LONDON — It is not often that the president of the United States needs to seek fashion advice.
But when Ronald Reagan was getting ready for a visit to England as a guest of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1982, his people had an important question for the Brits: Just what does one wear to go riding with the queen in the magnificent horse country surrounding Windsor Castle?
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 fashion inquiry is but one tidbit contained in nearly 500 pages of formerly Confidential 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.
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
There were raised eyebrows, and bruised feelings, when the White House failed to formally reply in a timely fashion to an official invitation from the queen — the sort of invite that usually commands respect and a prompt reply the world over. The queen’s invite was left to languish for weeks and weeks, something that 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.”
William F. Sittman, a special assistant to Reagan who was involved in planning the trip, told The Associated Press that it is possible the delay in responding to the queen was caused by first lady Nancy Reagan’s insistence on consulting her astrologer before travel plans were finalized.
“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,” he said. “Sometimes she would back up departures.”
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. But feelings are smoothed over a bit 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.”
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.
He said Marxism-Leninism would be left on the ash heap of history — a prediction that would come to pass in the following decade.