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The day Prince Charles asked me for advice

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla will embark on their first official trip as man and wife to the U.S. on Tuesday. On the eve of Prince of Wales' U.S. trip, NBC News' Chris Hampson recalls a lunch with England's future king.
Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles
Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall, after attending a service at St.Paul's Cathedral in London to mark the bicentenary commemorations of the Battle of Trafalgar on Oct. 23.  Matt Dunham / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: NBC News

LONDON  — Now, as I was only just saying to Prince Charles over lunch….

Pause for a little chest-puffing moment. Not everyone gets to write that opening line. 

Yes, it’s not just the president and first lady who get to drop royal names. As the prince and his new wife prepare to arrive in the United States on Tuesday, make way, instead, for one of His Royal Highness’s most humble subjects, once an aspiring newspaper hack who had the temerity to invite his future king to lunch.

A little PR help for Charles
I doubt, of course, that the Prince will recall our meeting quite as well as I do. Let’s face it — I doubt he went home and talked at length about it to Her Majesty the Queen over tea and crumpets.

But my mom was tickled pink when I called her — and even offered to travel the 200 miles between her house and mine to make sure my shirt was clean.

Here's how it came about: Three months earlier, three journalist buddies and I had invited the Buckingham Palace press spokesman for a quiet, off-the-record lunch. And, as is the nature of these events (in other words, after a glass of wine), we began to opine on where the prince was going wrong in his image-building stakes.

He should come to lunch with us, I said. We’d put him right. To which his discreet and trusty aide said words to the effect of, “That’s maybe not quite the bad idea it sounds. I’ll ask him.”

And that’s how I came to be sitting next to Charles amid a handful of carefully chosen colleagues in the plush surroundings of London’s oldest restaurant, Rules (established 1798).

(It was, coincidentally, where his ancestor Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, had chosen to wine and dine the beguiling music-hall artiste Lillie Langtry at a curtained-off table.)

Looking to do the ‘right thing’
Charles proved an engaging companion — unstuffy, interested, earnest, anxious to “connect” with his future subjects.

He wanted to know if he should speak out more on matters that concerned him. To a man and woman we shouted, "Yes!" Which self-respecting — or self-interested — journalist wouldn’t? Think of the acres of copy it has since provided.

But even then, just before his ill-starred marriage to Diana, he seemed a tortured soul — wanting to do the right thing, but not knowing what that was.

Not much change there, alas. Some 20 years later he’s still agonizing. And here am I again, on the eve of his big visit to the United States, trying to help him.

Listen to this from Charles, in his eve-of-visit interview for American television with CBS News' "60 Minutes": “I find myself born into this particular position. I’m determined to make the most of it. And to do whatever I can to help. And I hope, leave things behind a little bit better than I found them.”

And try he does. Back at our lunch he talked about the need to see black faces in the elite Guards regiments, of which he was Colonel-in-Chief. Even with all the paraphernalia of his position, this was no shoo-in.

That’s part of his dilemma — the Prince has enormous wealth, position and responsibility but little real power. 

In the situation with the Guards, he worked hard behind the scenes to make it happen, dealing with some really ingrained resistance and prejudice along the way. People saying “yes, sir” but meaning “no.”. (Probably the same reaction he would get if he tries to convert President Bush to his way of thinking on the environment and global warming. Go there at your peril, Charles.)

Ready to take on the U.S., with Camilla in tow
But at least he also now has Camilla, the woman he loved all the way through his marriage to Diana, and by all accounts his “rock.”

It’s hard to believe that it is now 20 years ago that the late Princess burst into the hearts and minds of the U.S. public by taking to the dance floor with John Travolta. And nearly 25 years since the royal wedding of the century. Yes, for many, she still occupies prime position — despite, or perhaps because of, her untimely death.

Diana is a hard act to follow. But Camilla knows she has to step up to the plate on this visit —and she’s woman enough to try it on her own terms.

Her appearance last week in a tiara the size of a small family car was a clear attempt to make her look “queenly.” (And, in fact, the tiara was borrowed from the Queen.)

In truth, Camilla is a lot closer to the throne than Diana ever was — her family (and that of her ex-husband) has a long history of service to the Royal Family — and a lot closer to Charles.

Our future king now has the happiness he seems to have been seeking much of his life. We wish him well with his visit to the U.S.A. and for the future. He’s got quite a job in front of him.

Maybe it’s time I invited him for another working lunch.