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DID DIANA FOOL MOST OF US, MOST OF THE TIME?

Is the hysteria over, finally? Can we talk sanely now about Princess Diana?

Of course we should regret her death. But so should we regret that, whatever Diana's good deeds, her life -- and assuredly her death -- brought out in millions of others some of the worst of human traits.

It's said that Diana was vulnerable. She was -- much less so, however, than her multitude of fawning admirers.

They were content -- no, eager -- to assume the role of uncritical, wide-eyed celebrity worshipers assigned them by the mass media and treat Diana as a veritable saint.

It was a triumph of style over substance, a triumph of flash and glitter and wealth and empty-headedness, an incredible, unprecedented triumph of media hype and manipulation.

It's said, too, that the outpouring of media-orchestrated grief over Diana's death will lead to reform of Britain's fossilized monarchy. Yet what's needed is not reform but abolition.

Anything short of abolition will leave in place a thoroughly undemocratic institution that confers extraordinary rights, riches and position on a very, very few at the expense of very, very many. And that is precisely what Diana's admirers seem to want. They ask only that the institution be modified so as to grant royal privilege to their favorites, the glamorous, smiling Dianas of the future, rather than the dour Prince Charleses to come.

So what if Diana was one of Britain's wealthiest women, living on millions she inherited without so much as lifting a finger to earn it. So what if she demanded -- and got -- millions more from the British treasury as a divorce settlement when she and Charles split.

So what if Diana spent much of the money on outrageously expensive designer clothes, beauty treatments and other self-enhancement. So what if she flitted from one playground of the obscenely rich to another, lastly in the company of an obscenely rich playboy, leaving behind in boarding school the two sons she claimed to be her paramount concern.

That's what glamour is all about, and that's what Diana's admirers wanted, much like the slack-jawed crowds that gather to gawk at the swells alighting from their limousines on opening night at the opera or symphony.

Those claiming more serious interests say Diana's life as the world's most famous jet-setting clothes horse didn't matter. What counted were her fund-raising efforts for various charities and, most especially, her photo-ops for lesser folk.

Why, she was photographed, and in those costly clothes, her hair just so, actually touching dying AIDS patients, holding sick babies in her arms, speaking out against land mines that kill children.

Princess Diana was hardly the only person of prominence to do such things, of course, and there's no evidence in any case that her doing them did much more than help win her the public acclaim she so obviously craved and courted.

But as the response to her death demonstrated to a distressing degree rarely, if ever, reached, you can indeed fool most of the people most of the time. Or at least you can overwhelm them with the pressure of public opinion so prodigious they cannot or will not resist it.

DICK MEISTER is a free-lance writer in San Francisco.