AMERICANS this week are indulging their paradoxical fascination with royalty. Britain's Queen Elizabeth II is on a state visit, seeing her first baseball game, speaking to congressmen, admiring fine horses, entertaining Washington's hoi polloi at the British embassy, and exuding that aura of tireless regal charm that is an essential part of such occasions.
Why do Americans - surely the most democratic of peoples - throng so enthusiastically to what in many respects are the archaic trappings of monarchy?
Well, a few words of clarification.
It is not to any monarchy that Americans respond. There may have been a flurry of interest in Monaco's royal family because it absorbed an American movie star, Grace Kelly. But other royals attract only limited American interest. It is the British royal family that fascinates Americans and the reasons for that are several.
First there is the ``special relationship'' between Britain and America. People can say that the world is changing, and it is. People can say that Britain is no longer a major world power, and it is not. But still a powerfully emotional sentiment lingers between Americans and Britons. Americans may sometimes regard the British as quaint and eccentric. Britons may sometimes regard the Americans as brash and impetuous. But when the chips are down, they stand together: Churchill and Roosevelt in World War II, Thatcher and Reagan on the Falklands, Britain's new prime minister John Major and George Bush against Iraq.
Another reason why Americans admire British royalty: The British are very good at the monarchy business. They infuse it with mysticism and ceremonial grandeur unequaled elsewhere.
When the Queen, riding a magnificent black horse, troops the color in London in front of her long lines of scarlet-jacketed guardsmen, or when the guard changes at Buckingham Palace in response to a series of barked orders incomprehensible to non-military folk, it is a rare spectator who does not feel the scalp and spine tingle.
Another factor: Though British kings of centuries ago expressed the worst of autocratic arrogance, Britain's monarchy today is benign and non-threatening. No heads roll. The throne is divorced from politics. It is pageantry without power.
Is then, the British royal family irrelevant? What does it do to earn the more than $100 million a year it costs to maintain? To outsiders, the royals may seem to occupy their time opening bazaars, going to polo matches, and fussing about their Welsh corgis and Labrador retrievers. The latter are no impediment in a dog-devoted nation, nor does there seem to be any grass-roots discontent with the expense of the royal estates and yachts and perquisites.
The fact is that the monarchy represents tradition and engenders pride for many Britons. It is also, to be crass, something of an investment, for it attracts a healthy foreign tourist traffic.
One more factor is the decency of those who have actually worn the crown in recent times, despite the lapses and scandals of some on the periphery of the royal family.
The present queen's father, King George VI, was a shy, gentle man who endeared himself to his subjects in World War II by refusing to leave London when it was under German air attack for safer corners of Britain. The present queen has been hard-working and diligent. When a night-time intruder managed to invade Buckingham Palace and enter her bedroom, she was cool and courageous. Her son, Prince Charles, who will one day become king, is a former naval officer, a pilot, an expert polo player. Although the re is gossip about his young wife, Prince Charles seems to have avoided the excesses of some of the royal family's younger set.
King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, heir to the throne: all have exhibited seriousness, responsibility, courage. All have been well liked by the British people.
No wonder that Americans, too, have warmed to these lingering symbols of a monarchy that is alien to American tradition.