Buckingham Palace describes President Bush’s trip to Britain, which will conclude tomorrow, as the first state visit in history by a U.S. president to the United Kingdom. Of course, American presidents frequently travel to London. What makes such a visit a state visit?
To be considered a state visit, instead of just an official visit, the invitation must come from the monarch rather than the prime minister and the trip must conform to a certain protocol. Basically, state visits are the biggest deal the queen or king can make over a foreign head of state.
According to the official Web site of the British monarchy, state visit invitations are written in the queen’s own hand—or manu regia. They always last from a Tuesday to a Friday. The visiting head of state stays either at Buckingham Palace—as President Bush is doing—Windsor Castle, or sometimes at the royal residence in Edinburgh, the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
At the end of the first full day, the queen holds a state banquet for the visitor. The guest list for last night’s was 160 names long and included about 30 members of the royal family. The following night, it’s the visitor’s turn to host a banquet. Tonight, Mr. Bush will have a chance to introduce prominent Americans to the queen. State visits also include a road trip to some part of Britain outside of London.
The queen usually hosts only two such trips a year, and they’re doled out to leaders from all over the world. That fact and the time-consuming nature of state visits are the main reasons other American presidents haven’t had the full treatment before now. (In fact, it took 142 years from the founding of the republic for a sitting American president even to set foot in Britain.)
There has been some controversy over whether President Bush’s state visit is actually the first. U.S. presidents often travel to the U.K. when invited by the prime minister. Those trips also usually involve ceremonies and meals with the queen. And two U.S. presidents have stayed as guests of the royal family before—Woodrow Wilson in 1918 and Ronald Reagan in 1982. But Buckingham Palace says neither of those trips was a full state visit. On the other hand, the U.S. State Department Web site indicates that Reagan’s trip was, although Wilson’s wasn’t. U.S. officials now seem to be deferring to the palace and acknowledging this trip as the first.