The Royal Republic
America's abiding obsession with the Royal family expresses a longing for a leadership that is wreathed in pomp and circumstance, says Rupert Cornwell
On Friday, an American friend is making the 400-mile trip from Washington DC to Wilmington, North Carolina, for a wedding. Given that the ceremony is taking place on the other side of the Atlantic at 6am local time, the invitees may be forgiven if they watch the exchange of vows on television before donning their finery for the reception at 11am.
The nuptials in question are, of course, those of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Our friend's odyssey is unusual, but hardly exceptional given the circumstances.
If my own experience is anything to go by, America is more into this wedding than even Britain. Which raises the question: why, having gone to such lengths to break free from a British monarch 235 years ago, are Americans so besotted now by the marriage of one of his distant descendants?
The obvious answer is our age's obsession with celebrity. The Royals are the ultimate celebrities. They did nothing to earn it; they were born with it. In the giant Disneyland that Britain is for many Americans, the Royal family is Exhibit A.
Today America sees itself as thoroughly egalitarian, but it might easily have taken another path: British royalty fills a gap in American life.
True, the Kennedys are often described as 'America's royal family', but that designation owes almost everything to the style and grace of JFK and to his tragically early death.
Indeed, in a country where money is the measure of most things, America's nearest equivalent to royalty is, perhaps, to be found, not in politics at all, but in business; in dynasties like the Du Ponts or the Fords. Such is noblesse oblige in today's America.
But none of this is the real thing. This is why this is the right wedding at the right time. For one thing, in the US as in Britain, these are tough economic times; a Royal wedding is a splendid distraction.
For another, the Windsors are on something of a roll there. Recent films such as Helen Mirren's The Queen and the Oscar-winning The King's Speech have been smash hits, above all because they de-mythologised the Royal family by making it, if not familiar, at least poignantly human.
The little girl playing with her father in The King's Speech is the very same person who six decades later struggled in The Queen to respond to Diana's death - and who now, 14 years after that, is about to become grandmother-in-law to Kate Middleton.
This one, moreover, isn't just any Royal wedding for Americans. To use that tiresome Americanism, it also offers 'closure' of a kind to a Royal drama matched in modern times only by the abdication crisis of 1936. For, when Americans think 'Royalty', they still think Diana. Now the first-born son who looks so like his mother is marrying. Diana was never to be Queen; but in William the future King, her destiny is to be fulfilled.
None of the above is to suggest that the US is starting to wonder if it made a mistake in casting off the monarchy 235 years ago. Republicanism is in the country's official genetic code. One reason why the constitution bars a president from seeking a third term is precisely to avoid infection by the Royal virus.
But, like it or not, a president is in part a king. He is the commander-in-chief. His motorcade is like an armoured regiment on the move. Unlike British Royals, US presidents don't have to cope with phone hackers.
Even so, the gossip columns pick over the minutiae of a White House state dinner far more avidly than the British Press would ever report on a Buckingham Palace banquet.
Of course, the president can't go too far: Richard Nixon made a fool of himself when he tried to introduce White House ceremonial guards in fancy tunics and toy soldier hats. But a president ignores the regal component of his office at his peril.
Ronald Reagan understood that truth instinctively. Jimmy Carter went to the opposite extreme, presenting himself as a no-frills, no- formality Everyman, which may be one explanation why Americans never warmed to him.
And might not our fusty inherited monarchy, for all its scandals and silliness, these days have one other appeal?
The Royal family may be dysfunctional on occasion, but at least its failings have purely entertainment value.
And is it really any more dysfunctional than America's elected governments, which actually have to run the country?
In an age when US politics is so polarised that politicians can't even agree on where President Obama was born, the notion of an unelected head of state, perched above the fray, is almost refreshing. So the US, like Britain, plans to sit back and enjoy the show.
But one final question remains: why the fascination with our Royal wedding and not other people's?
Ten months ago, the heir to the Swedish throne married a commoner. The couple were young and attractive. Yet Americans saw, heard and read next to nothing about it.
But, then again, the US was never a colony of Sweden. That is the fundamental link between America and Britain that underpins the transatlantic fascination with the Windsor/Middleton nuptials.
It explains, in part, why the ladies will be whooping it up in North Carolina on Friday. Indeed, put these ties together and you've got, well, a special relationship.