In any first draft of history, the president of the United States and Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall wouldn't have much in common. But events demand a good rewrite man.
George W. and Camilla, for similar but very different reasons, are winning the hearts and minds of the people who count. She's gone from being the woman the Brits love to hate to a prospective queen who has earned the grudging admiration of the fair-minded, and even some who aren't. The London Evening Standard, which once depicted Princess Di as the martyr in a sordid triangle, now tells its readers that the newly minted royal couple deserves "sympathy and respect." Throw "bouquets not brickbats."
George W. has gone from deer caught in the headlights to a sturdy buck with imposing antlers and a steady gait. "Late-blooming grace," the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy calls it. As the Frenchman tours the country for Atlantic magazine in the 1831 steps of Alexis de Tocqueville, he marvels at how the president has transformed himself from "a bad businessman, an overgrown daddy's boy . . . lover of the backfiring cars and drinking bouts with his buddies," to win the most difficult competition in America.
Camilla and George W. confounded everyone with patience, resiliency and an uncanny ability to face down their most vicious critics. Camilla overcame the image of the evil Di usurper with humility, blithe spirits constrained by decorum and public understatement in contrast to the beloved but ostentatiously garrulous Princess of Wales. Even the fashionistas who ridiculed Camilla's frumpiness spoke well of her tasteful silk and chiffon oyster-colored wedding dress, describing it as elegant in its simplicity. Princess Di's meringue-style gown set a trend for extravagance designed by pastry chefs for a fairytale marriage of a bygone era.
Camilla's strongest ally turned out to be her lover. He wasn't exactly transformed from frog to Prince Charming, but she transformed him from Milquetoast son to a prince who could stand up to Queen Mum.
George W. not only had to overcome the long shadow of George the Elder, but the policies of all the earlier president's men. Martin Peretz of the New Republic stereotyped the son through the father and now he's one of a growing number of critics who publicly regrets it. "Right up to the moment Bush became president, I was convinced that his mind on matters Levantine belonged to his father and to James Baker III, whose worldview seemed to be defined by the pecuniary prejudice of oil and Texas: Keep the ruling Arabs happy," writes Mr. Peretz. "But I was wrong, and, in light of what has already been achieved in the Middle East, I am glad to say so."
He does not think most American liberals share his humility and generosity of spirit, but public opinion has certainly softened in Europe. Attitudes changed when Europeans witnessed the turnout of the brave at the ballot box in Iraq. Instead of asking the president carping questions about why he waged the war, now they ask how can they help put Iraq back together. When Jacques Chirac, the president of France, bowed with Gallic gallantry (even with humility) to kiss the hand of Condoleezza Rice at the pope's funeral, the picture was worth a thousand words of insincere diplomacy.
When George W. visited Europe earlier this year, he was less the cowboy than the courtier, exhibiting self-effacing humor that sought to charm rather than lasso the Europeans. In Brussels he compared himself ironically to Benjamin Franklin, who captivated France when he arrived more than two centuries ago. Franklin was "beloved and esteemed," the president said. "There was scarcely a peasant or a citizen who did not consider him as a friend to humankind." The president, added with mock humility, "I have been hoping for a similar reception - but Secretary Rice told me I should be a realist."
Franklin was a realist, too. With cunning and charm he won French support for the American Revolution and persuaded Louis XVI to give money and arms to the American colonies. Diplomacy rarely rests on the shoulders of one person, then or now, and it required visits from both George W. and Condi Rice to draw warmer responses toward the United States in Germany, France and Brussels.
Attitudes change like the seasons, of course. The British poet laureate captures this sentiment in his poem about the royal wedding, comparing it to the renewal of spring. The human heart can be weighed down by "winter wreckage," writes Andrew Motion. "But given time and come the clearing rain,/ Breaks loose to revel in its proper course."