Arabia is to crude oil. We have lashings of it and don't feel the need to draw attention to it.

The Queen and Vice-President Dick Cheney watch a performance at Jamestown Settlement, Virginia
Americans are proud of their young nation's relatively short history

Despite lattes and paninis, suicide bombs in London and the foreign takeover of English football, Britain lives, breathes and governs unselfconsciously in a historical context.

Which American politician doesn't at some stage enlist the help of the founding fathers or invoke the American dream enshrined in the Bill of Rights? Which British politician ever mentions the Magna Carta?

For Americans, the Queen and her pageantry embody an exotic reality tinged with a whiff of shared ancestry.

It is a matter of affection mixed with curiosity verging, sometimes, on incomprehension.

It is the same attitude found when Washington grandees munch cucumber sandwiches on the British ambassador's lawn and are too polite to ask about the missing crust.


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