Charles plants tree and Camilla waves

The duchess and an ambivalent U.S. get their first close look at each other


WASHINGTON -- In the breathless minutes before the royal motorcade rolled up to the SEED School yesterday, a small army of khaki- and polo-clad kids unfurled a brown paper sign, with this spray-painted message:

"Welcome to SEED Prince Charles and Duchess of Wales."

A sweet gesture. Only, the well-coiffed visitor in the black limo wasn't the Duchess of Wales. Wales belongs to Diana, the beloved princess, dead eight years now.

This woman grinning at the prince's side was the newly minted Duchess of Cornwall - formerly Camilla Parker Bowles, Princess Diana's longtime rival, Prince Charles' former mistress and, now, wife.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Thursday's editions about the Prince of Wales' recent visit to the SEED School of Washington, D.C., misquoted the wording on a sign held up by students. The sign did not misstate the title of the duchess. It read: "Welcome to SEED, Prince of Wales & Duchess of Cornwall."
The Sun regrets the errors.

But the children are to be forgiven, for the whole nation seems unsure of just who this woman is or whether anyone should care that she and Prince Charles are visiting the U.S. together for the first time, a coast-to-coast tour that includes three days in Washington.

Many of the students at SEED, a public boarding school, had no clue who the duchess was before learning that she - escorted by her husband and first lady Laura Bush - would be making her first public stop in Washington in their schoolyard. They compared notes on Camilla - and the little some knew wasn't good.

"I heard some pretty shady stuff about her," said Adam De Los Reyes, 17. Prince Charles "was messin' with her while he was goin' with Diana."

Prince Charles has admitted as much. And yet here he was in the broad daylight with the woman he's called the love of his life on his arm, ready to plant a tree.

Of course, the tweedy throng of British press had decided that this trip to the States - the Prince's first official one since 1994 - was a mammoth story and were damaging every other living thing in the school's sparse gardens to get closer to the monarchs-to-be.

The native media was no more mannerly - not since the War of 1812 had there been such sharp elbowing between America and England as in the press section.

And for what? Prince Charles tossed about three shovelfuls of dirt on the fledgling tree (an English oak - Prince Valiant variety), which could have survived anyway, having been safely anchored in U.S. soil hours before his arrival.

But the children were appreciative.

"I feel grateful for her coming over here and shaking hands," said Bradley Jacobs, 15. "It's not like she had to."

Good point.

She's in the royal family now. She doesn't technically have to do anything, even this seven-day American tour, which took them to New York on Tuesday, where they paid homage to British vicitms of 9/11, and later this week to storm-ravaged New Orleans, then San Francisco.

Their three days in the capital are sprinkled with a potpourri of worthy causes - an architectural awards ceremony at the National Building Museum, an osteoporosis seminar, a children's workshop at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a lecture on faith at Georgetown, a wreath-laying to commemorate World War II.

But yesterday was largely for schmoozing the Bushes, who, after these past few bad-news weeks, could probably do with some jollying. The tree planting was wedged between lunch and dinner at the White House.

"I think Charles has a nerve bringing her here," said Linda Hartwick, who has temporarily shuttered her Norwich, N.Y., bed-and-breakfast to hound the prince during his East Coast swing. Outside the White House, she waved a banner that read: "Queen Elizabeth Camilla is Not Welcome in the USA."

Yet just down the wrought-iron White House fence was 22-year-old Emma Elliott of College Park, who came out "because I adore Camilla," she said. "She has a beautiful love story. And beautiful clothes."

For some, yesterday's in-person sightings answered long-standing questions about how the leathery commoner stole the beau of a satin-skinned princess.

"She had killer legs," said Eleanor Herman, a Baltimore native who wrote a book on royal love affairs and got her first glimpse of the duchess yesterday. "I've heard that Windsor men like their women to look like horses. Well, I can't say that about her face, but her legs are like that, so long and shapely. She was really pretty."

Indeed, stepping out of her limo onto the White House's South Lawn before lunch yesterday, she looked almost flirtatious.

The Bushes glided over to greet her and her knobby-faced husband, who stared stoically straight ahead. But Camilla's eyes seemed reflexively drawn to the press, where flashbulbs flickered like heat lightning. When the Bushes led the way back to the White House, she turned several times to wave over her shoulder, veering briefly off the red carpet.

But her first day in Washington seemed to teach her a lot. Arriving for dinner seven hours later, she looked like a different woman. Posing with the president, his wife and her prince, she didn't smile as widely or wave as hard, as if she realized that she didn't have to, that her picture would be taken anyway.

And although it seemed unlikely that Dick Cheney, Kelsey Grammer or any of the other blue-chip guests at the black-tie dinner would dance Camilla into America's affections, the way John Travolta famously twirled Princess Diana during that White House visit 20 years ago, no matter.

As the foursome turned away, sequined dresses shimmered in the darkened White House windows, like barely glimpsed fish. That is Camilla's realm now: privileged, powerful, unpublished. The world of the wife of a prince.

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