There, but for the grace of George III, the Queen of the U.S. A.
There, but for the grace of George III, the Queen of the U.S. A.
I What the Americans need is a monarch of their very own. This suspicion was formed in the midst of a shouting throng on the docks of Philadelphia, waiting for Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, to step ashore from the royal yacht Britannia and begin her six-day, nine-city U.S. Bicentennial tour. The suspicion became a notion on the south lawn of the White House a day later, when a middle-aged, middlerank bureaucrat elbowed his companion and whispered fiercely, “There she is! Isn’t this thrilling?” The notion became a hypothesis at a state dinner that night, where Washington society watched the President and the Queen as they manipulated the silverware side by side. The nobs obviously wondered if their ancestors had been smart to raise such a stink over a few lousy stamps back in 1776. The hypothesis became conviction by the time the Queen had gone on to wow them in New York, Newark, New Haven, Charlottesville, Providence, Newport and Boston.
“Yes, yes,” said one supposedly blase' Washingtonian, “we should have something like that to look up to. They don’t have to be smart, or do anything, they just have to be there.” No one is better at being there, with class, than the Queen. She can push a button, dedicate a nave, accept a bouquet, flatter a speech or admire a horse like nobody’s business. But it was not her skill the Americans fell for, it was the notion of Queen, royalty in the abstract. “A Queen,” gushed the Washington Star, “is the stuff of fairy tales.” A tubby lady from Baltimore sweated for two hours on the Philadelphia waterfront for a glimpse of Her Majesty, and pronounced herself tremendously pleased. But did she actually see the Queen? “No, but I saw the boat.” That is the mystique of monarchy, thousands of Americans standing in the sun to watch a middle-aged lady walk down a gangplank that turns out to be hidden by television crews—and coming away satisfied. “The Queen,” said David Gelsanliter, general manager of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “represents everything that is decent and traditional.”
The Americans have no one to fill that role. It is assigned to the President in his ceremonial incarnation, but a mere President can’t bring it off. He isn’t in the job long enough, for one thing. There have been nine British monarchs since 1776, while the Americans were running through 38 Presidents. And a President is the product of politics, not bloodlines. It is hard to revere a Ford or a Nixon; they lack the mystique that royalty imparts.
For a Canadian, the advantages of the monarchy are obvious during a royal tour of the United States, while none of the disadvantages—discord in Quebec, for ex-
ample—ever shows. There is only ritual, cheers, high talk and warm feelings. The tour was a public relations triumph, which is to say that it was perfect for television. Closer observers—those actually on the scene—saw an inferior product, which seldom varied from place to place. First, there was the bus ride to the appointed rendezvous—Arlington National Cemetery, or a city hall, or a church. Waiting crowds, who lined up hours earlier to get a good look at the Queen, then found swarms of sweating, swearing journalists suddenly imposed between them and the target. They shouted and pleaded, and the journalists stirred guiltily. But they would not budge. Then secret service cars rolled up, and plainclothesmen leapt out, looking awesome and alert, to provide another layer of obstruction. A band (obligatory) blared, an honor guard (usually) snapped to attention; there was a stir, a swirl, a glimpse of black limousine, white teeth, colored dress, a salvo of shouts (the most cumbersome, and most popular, went “It’s good to be an American, but ’ray for the Queen ”) and it was all over.
Most of the press were treated to a splendid array of the vests of police and security men, the sides of cameras and the backs of each other’s heads. One or two journalists could actually see what was going on, because they were in a specially placed pool up front, and the rest relied on their ac-
counts to write stories as if they hadn’t missed a thing. There were 600 American journalists accredited, and 124 British (Canadians counted as British). The job could have been better done by a score of professionals who wouldn’t foul each other’s view all the time, but the media mob was part of the polite fakery and inflated importance that makes royal tours work. Indeed, the whole notion of monarchy depends on the polite suspension of disbelief, magnification of trivia (the Britannia is 412 feet long, the Bicentennial Bell, Britain’s birthday gift to America, weighs more than five tons; the Queen is the second cousin, seven times removed, of George Washington), and the suppression of unpleasantness (while the British economy staggered from crisis to crisis, the Queen bought Princess Anne a $ 1.5 million country house to play in). Symbolism, mystery and fatuity make the system work.
The Americans have fatuity in their leaders, but little symbolism and less mystery. When a President takes up the nation’s time to say nothing, that is deplorable; when a Queen does the same, it is statesmanship. And when the Queen actually says something—she allowed that the Americans had been right and the British wrong in that unpleasantness 200 years ago—eyeballs pop like champagne corks and the New York Times puts the text on page one. President Ford couldn’t have worked such a truism onto the comics page, but then he isn’t a monarch and he must have gaped in envy as, in the six days
before she turned north to Canada, her Majesty cut a swath through the eastern seaboard.
During their U.S. visit, the royal couple survived the following: official welcomes, 12; receptions, 20; presents received, six ; (medallions, lithographs, -books, spoons, cowboy statue); presents given, two (bell, devisai); speeches given, six; speeches taken, 21; wreathes laid, one; dedications, two; cornerstones laid, one; walkabouts, tours and visits, 15; church services, one; honorary citizenships, one (to New York, for what it’s worth); parades, honor guards and inspections, seven. No one bothered to keep track of the number of bouquets. All this work, we were told by editorialists, strengthened the bonds of Anglo-American friendship in some mysterious way. The Bicentennial bell could have tolled without the royal thumb, and the state of Virginia might have survived without the devisai Her Majesty brought along (the devisai certified that the coat of arms once used by the Virginia company was okay, heraldry-wise). But all these occasions drew their significance from what British historian Walter Bagehot once called “the monarchy which sweetens politics by nice and pretty events.”
If the Americans want their politics sweetened, which God knows they should, they are just going to have to stage more nice and pretty events, for which they will need—or at least want—royalty. The wonder is that they even let the Queen back out of the country. WALTER STEWART
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