HERE COMES WILLS

HIS MISFIT PARENTS HAVE FINISHED THEIR BUSINESS WITH EACH OTHER. ATTENTION NOW TURNS TO THE PROMISE OF THE NEXT GENERATION, AND THE FUTURE KING WILLIAM V

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The marriage is dead; long live the marriage's signal achievement. Last Friday the announcement came of a final divorce settlement between the Prince and Princess of Wales. Diana gets a generous financial deal and retains several privileges, although not the right to style herself as Her Royal Highness. Charles rids himself of the difficult, crowd-pleasing woman he married in what seems another age. But while Charles and Diana's legal ties are being severed, they are still joined by their children, and whatever their failures as husband and wife, they seem to have made a success of their roles as father and mother. If the Waleses have damaged the monarchy terribly, they may also have provided its salvation in William, the bright, likable prince just emerging into young manhood and just beginning to capture the public's imagination. As the divorce brings one act of the royal drama to an end, another one begins, with a fresh and appealing star.

A lot is riding on the boy who will become King William V. The current generation of royals has been nearly catastrophic. At the time of his wedding in 1981, Charles was expected to update the traditional role of constitutional monarch, while Diana would be the charismatic popular symbol. But largely because of the competitive rancor between the heir to the throne and his wife, public acceptance of the monarchy is considerably weaker today than it was even five years ago. While the institution is not in mortal peril, discussion of a republic has become both vigorous and respectable rather than a left-wing fringe topic. The best possible scenario now is a three-act drama: long, long life to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who is exemplary; a brief reign for Charles, who might be as old as 70 or so when he ascends the throne; and then the reign of Wills, the crown's last, best hope.

What kind of King might William make? At 14, he is at the age when many boys are trying to decide whether to dye their hair orange or green. But some judgments can be made about him. He is known as an intelligent youngster — he passed the test for Eton, a tough prep school — and he has poise beyond his years. In her Panorama interview, Diana said of her elder son, "That child is a deep thinker." She pointed out that it will be impossible to know for some time how the Waleses' shenanigans have strengthened or warped Wills' character.

Life started very well for Wills. His birth was an occasion of national rejoicing; the succession was secure and the perfect family established. Charles was crazy about him. In a burbling letter to a friend he wrote, "He really does look surprisingly appetizing and has sausage fingers just like mine." Dad took over baby-bathing duties enthusiastically, but when the terrible twos struck, the bathroom became a war room. Wills started breaking things, flushing his father's shoes down the toilet, and for the next few years was obstreperous and mouthy.

Back then Charles and Diana were at their best as parents. They were determined not to replicate the cloistered childhood that left Charles forever wary socially and emotionally. When Wills was five and brother Harry three, they were sent to ordinary playgrounds around London. They went to fast-food joints and amusement parks and attended real schools, albeit exclusive ones. Charles had been tutored at home until age eight.

As the fissures in the marriage deepened, it was easy to tell which parent was in charge on a particular day. Diana dressed the boys in baseball caps and jeans. When Charles took over, they wore proper jackets and ties and well-polished shoes. According to her biographer, Sarah Bradford, the Queen regards the sloppy mode as too casual for royal princes and has had words with Diana about it. Grandma does not share Charles and Diana's relaxed approach to molding a future King. Bradford reports that at the Balmoral royal estate in Scotland six years ago, Wills gave his groom the slip and came home early from a riding session. Alarmed at this irregularity, the Queen "tore a strip off him."

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