White House Wednesdays

50 years ago, our borders were not locked down because of a mysterious virus and our country was receiving heads of state and royal guests because social diplomacy was and still is critically important to the United States. In July of 1970, America welcomed Prince Charles for his first Official Visit to the White House. The 21-year-old future King of England crossed the pond with his 19-year-old sister Princess Anne, but President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon did not serve as their hosts. Instead, they were hosted by First Daughters Tricia Nixon and Julie Nixon Eisenhower. The young ladies planned a three-day U.S. welcome much grander than any royal had ever received.

Constance C. Stuart, the First Lady’s press secretary, remembered in an interview that while of course The State Department was involved “because it’s their responsibility too” it “really wasn’t a State Visit, it was a private visit…Tricia and Julie made the decisions of where they would go and what they would do, and these things were conveyed to the Prince and Princess before the arrival, to see if that was the type of thing that they were interested in.” 

This royal visit caused quite a commotion: The White House received more than 200 requests for press credentials to cover their visit, which was described in detail by the media across the country. Tricia recalls “my father, my mother, Julie, David and I greeted Prince Charles and Princess Anne as they arrived at the White House. In front of a large crowd gathered on the South Lawn, my father made welcoming remarks to which Prince Charles responded.  Following the remarks, my parents, Julie, David and I escorted Prince Charles and Princess Anne into the Diplomatic Reception Room.”  After a tour and tea in the private residence, they departed via helicopter for Camp David, where they enjoyed swimming, bicycling, skeet shooting (where reportedly the Prince dazzled with his marksmanship the navy man who ran it by) and dinner. The group returned to Washington for an evening tour of the Washington monuments that had been lighted as an initiative of Mrs. Nixon herself.

The next day, the First Daughters took their guests to Capitol Hill where they met with the House and Senate Leaders and Vice President Spiro Agnew.  Following the Capitol, they met astronauts Neil Armstrong and Frank Borman.  “Apollo 11 had landed on the Moon the summer before” and Tricia Nixon Cox remembers that “Prince Charles was especially looking forward to meeting the astronauts”.  During the meeting, Tricia recalls “that Prince Charles asked the astronauts lots of questions about their historic flight”.  The group then boarded the presidential yacht the “USS Sequoia” to ride down the Potomac on a private luncheon cruise to Mount Vernon.  Afterward, they returned to the White House via helicopter just in time for special evening that were described by some in the press as the “social highlight.”

The White House dinner was by far the pinnacle event of the trip.  Prince Charles, Princess Anne, Tricia, and Julie and David walked down the Grand Staircase of the White house and joined 550 guests — including children of governors, Washington officials, foreign ambassadors, and other VIPs — for dinner, dancing, champagne and fruit punch on the South Lawn. Yellow and white striped tents had been set up along with a wooden floor, lined with artificial ivy and boxwoods, was canopied by thousands of tiny white lights. Two rock groups — Gary Puckett and The Guess Who — and marine bands were positioned at both ends of the gazebo-like setup.  A few minutes before midnight, the person that orchestrated the entire evening, Tricia Nixon according to accounts calmly said “Well, the sky’s going to fall in soon” and then everything went dark there was an amazing surprise 15-minute fireworks display, creating the perfect evening! Even the Prince had spent the night talking with guests and dancing the evening away until about 2:00 AM.  Princess Anne stayed even later with Tricia until nearly all the guests had left. The Evening Star wrote of the affair, “If the moonlight ball on the White House lawn proved anything last night, it was that young Americans don’t shrink in the face of royalty and young British royalty are glad they don’t.” 

The Royal siblings spent their final day in Washington D.C. visiting a wildlife refuge center, the 14th Street corridor that had been damaged by the 1968 riots, an informal White House luncheon and a baseball game at RFK stadium. A paper reported “After two days of fairytale balls, Potomac cruises and VIP touring, Washington’s royal British visitors got down to some of the nitty-gritty of American life.” Tricia Nixon Cox remembers the trip well and recalls, “The first visit to the United States in the summer of 1970 by Prince Charles and Princess Anne was really an informal goodwill trip. Although they were both so young, they were wonderful ambassadors and everyone who met them was delighted to welcome them and wish them well”.

50 years later, America has a new Republican President, Britain has a new set of young British royals and sadly history has repeated itself with American cities and parts of D.C. being damaged again by riots. However, one silver historical lining is that the bond between our two countries, and with Prince Charles, is still strong because this special relationship endures.

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