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Unexpected humor and ‘a spot of gin’: Queen Elizabeth II’s Sacramento visit remembered

The tale about Queen Elizabeth II sipping gin in California’s state Capitol needs some fleshing out. And here it is:

It was the late Ronald Reagan aide Mike Deaver’s tale. He told it to me shortly after Her Majesty toured storm-battered California in the winter of 1983.

The story was off the record back then. But now all the main players have died: The queen, Prince Philip, Gov. George Deukmejian, President Reagan, First Lady Nancy Reagan and Deaver. Nothing’s off the record forever.

So I reported Deaver’s tale in my previous column about the grace and grit displayed by the queen on her venturous 10-day trip.

But two other players in the gin episode who are still with us remember it a bit differently than what Deaver relayed to me hush-hush. And one of them called me after my column ran.

For one thing, the queen and the prince apparently had more than a few sips.

Does it really matter? No. It’s mere trivia. But since the tale gives us a quick look into the private side of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, a historical figure for the ages, it might as well be a clear picture.

Deaver was arguably Reagan’s most trusted aide. He certainly was Nancy Reagan’s. He had been a close advisor all through Reagan’s two terms as California governor and was White House deputy chief of staff. The president assigned him the task of organizing the queen’s trip and escorting her around the state.

He booked a day trip to Sacramento and a meeting in the Capitol with the governor and legislative leaders.

A few days after the visit, this is what Deaver told me: He and the queen wound up in his old Capitol office. “I could use a spot of gin,” she said. The former gubernatorial aide used to keep a small gin bottle in his desk. And, sure enough, it was still there. He found a glass and poured the grateful queen a drink.

OK, that apparently wasn’t quite accurate and there was more to it — more gin, for one thing.

After reading the column, Deukmejian’s former Chief-of-Staff Steve Merksamer called with the full story. I confirmed it with the second participant, former Deputy Chief of Staff Sal Russo.

“I never told the story. Deaver said it was a state secret. If it got out, it would be embarrassing to the country and to the president,” said Merksamer, who runs one of Sacramento’s most successful political law and lobbying firms.

Russo, a Republican political consultant, also kept his mouth shut.

“Mike said, ‘I don’t want to read about this in any story until Ron and Nancy are dead.’”

Merksamer says the queen and her entourage arrived at the governor’s office around 9:30 a.m. Deukmejian and top aides chit-chatted in the cabinet room with the queen and prince for a few minutes.

“There was a certain protocol,” Merksamer recalls. “Don’t speak until she says hello. You don’t have to curtsy because you’re an American. Don’t touch her. She touches you first.”

He adds, “I thought she was terrific. Very gracious. Just charming. Very nice to my wife. Not stuck up.”

And Prince Philip?

“He was funny as hell,” Merksamer says. “Very irreverent. A little bit off color. Not reserved at all. She was there, just kind of the queen. Very regal.”

“He was always funny,” Russo says.

And, of course, that’s not quite the image we all saw on TV.

After a few minutes, the queen “wanted to relax,” Merksamer says. So, they gave her the cabinet room and the adjoining governor’s study.

Merksamer and Russo both say that the queen never went into Deaver’s old office, then occupied by Russo. Deukmejian, Merksamer and Russo retreated there while the queen and prince relaxed in the governor’s digs. Deaver was in and out.

“Deaver comes running in, ‘Oh, Sal, Steve, the queen needs a gin and tonic,’” Merksamer remembers. “’Do you have any gin and tonic?’ I said, ‘We don’t have any alcohol here.’”

Unlike with governors before and after, Deukmejian forbade booze in the governor’s office suite.

But with the queen asking for a drink, Russo says, “I finally said, ‘George, if you get off that credenza, I can solve the problem.’”

Russo had stocked a bar in there and did have some gin and tonic. But it was cheap gin with a department store label.

“We can’t give her Gemco gin,” he said.

Deaver answered: “The British think all American gin is inferior. She’s expecting inferior gin. So, give her Gemco gin.”

“I stirred the drinks with my finger,” Russo says.

They were sent to the queen and prince — and were clearly acceptable.

“Deaver comes running back a few minutes later and says, ‘I need another two gin and tonics for the queen and prince,’” Merksamer recalls. “Russo said, ‘Here, take the bottle.’”

After the queen left, Russo went back to retrieve the bottle.

“It only had about an inch left in it,” he says.

Her Majesty walked up to the west balcony of the Capitol and waved to thousands of people. Then she was hosted at a lunch with the governor and legislators in the Capitol Rotunda.

“We all walked with her. She was perfectly OK. Not inebriated at all,” Merksamer says.

I did a Google search to inquire about the queen’s drinking habits. One website, quoting a cousin, said she routinely had four drinks a day: a gin and Dubonnet cocktail in the morning, wine at lunch, a dry martini before dinner, then a glass of champagne.

And at least two gin and tonics in provincial capitals.

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