Everyone knows what has happened in the interim. His troubled marriage to the late Princess Diana, his remarriage to Camilla Parker Bowles, and the youthful indiscretions of his two sons have been turned to a reality-based soap opera by the tabloid media. But most Americans know very little about who the Prince of Wales is and what he does as heir to the British throne.
Members of the royal family hardly ever grant interviews, the Queen has never given one, and you rarely see them talk. But last month, as his trip to the United States was being planned, Prince Charles granted 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft an audience, allowing us to follow him around and chat, not about his family, but about being Prince of Wales, a job and a life like no other.
"Most of us in our lives have to fill out applications listing our profession and occupation. You don't have to do that," Kroft said.
"No. Not always, but sometimes," Prince Charles replied.
"If you did, what would you put down?" Kroft asked.
"I would list it as worrying about this country and its inhabitants. That's my particular duty. And I find myself born into this particular position. I'm determined to make the most of it. And to do whatever I can to help. And I hope I leave things behind a little bit better than I found them," the prince said. "It's hard to say, but I think it is a profession, actually; doing what I'm doing. Because if you tried it for a bit, you might find out how difficult it is," he added, laughing.
He is somewhere between a brand and a public institution, a future head of state in waiting — and waiting. He is a symbol of continuity with no real power but tremendous influence that is tied to his position and wealth.
The money comes from a 14th century real estate empire called the Duchy of Cornwall, which was established to provide an income for the heir to the British throne.
Today it includes 135,000 acres of farmland, forests, waterfront property, London real estate, and even a cricket stadium. It produces $25 million a year in rents and other income that supports the prince, his wife and children and a staff of 130. There are perks such as travel on the royal train. And $7 million from the government to help with official expenses.
On a recent trip to the Yorkshire Countryside to mark the 850th anniversary of the village of Richmond, the whole town turned out to greet Charles and Camilla, his new wife, longtime friend and former mistress, now the Duchess of Cornwall. They were recently voted the most popular couple in Britain, nosing out the Queen and Prince Philip and they seemed comfortable with each other and the crowds.
"There was clearly a bond between you and the people there. Explain that to me," asked Kroft.
"No idea," the prince replied with laugh.
"You have no idea?" Kroft asked.
"No, but I always enjoyed seeing all sorts of people all around the country. I do this over and over again, have done for 30-something years," the prince said.
He could pass the time playing polo or do nothing at all if he wanted, a path chosen by most of his predecessors, many of whom were lay-abouts and playboys. But Charles chose to invent a job where none existed. He made 29 major speeches last year, visited 14 countries, and runs the largest group of non-profit organizations in the country called "Prince's Charities." He raises more than $200 million a year for those 16 organizations, 14 of which he founded.
The largest charity is The Prince's Trust which, over 29 years, has helped to provide job training for more than a half a million young people.
"Do you think if you weren't doing this stuff, that it would get done?" Kroft asked.
"If I wasn't doing it? No," the prince replied.
Asked if he felt as if he was making a difference, Prince Charles said, "I don't know. I try. I only hope that when I'm dead and gone, they might appreciate it a little bit more. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes that happens."