Two royal families, one British and one American, have become embroiled in a rich drama of conflicting values, rival virtue signaling, celebrity star power and, not least, the survival of a monarchy.
The latest episode of the drama unfolds on Wednesday with the arrival in Boston of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Prince and Princess of Wales, for a three-day visit. Boston was the power base of the Kennedy dynasty, the closest to a royal family the White House ever saw, and the royals will be greeted at City Hall by the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy.
The trip culminates on Friday at the presentation of the Earthshot Awards, in which five people or institutions will be chosen as winners for their environmental achievements—the title is a play on words used by William when he launched the awards, saluting Kennedy’s inspirational 1960s Moonshot program.
On Sunday, after William and Kate have left American shores, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry jointly receive the Ripple of Hope award from Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert Kennedy—for their “heroic” exit from, and revelations about life in, the bondage of the House of Windsor. Then, the following week, comes the highly anticipated debut of their new Netflix show—with, of course, Harry’s memoir to follow in the new year. All royal eyes and ears will be trained on what is said on podium, screen, and page.
Although the collision of high-profile American events is inevitably being seen as yet another exposure of the separate paths (and worlds) taken by William and Harry in their deployment of celebrity power it’s far more controversial than that—particularly for William.
Royal visits abroad became subject to new scrutiny earlier this year when William and Kate made an official royal tour of the Caribbean with consequences that went viral. William was nonplussed and embarrassed when confronted with the record of slavery in Britain’s Caribbean colonies and demands for reparations. This couldn’t simply be blamed on poor briefing by those who initiated the tour: William had one of the best educations of any royal. The fiasco led to renewed calls to follow the example of Barbados and remove British monarchs as the head of state.
As a result, the Palace has been at pains to stress that the Boston trip is just that, a trip, and not a royal tour—a spin that unwittingly suggests that some people in the Palace might still feel it necessary to avoid the impression that America remains susceptible to colonial-style glad-handing.
“William and Kate are by far the most convincing faces of change, they will bring that role and message to America.”
More to the point, the trip was planned before the death of Queen Elizabeth. William now arrives as the immediate heir and that, in turn, means that he has been enlisted in his father’s program that promises to “modernize” the monarchy and, since William and Kate are by far the most convincing faces of change, they will bring that role and message to America.
The problem is that the more they create the impression of their own relevance—which they will—the more aware we become of the anachronisms of King Charles III. There is, for example, the pose that Charles chose to mark officially becoming the Ranger of Windsor Great Park.
Every royal portrait is a calculated act of branding. Queen Elizabeth always left no doubt that a monarch should look like a monarch, albeit in her later years a matriarchal one, always in settings that suggested gravity and power. The King Charles portrait, in contrast, has him carefully (somewhat too carefully) posed under an ancient oak tree in Windsor Great Park, in a tweed jacket and corduroy trousers—as though in one of those Ralph Lauren ads that mimic the casual superiority of the English land-owning classes.
This might have been—who knows?—someone’s idea of subtle greenwashing, to suggest the king as an aristocratic paternalist whose deepest passions center on conservation and full recognition of climate change (despite leaving his own carbon bootprint with his luxury flying habits). But it was a serious misstep, appearing at a time when his subjects were facing their bleakest economic outlook for years, leaving him looking dreamily aloof from reality.
This is all of a piece with Queen Consort Camilla’s announcement that the medieval title of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting will be dropped. Instead, six of her closest friends will serve as “companions.” In reality, little but the title seems to have changed, (and no word yet whether the “woman of the bedchamber”—the most intimate of companions—remains in the entourage.)
Whether William and Kate, with their innate glamour and clearly serious intent to do good works, can ever really serve as an effective counter to the shallow window-dressing that so far serves as the “reforms” of King Charles III is open to question. But William’s appearance in Boston comes at a time when the new season of the Netflix series The Crown presents him in a deeply sympathetic light, enduring the toxic fallout from his parents’ wreck of a marriage with a stoicism ahead of his years.
“The American trip also makes it inescapable that a constant spiritual presence behind William and Kate’s missions is Princess Diana, whether they like it or not.”
Of course, the American trip also makes it inescapable that a constant spiritual presence behind William and Kate’s missions is Princess Diana, whether they like it or not. In Boston, among other assignments, they will visit young adults who have been traumatized as victims of urban violence. This will recall the moment in Diana’s famous 1989 visit to New York, when she diverted from a sequence of glitzy events to Harlem Hospital and hugged a 7-year-old AIDS patient.
The Friday night awards ceremony is being billed as William’s “Superbowl moment.” It will open with clips showing the achievements of previous award winners, narrated by the father of all environmental crusaders, David Attenborough, as well Cate Blanchett, Caroline Kennedy and her son, Jack Schlossberg. Headline performers include Billie Eilish, Annie Lennox, Ellie Goulding and Chloe.x.Halle—a lineup that concentrates celebrity halo effect like no other.
That will surely eclipse in production standards and credibility the event in Manhattan four days later when Meghan and Harry receive their Ripple of Hope accolade. Kerry Kennedy, in an appearance on Spanish television, justified the choice by swallowing whole the Oprah mantra of two good people who, ambushed by the Windsor gang of reactionaries, were “ostracized, lost their family, their structure” and, by exposing “structural racism” had been “heroic.”
This leaves a growing sense that the couple need to find a new story to sell to the public beyond the now familiar grievances, a feeling heightened by the fact that another receiver of the honor is President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Do Harry and Meghan really see themselves in the same category as someone who has led his country through huge suffering and valiant sacrifice and is still engaged in an epic contest with Putin? Consequently, the award inevitably leaves an impression of an imbalance of values, and that by accepting it they can live with that. Maybe they will be generous enough to deal with this problem in the speeches they give on the night, as they should.
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