The average pump attendant in Nebraska may not be sure of the exact distinction between Margaret Thatcher and ''Queen Elizabeth'' -- as he is likely to call the British monarch. Suggestions that some Americans are taken aback to find themselves visited by the latter -- they thought she had abdicated last November -- are surely apocryphal. But they will certainly have heard of both. They are the only living foreign ladies most of them could confidently name.
The nostalgia for royalty and the thrill the visit has generated was summed up by the Washington Post when it commented: ''She's not our Queen but before we're through with her, she'll probably think she is.'' The Queen knows her family history better than that. As well as attending her first ''ball game'' this direct descendant of George III [became] the first British monarch to address both Houses of Congress. But rather than apologize for her ancestor's moment of carelessness with the 13 colonies, she will surely rejoice in the paradox of the royal felix culpa which gave birth to the world's greatest nation.
The British public may watch the phenomenon of a royal state visit to the United States with some of the ironic amusement it reserves for this curious detail of the ''special relationship'' between the two peoples. It will take pleasure in the warmth of it, and pride in the tributes of an event timed to celebrate the successful military collaboration in freeing Kuwait.
The relationship has never been more secure and needs no repairing, and the two countries seek no favors of each other beyond those that come naturally. There is nothing more strenuous on the agenda than some reciprocal flattery and curiosity. The great vice and virtue of the American character is the desire to be liked. The strength of the Crown is its aloofness from such desire. Its independence of popularity and the polls lends it a timeless security. The monarchy of a democratic state derives its potency from this very lack of electoral legitimacy. By their democratic principles Americans should disregard a non-elected head of state completely, but paradoxically it gives this particular head a curious hold on their imagination. How could such strange constitutional ways be possible?
Great is the interest, therefore, in seeing the impossible in action. The Queen will pay the formal compliments which belong to such solemn occasions. But for once she will mean them, and she should speak for her kingdom in meaning them. The British sometimes tend to rehearse America's faults and absurdities with relish, reflecting a secret envy that does no justice to either country. Their common origins, shared language, parallel histories and frequent partnerships on the world stage in the cause of right deserve to be celebrated without that sniff of superiority on the British side which many Americans are shrewd enough to guess at, but usually too polite to mention.
No relationship can ever really be called special unless it is also of the heart. That was the spirit in which the Queen landed in Washington, and in which America received her. Rather than the self-interested courtships of governments, a royal visit can represent an exchange of affection between entire peoples, in this case lightly spiced with mutual astonishment.