Bush a jittery host to queen

President garbles date, follows up with remark about a `mother's' glare

May 08, 2007|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- No detail can be overlooked when British royalty visits the White House, from the tempo of marches played by the Air Force band to the polish on gilded flatware laid out for the state dinner.

And no amount of planning can compensate for a presidential slip of the tongue.

President Bush welcomed Queen Elizabeth II yesterday during her fifth visit to the United States. But he got the date of one of the trips wrong before catching himself, adding two centuries to the queen's age as well as the country's.

"You helped our nation celebrate its bicentennial in 17 - in 1976," Bush said during a formal outdoor ceremony attended by thousands on the South Lawn of the White House.

As the crowd chuckled, Bush turned to the queen, standing by his left shoulder, to see how the flub went over. She met his eyes for an extended gaze, and Bush must have recognized the slightly disapproving expression from his childhood.

"She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child," Bush told the audience, which included Vice President Dick Cheney, diplomats and Cabinet officials, spurring even heartier laughter.

White House spokesman Tony Snow later praised the president's ad-libbed recovery as "quality stuff."

"I don't know that a lot of people joke with the queen," Snow said. "But the president did. It worked out just fine."

Bush could be forgiven the misstep. He and the rest of official Washington have been atwitter for days, dusting off their tuxedo tails and brushing up on protocol for a two-day stay by the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.

Bush aides have said that little official business between two staunch allies will be discussed, and the queen famously stays out of political affairs. But Bush veered into the political arena during his welcoming comments.

"Today our two nations are defending liberty against tyranny and terror," he said. "We're resisting those who murder the innocent to advance a hateful ideology, whether they kill in New York or London, or Kabul or Baghdad. American and British forces are staying on the offense against the extremists and terrorists."

Taking her speaking turn, the queen pulled prepared remarks from a polished black handbag and struck a broader theme.

"A state visit provides us with a brief opportunity to step back from our current preoccupations to reflect on the very essence of our relationship," she said. "It gives us the chance to look back at how the stories of our two countries have been inextricably woven together."

The first couple took the queen and prince inside the White House for what Laura Bush described afterward as a "fun and relaxing" lunch of seared baby sea bass with lemony risotto and grapefruit fillets washed down with Chardonnay for those who, unlike the president, might have cared to imbibe.

After the meal, the Bushes and the royal couple strolled outside the White House gates and greeted a throng of squealing schoolchildren.

At a formal state dinner last night, guests consumed chive pizzelle with caviar, sole almondine, spring lamb and farmhouse cheeses at tables adorned with white roses and gold-rimmed china.

The guest list included former first lady Nancy Reagan, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, golf legend Arnold Palmer, CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz, The View co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck and violinist Itzhak Perlman - who provided entertainment after the dinner.

The kitchen held a practice dinner - using the identical menu - for selected members of Congress about two weeks ago.

It was the first white-tie affair of Bush's presidency, and Laura Bush said it took some convincing for the president to agree to the unusual level of formality - which includes men wearing old-fashioned swallow-tailed coats.

The first lady said she and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "took it upon ourselves to talk [Bush] into it, because we thought if we were ever going to have a white-tie event, this would be the one."

Only 134 invitations were extended for the state dinner, compared with the 7,000 people on hand for the arrival ceremony. Some guests for the latter arrived more than two hours early, waving tiny Union Jacks and American flags.

Trading ceremonial toasts at the start of the dinner, Bush said that "friendships remain strong when they are continually renewed," while the 81-year-old monarch said her more than half-century of experience in world affairs has convinced her that a cross-Atlantic alliance is critical to global peace and prosperity.

"Divided or alone we can be vulnerable," she said. "But if the Atlantic unites, not divides us, ours is a partnership always to be reckoned with in the defense of freedom and the spread of prosperity. That is the lesson of my lifetime."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com

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