FEW PEOPLE KEEP Queen Elizabeth II waiting, especially when she has issued a personal invitation, but President Ronald Reagan managed to do so in 1982 without causing any lasting damage.
It happened when the Reagan White House failed to reply in a timely way to a personal invitation from the queen for the president and his wife Nancy to stay with her at Windsor Castle during a planned visit to England.
Formerly confidential papers made public this week reveal there were raised eyebrows, and bruised feelings, when Reagan did not answer the sort of invite that usually commands a prompt reply the world over. The queen’s invitation was left to languish for weeks – something the British believed was simply not done.
“It is really for the president to respond to her invitation, which he has not done personally, something that I have pointed out several times here,” wrote Nicholas Henderson, Britain’s then ambassador to Washington, in a memo to the British Foreign Office.
As you know those surrounding the president are not deliberately rude: It is simply that they are not well-organized and do not have experience of this sort of thing.
The misunderstanding was eventually cleared up – and Reagan even found the time to go horseback riding with the queen.
A former Reagan official offered one possible explanation for the delay in replying: Nancy Reagan’s need to consult an astrologer.
“You have to remember that Mrs Reagan was very strict about his schedule, and she would consult her astrologer to see if this was the right time to travel,” William F Sittman, a special assistant to Reagan who was involved in planning the trip, told The Associated Press. ”Sometimes she would back up departures.”
The tiff over the tardy reply is but one revelation contained in nearly 500 pages of newly released documents relating to the Reagan visit made public by Britain’s National Archives. The dossier shows the British government – led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – to be extraordinarily interested in pleasing the relatively new president on his two-day visit.
British leaders also fretted that perennial cross-Channel rivals might triumph in the tug-of-war for presidential face time in a visit that had to be sandwiched between two summits on the European mainland. They feared the president might cancel, either because of time pressure or a reluctance to offend other European leaders who wanted meetings with Reagan.
The dossier is filled with serious political concerns – such as how to maximize Britain’s influence on US policy – and lighter matters, including what gift to give the Reagans (they decided on a carriage clock), and what type of horse and saddle Reagan would most enjoy for his ride with the queen.
At one point, the president’s men pose a fashion question on his behalf: Just what should the president wear to go riding with the queen?
The answer: Something smart, but casual, of course. Riding boots, breeches and a turtleneck sweater would do fine – no need for formal riding attire.
The papers show that top Reagan adviser Michael Deaver had a way of annoying his British counterparts with last-minute changes and requests, and also surprised them with some of his objectives.
Deaver, remembered as a shrewd image-builder, said he wanted Reagan to be photographed outside of formal venues, so he wouldn’t be seen “exclusively in white tie” at palace functions, even suggesting that Reagan go to a village pub to soak up the atmosphere
The documents make clear that Europe’s leaders were desperate for Reagan’s attention at a time of high Cold War tensions. A memo from UK Cabinet Secretary, Robert Armstrong, on 5 February, 1982, expressed concern that a gala, summit-closing dinner at the palace of Versailles outside Paris could delay Reagan’s arrival in London. But he warned against pressuring the Reagan entourage to skip the meal at Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors because “that would not please the President of the French Republic.”
‘The German problem’
Reagan’s aides also worried the British by suggesting the president might have to skip the stop in London because it might anger the Germans, who had offered a similar invitation. The Americans expressed concern about “the German problem” – the prospect that if the president visited London he might also have to add a stop in Germany as well.
This was smoothed over when the Americans assured the British contingent that the Germans were not America’s top priority.
“Eagleburger emphasized how much the president himself wanted to go to London,” stressed one confidential memo from the British ambassador, referring to senior US diplomat Lawrence Eagleburger. “There should be no doubt about that.”
There were confidential memos sent back and forth about whether the London stopover should be officially called a “state visit” – the White House being reluctant to use that phrase for fear of offending the Italians, since a visit to Rome was not designated as such.
The prospect of a chance to relax with a bit of horseback riding with the queen seems to have helped. Asked for the president’s favorite type of horse, British planners were told simply that he wanted a thoroughbred. He ended up riding ‘Centennial’, one of the queen’s favourites, and wearing a perfectly fitted sports jacket above his sweater, going for the old-time Hollywood look he carried off with ease.
Much of the actual visit was devoted to pomp and pageantry, or to relaxation, but Reagan did make one speech of consequence. He became the first American president to address a meeting of both houses of Parliament and used the occasion to trumpet his distaste for the Soviet Union, calling it an economic catastrophe.
He said Marxism-Leninism would be left on the ash heap of history – a prediction that would come to pass in the following decade.