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Washington bids farewell to royal couple

The Prince and Princess of Wales jet off this morning to Palm Beach, Fla., for what the British Embassy bills as a ``friendly game of polo'' and a benefit dinner. But for those on the prince-watch, the hectic weekend here looked more like an elegant polo match, with the royals the target of a spirited chase by a herd of thundering press, and thousands of fans. It was royalty at a gallop, as Charles and Diana raced from the White House (dinner with the Reagans, Tom Selleck, Clint Eastwood, John Travolta), to the National Gallery of Art to view ``Treasure Houses of Britain,'' a new display for which they are official patrons, to a hospice, on to Arlington National Cemetery, Straight Drug Rehabilitation Center, and the Library of Congress, and even a trip to a surburban Virginia shopping mall to underscore a $50 million promotion of British-made goods.

Yellow-tape police lines held back crowds of cheering fans (up to 6,000 at an appearance at the National Cathedral); some people waited all night for a glimpse of the royal couple. There were oohs and aahs as the Prince stepped from a silver Rolls Royce on his way to the American Institute of Architects to discuss urban rehabilitation, a topic in which he has a personal interest.

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Prince Charles looked taller, leaner, and more sinewy than his photos. He was dapper in a navy pin-striped suit, blue-striped shirt, and pale yellow tie. Sporting a tan from a Hawaiian stopover, he fielded questions in a mellifluous voice. The princely handshake is firm, his fingers blunt and thick, more like a workman's than like a royal's.

The doe-eyed Princess of Wales is taller, too, than her photos suggest, and even more willowy in her fashionable wardrobe, which ranged from a scarlet suit to a midnight-blue evening gown to a smashing navy and wool ensemble with a picture hat. In person she is much more poised, warm, and articulate than all the ``shy Di'' publicity would suggest.

At his first press conference in several years, Prince Charles fielded questions at the National Gallery from pool reporters while the Princess sat smiling demurely beside him. He mentioned that both he and his wife were ``deeply touched'' by the enthusiastic welcome here. He also tried to ``rehabilitate'' the historical image of King George III (the English monarch during the American Revolution) whom he felt had a bad press.

The Prince bridled a bit when asked about his promotion of British products. ``I don't know whether I can be described as a salesman for British goods,'' he told the reporter who had used that word, but added that he tried to ``create a lot of goodwill'' for things British.

Michael Shea, the royal family's press secretary, later explained that the Prince had not considered the question rude: ``He's a front man'' for his kingdom, Mr. Shea said.

The gilded couple dined royally at three black tie dinners: on lobster mousseline and glazed chicken at the White House, where the Princess danced with John Travolta and Neil Diamond; at the British Embassy where the marble halls were pungent with hundreds of hanging rust and mauve chrysanthemums; and at the National Gallery where they ate quail Monday night in the company of museum dignitaries, top administration officials, and executives of the Ford Motor Company. (Ford provided the reported $3 millio n financial support that brought the Treasure Houses exhibit to the United States.)

Even the weather turned out for the royal pair, who toured Washington on a Veterans' Day weekend of golden days with autumn leaves at their peak. For Cathy Holland of Richmond, Va., who got up at dawn to royalty-watch and dressed her daughter Martha in the family's McLaughlin tartan, it was all worth it even though ``I just saw the top of his [the Prince's] head.'' She smiled, ``We are all admirers of his.''

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Recognition of the royals also came in less dignified forms. One street vendor charged $5 for photos posed with life-size cardboard cutouts of the royals. An artist created a portrait of the Princess from 10,000 jelly beans and propped it up outside the National Gallery for her to see. -- 30 --

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