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Bush hosts first white-tie dinner of his presidency for queen

JENNIFER LOVEN • May 7, 2007 at 10:54 AM

WASHINGTON - Washington turned out adoring schoolchildren and ladies in hats for Queen Elizabeth II's visit. The White House laid on special touches, too, at President Bush's first-ever white-tie state dinner to honor America's closest ally and make the queen feel welcome.

The centuries-old vermeil flatware and candelabras came from a London silversmith. A made- of-sugar replica of the queen's 1953 coronation rose graced the cake. English farmhouse cheeses accompanied the salad course.

And the traditional "special guest" invited only at the last minute was sure to be of interest to an avid horse enthusiast such as the queen: Calvin Borel, the jockey who rode Street Sense to victory in the Kentucky Derby this weekend with the royals in attendance.

"It's an honor," Borel said as he arrived for the dinner. "It's just like winning the Kentucky Derby - it might even be better."

On the other hand, there was the president suggesting Queen Elizabeth was over 230 years old.

The president's slip of the tongue during welcoming speeches was inadvertent, of course, and quickly smoothed over with humor. But it wasn't exactly the flawless effort Bush had hoped would erase memories of the "talking hat" episode during the queen's last U.S. visit. (In 1991, during Bush's father's administration, a too-tall lectern left the audience able to see only the queen's hat behind microphones.)

The queen, a sprightly 81, gave an embarrassed Bush a gracious nod after he suggested she had celebrated the United States' founding in 1776. He meant to say she had attended 1976 bicentennial festivities.

"She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child," the president quipped, earning a reserved chuckle from his guest.

Later, Laura Bush made her own minor calendar mistake. She flubbed the year that she and her husband attended the state dinner hosted by President George H.W. Bush in honor of the queen, saying it was in 1993.

The president and the queen took markedly different approaches to their formal remarks.

Bush focused on the partnership between the United States and Britain in Iraq and against terrorism. In just four minutes, he mentioned "freedom" and "liberty" seven times. "Your majesty, I appreciate your leadership during these times of danger and decision," he said.

By contrast, the queen said her fifth journey to the United States was an occasion to "step back from our current preoccupations."

Gaffes aside, the day had the White House at its freshly painted best and brought excitement inside and outside its gates.

Under lampposts adorned with the two countries' flags, throngs hoping for a rare glimpse of royalty lined Pennsylvania Avenue for much of the day. Hats of all shapes bobbed down the street.

Mrs. Bush insisted that the president was enthusiastic about wearing white tie and tails - though admittedly after being persuaded by his wife and secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to elevate the dinner to that exalted level in the first place.

"We thought if we ever were going to have a white-tie dinner, this was going to be it," Mrs. Bush said.

Presidential spokesman Tony Snow disputed any notion that the royal visit was a welcome break for a White House burdened by low approval ratings and acrimonious tussles with congressional Democrats over the Iraq war.

"There's a lot of other activity going on," he said tersely.

The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, were treated to a trumpet fanfare, a 21-gun salute and a parade by the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps at an arrival ceremony attended by thousands of guests. From there, the Bushes and the royals repaired to a very exclusive lunch, with only the two countries' ambassadors and a few family members.

Later, the two leaders mingled briefly on the street with dozens of British and American schoolchildren. Bush, in the unusual position of playing second fiddle, followed while the queen accepted bouquets of flowers and signed autographs.

For the sixth state dinner of Bush's presidency, the State Dining Room was decked out in white and gold. Accompanied by a full honor cordon, the Bushes greeted the royals at the White House's north portico, helping the Queen from her car.

Among the 134 guests were scores of diplomats, businessmen and members of Congress. But other than Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and golfer Arnold Palmer, the celebrity quotient was low.

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