Jim Nantz vividly recalls his assignment at White House dinner with Queen Elizabeth II
“It was one of the greatest honors of my life,” he said. “When I heard the news about her passing, I felt an emptiness because of the amazing life that she’s lived.”
Their meeting came at a state dinner at the White House held in honor of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, making their first visit to Washington, D.C., in 16 years. Nantz was among a diverse collection of celebrities who had been invited by President George W. Bush.
Little did Nantz know, he would be seated directly across the table from Her Majesty.
He received the invitation a month earlier, the day after the 2007 Masters, when he got a call from the social office of the White House.
Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign was so long that most of Britain’s 68 million people have known no other sovereign.
“I had a month to get my mind around all of this,” he said Thursday by phone. “When I would tell people, I got a million little pearls of wisdom and pieces of advice on how I should handle a greeting with her should I have the occasion to be directly in her presence. I didn’t know how the night was going to unfold.”
Everyone had a tip. Allow the queen taste her food before you taste yours. Bow when you meet her. Don’t reach out to shake her hand — in fact, don’t touch her at all. Speak when spoken to, and be succinct. Follow her lead.
Nantz remembers the night in vivid detail. There were 135 guests. The event began with a reception in the East Room, and soon someone sounded chimes and asked that guests form a line for a photo opportunity with the queen, Prince Philip, the president and First Lady Laura Bush.
“I was second in line,” Nantz said. “The person in front of me posed for a picture, then grabbed a place card off a silver tray presented by a Marine in uniform.”
Then, as was the case, Nantz was announced.
“The first person you walk into was Her Majesty,” he said. “She reached out a hand. I didn’t know if I was supposed to knock knuckles, high-five or shake her hand.”
He didn’t do any of that.
“I just kind of clutched her hands, as I figured a gentleman would do at a black-tie occasion such as this,” he said. “I didn’t bow or anything like that but said something like, `It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ ”
He figured that would be their only encounter of the night and made his way down the reception line. He said hello to the Bushes then, during a brief lull, found a place to stand next to Prince Philip.
Recalled Nantz: “He looked at me and said, `I must ask you a question: Do you play golf as well as you speak about it?’ I thought it was the coolest compliment of my career. I thought Prince Philip was watching my work.”
Then, Nantz remembered that the CBS golf broadcasts were presented live in the U.K. in prime time. The royals didn’t have to work too hard to find him. Still, he was flattered.
“Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was more than a monarch,” President Biden said in a statement Thursday. “She defined an era.”
“I immediately dived into what I normally say, that I’m not a very good golfer anymore, that I masqueraded as a golfer in college,” Nantz said. “I thanked him and asked if he enjoyed the tournament yesterday, because it was the day after Wells Fargo.”
But Prince Philip mentally had moved on, pleasantly advising Nantz: “They’re waiting for us to take a picture.”
“I said, `Oh, I’m sorry,’ ” Nantz said. “I turned and grinned, grabbed my place card and off I went.”
Nantz was seated at Table 11. He had been to one state dinner before and remembered the president sat at Table 12, so he figured he was in a good spot.
When he got to his table, he recognized some old friends. Arnold Palmer was there, and so was Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., as well as Peyton Manning’s wife, Ashley (they split all the couples, putting them at separate tables). The wives of former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and George Schultz were there, as was Nancy Reagan.
Directly across from Nantz were two unclaimed seats.
For 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II miraculously managed to be both universally known and utterly enigmatic. No wonder so many Americans were fascinated.
“I hear some trumpets blare and a Marine said, `Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the first lady of the United States and Prince Philip,’ ” he said.
Those two entered to an ovation and made their way … to Table 12. The chairs across from Nantz were still empty.
Then the Marine announced the president and queen, who walked directly to Table 11, with Her Majesty sitting directly across from Nantz.
“I was looking right into her eyes,” he said. “She had the tiara and the sash, everything you would think it would look like. Right out of central casting.”
As the president was taking his seat, he had a quiet message for his announcer friend.
“He brushed by me and as he’s smiling and looking around he kind of nudged me as he walked past,” he said. “He said, `Nantz, you’re sitting at this table for a reason. Keep the conversation going.’ ”
With everyone seated, the president and queen stood and made a toast to each other and their respective countries.
The thespians who’ve studied the queen most closely explain what they learned about her life, character and work from the experience.
The first course arrived — spring pea soup — and everyone got the memo to let the queen taste hers first.
“There was only one conversation at this table the whole time,” Nantz said. “You’re not talking to the person next to you.”
This happened to be the first year Nantz had called the Super Bowl, Final Four and Masters in a nine-week stretch, a feat he has accomplished five times since.
“At one point the president says to the queen, `That fella sitting right across from you, he’s a good friend of the family. He’s really close to my mom and dad. He just did something in the United States of America that’s never been done before.’ ”
The queen stopped and put down her salad fork.
“She looked directly at me as he’s talking to the side of her face,” he said. “I’m looking at her kind of giving it the, `Aw, shucks,’ and there’s no reaction from her. I figured she probably didn’t know what the Super Bowl was, and the championship of college basketball didn’t seem to resonate. And then he said, `And he did Augusta.’ ”
“She just kind of looked,” Nantz recalled with a laugh. “Obviously, it meant something to the president. I guess that’s why I was on the guest list. She just kind of looked at me and I thought, `Where’s this go from here?’
“She went right back to her salad and never said a thing.”
A few minutes passed and the president gave Nantz some visual cues to engage the queen in a conversation.
“Your Majesty, may I ask you a question?”
She looked up.
“You were at the Kentucky Derby. Did you have a nice time?”
“It was lovely.”
“Did you have the winning horse?”
“No, I didn’t.”
Britons from all walks of life converged on the ornate gates of Buckingham Palace in central London.
“Are you a big fan of horse racing?”
“I enjoy it.”
All pleasant. But all conversational cul-de-sacs.
Said Nantz: “I was thinking, `Oh, my gosh, this is the toughest interview of my life.’ ”
After dinner, the party moved back to the East Room for a performance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. By that point, the White House press office had sent out some video clips, and friends were already texting Nantz, rubbing their eyes at his dinner seat.
He gave them a standard answer and a shrug: “Yeah, yeah, what else are you going to do on a Monday night?”
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