Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, right, smiles with satisfaction as President Ronald Reagan makes a farewell speech outside her Downing Street office in London prior to his departure for Bonn.
LONDON — 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 in 1982, 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 Friday reveal there were raised eyebrows, and bruised feelings, when Reagan did not answer the sort of invitation that usually commands a prompt reply the world over. The queen’s invitation was left to languish for weeks — something the British believe is 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,” writes Nicholas Henderson, Britain’s 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 today offers one possible explanation for the delay 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 being made public Friday 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 — how to maximize Britain’s influence on U.S. 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 U.K. Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong on Feb. 5 expresses concern that a gala, summit-closing dinner at the palace of Versailles outside Paris could delay Reagan’s arrival in London. But he warns 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.”
Reagan’s aides also worried the British by suggesting the president might have to skip the stop in London because accepting it might anger the Germans, who had offered a similar invitation. The Americans express 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.
But feelings are smoothed when the Americans assure the British contingent that the Germans are not America’s top priority.
“Eagleburger emphasized how much the president himself wanted to go to London,” stresses one confidential memo from the British ambassador, referring to senior U.S. diplomat Lawrence Eagleburger. “There should be no doubt about that. Eagleburger also said that at the moment the Germans were not America’s favorite allies.”
There are confidential memos back and forth about whether the London stopover should be officially called a “state visit” — the White House is reluctant to use that phrase for fear of offending the Italians, since a visit to Rome was not designated a state visit.
The prospect of a chance to relax from international summitry with a bit of horseback riding with the queen seems to have helped carry the day for the Brits. Asked for the president’s favorite type of horse, British planners are told simply that he wants a thoroughbred. He ended up riding Centennial, one of the queen’s favorites, and wearing a perfectly fitted sports jacket above his sweater, going for an 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.
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