LIKE MANY PEOPLE, I remember where I was during the exact hour on July 29, 1981, when Prince Charles and Lady Diana were married. I was in bed asleep, proudly uninterested. Only 11 at the time, I'd already fashioned my lifelong foreign policy toward the Royals. It comes in the form of a question, genetically descended from the inchoate murmurings of our recalcitrant ancestors. Our forefathers fought and bled so we could ask it. I paraphrase, but it goes something like this: "Who gives a flying *@!#?"

My countrymen made the mistake of celebrating that union, and we haven't stopped paying for it since. I've deliberately suppressed most of the details of the ensuing decades. Sure, if I apply myself, I seem to recall that Diana lived her life like a candle in the wind. But after that, it's a tabloid blur, enough to make one wonder if people who referred to the fun couple as "nobility" weren't being ironical. Hardly a week went by in which you couldn't pick up a National Enquirer and read of the poor doll throwing herself down a flight of stairs, swallowing a fistful of pills, getting called "Squidgy" by a boytoy, or tossing up her bread pudding to get her husband's attention. The saps called her "The People's Princess," but of what masochistic subjects wasn't entirely clear: the United Kingdom of Twelve-Stepistan?

Neither has Charles covered himself in glory. When not shielding his sons from charges of underage drinking and dressing like Nazis, he's a perpetual frontrunner in the sad-sack races, glumly biding his time until his mother croaks. On the rare occasion when he gets caught emoting, it isn't pretty. Who can forget him telling his then-paramour now-wife, Camilla Parker Bowles, that he'd like to be reincarnated as her tampon? I can't, and I've tried. Dear Lord, have I tried.

Charles seems less a fully formed human being than a collection of tics and eccentricities: prattling on about global warming, sustainable living, and showing off his "wibbly wobbly" organic carrots to the BBC. He's become such an Islamo-fetishist that he hangs out in Arabic robes, when not berating Westerners for failing to recognize Islam as a religion of peace (uhhh Charles, the Tube wasn't blown up by a cell of radical Anglicans).

Recently, he told 60 Minutes that he was most concerned about being thought irrelevant. Wherever would we get that idea? After all, this busywork-maker is president or patron of over 360 vital organizations, everything from the Border Stick Dressers Association to the National Hedgelaying Society to the Specialist Cheesemakers Association to the British Pteridological Society (celebrate ferns!). His reformed mistress, Camilla, is now following suit, as the proud patron of the Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists. Who's kidding whom? These kids have their fingers on the pulse, which as Camilla's new friends will tell us, can be taken from the dorsalis pedis artery.

Their just-completed eight-day visit to America didn't exactly stack up to Charles's last official visit with his first wife in 1985. Back then, people camped overnight in mall parking lots just to spy Diana visiting JC Penney. And many still speak of her White House-dinner jig with John Travolta as if it ranked alongside the Treaty of Ghent in the history of British-American relations.

We weren't as gracious to Camilla. While our press doesn't know enough equine synonyms to compete with their British counterparts in making "horse-face" jokes, the New York Post did christen her the "Frump Tower," while the Washington Post said she looked like a "large rectangle." So when I caught the Royals' arrival at a National Building Museum event, I was pleasantly surprised. Charles gave a polite wave, then disappeared through the door, his bald spot bobbing over hang-glider ears (of which, his great-uncle Lord Mountbatten once said, "You'll never be king with ears like that."). But Camilla appears to have been watching the carbs. Her ankles no longer look like suspension-bridge supports, and she's facially welcoming, even if her feathered hair-helmet makes her look like a post-menopausal Bee Gee.

Call me a softy, but I like the old gal. Not only has she followed her heart while absorbing relentless punishment, but she keeps her own counsel, and feels no compulsion to be fashionable or interesting. This last selling point can't be stressed enough. During Diana's reign, Americans paid so much giddy deference to the throne that we could've been mistaken for a nation of schoolgirls, or worse, Canadians. But a recent Gallup poll showed that only 19 percent of Americans cared to meet the new royal couple. To which I say, "Long live Camilla." She may have done more to inspire American independence than King George ever did.

- Matt Labash

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