Americans reject monarchism. It’s in our DNA. But Queen Elizabeth II was one monarch most Americans respected and admired. She had grace and grit — lifelong characteristics that were brightly displayed on a venturous trip to California in 1983.
Her son and successor, King Charles III, shared his mother’s attribute of staying calm and cool. And the then-prince showed it while being hosted by “era of limits” Gov. Jerry Brown at the state Capitol in 1977.
The queen’s trip certainly didn’t turn out as she had expected. And the prince’s visit undoubtedly caught him by surprise. But both were upbeat in their reserved royal ways and apparently enjoyed the experiences.
The queen fascinated me on that California tour. She always had, ever since as a teen I watched the 27-year-old’s coronation in all its glittering pomp and circumstances on our family’s first TV, a 16-inch black and white.
About 30 years later, President Reagan invited the queen to visit his home state — and more precisely, his beloved mountaintop ranch just north of Santa Barbara.
She was serenaded by Frank Sinatra and Perry Como at a star-studded 20th Century Fox banquet, attended a state dinner hosted by Reagan at San Francisco’s De Young Museum, worshiped in a rustic, century-old Yosemite Valley chapel and celebrated the Reagans’ 31st wedding anniversary with a private candlelight dinner aboard the royal yacht Britannia.
“There were toasts and I said, ‘I know I promised Nancy a lot when we were married, but how can I ever top this?’” Reagan recalled in his autobiography, “An American Life.”
The queen’s entire 10-day trip had been planned around the president’s desire to show off his 688-acre Rancho del Cielo. The highlight was to be their riding horses around the hilly spread, as they had during his earlier visit to Windsor Castle. Horseback riding was a passion they shared.
But nature interfered. California was pelted by one of those once-a-decade winter storms that turn shallow creeks into cascading torrents and wash out roads and bridges.
It had rained 4 inches with gale-force winds at Reagan’s ranch during the previous 24 hours.
I rode in a press pool car behind the president’s four-wheel drive Chevrolet Suburban up the narrow, twisting 7.2-mile road from Refugio State Beach Park on Highway 101 to his 2,400-foot-high retreat. We forded creeks 2 to 3 feet deep. Boulders rolled through rampaging waters. Downed tree limbs were everywhere.
I thought this was nuts. But Reagan seemed oblivious.
In his autobiography, Reagan wrote: “We waited at the ranch for [the queen and Prince Philip] while they struggled seven miles up a switchback road. At three places the road was cut by streams and their limousines couldn’t get through. Our people met them with four-wheel-drive cars.”
This was when I especially admired the queen’s grit. Most people — including me — would have said, “Forget it. Just take me back to the beach.”
“She is a real trouper and a good sport…. She didn’t want to disappoint anybody,” said White House Deputy Chief of Staff Mike Deaver, who was escorting the queen around California.
“They made it up the mountain,” Reagan wrote, “but when they got to our home, it was so foggy no one could see more than a few feet. I tried to explain how beautiful the place really was and apologized for the weather.
“But the queen said, ‘Yes, if it was just dreary, but this is an adventure.’”
The trails were too muddy for safe horseback riding.
They ducked inside the Reagan’s small, five-room, 172-year-old Spanish adobe house for a luncheon of Mexican dishes: enchiladas, chile rellenos, refried beans, tacos, rice and guacamole. And fresh fruit.
Times columnist Patt Morrison wrote that “the low-budget lunch” equated President Franklin D. Roosevelt serving hot dogs and buns to the queen’s parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, in 1939.
“She found the trip delightful and terribly exciting,” the queen’s press secretary said.
Three days later, Deaver escorted the queen to Sacramento to meet for lunch with Gov. George Deukmejian and legislative leaders.
Deaver, who had been a top aide when Reagan was governor, told me that he and the queen wound up in his old Capitol office.
“I could use a spot of gin,” the queen mentioned, according to Deaver. He used to keep a small gin bottle in his desk at the back of a drawer. He reached into the drawer and, surprisingly, it was still there. He found a glass and poured the grateful queen a drink.
Now, that sounds made up. But the queen did like her gin. And I never knew Deaver, a college fraternity brother, to lie to me.
Roughly five years earlier, Charles was invited to the Capitol by Brown. The governor gave the prince a lift from the airport in his aging blue Plymouth. No limo befitting royalty.
The future king was treated to a wineless lunch of cold cuts, sourdough bread, California cheeses, fruits and nuts served with borrowed silverware. They drank ginger ale.
“That’s what I have for lunch anyway,” Brown told me last week.
Afterward, the governor handed the prince a brown bag containing a bean sprout sandwich. A widely published news photo showed Charles peering curiously into the bag.
“It was the ‘era of limits,’” Brown recalled.
“The prince was cool. He has a dry English sense of humor. He rolled with the punches. Took it all in stride. That’s what he does.”
Brown, a leader in the fight against climate change, noted that Charles has spoken out about global warming.
“He won’t have much of a kingdom if it gets too bad,” Brown said. “There would be very devastating consequences for Great Britain.”
He’d like Charles to “weigh in on environmental issues” as king. “That could be significant.”
But it doesn’t seem likely. As his mother always knew, the way to retain popular support for the monarchy is to keep mum on politics.