An Englishman I met on a kibbutz in Israel during the many international travel years of my youth asked me a question I’ve pondered ever since. Genuinely curious, he asked me in his measured, lilting accent why Americans were so obsessed with the goings-on of the royal family. I recognized the enduring truth of this as I sat in front of the telly myself, avidly soaking up the medieval pageantry following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Would Harry and Meghan bury the hatchet and cross the pond? Would Prince Andrew, disgraced consumer of under-aged female flesh, dare show his face? Even the humble and bookish new king was ripe for gossip as he sat beside his life-long love Camilla, destroyer of the saintly Princess Di. The Diana dust-up was just one of many royal scandals in the year 1992, which the Queen dubbed annus horribilis in remarks to a luncheon group in November of that year.
Ah, the Queen, faithful wife married young and just once, matriarch of children and grandchildren who divorced, cheated on their spouses, marketed their royal bona-fides to the highest bidders, and, in general, succumbed to the usual modern temptations, but in this era on the very public and unforgiving world stage. In our own celebrity-obsessed former uppity colony we gobble it up and hunger for more. And yet…the question persists. Why is the Queen still apparently so beloved, not only here but in Commonwealth countries once under the Monarchy’s yoke?
I figure it was her dignity. She never divorced, had an affair, lost her temper, railed against her enemies, was caught with her hand in the till, or criticized her wayward children or grandchildren. She lived a dutiful, unsullied life during a time when social constraints were crashing all around her and good manners became something that doddering old folks went on about. And with the exception of that annus horribilis comment back in 1992, she never complained.
If these attributes seem pedestrian in our dynamic times, I challenge you to review the ethics and personal deportment of our own leaders, public and private, with an eye to measuring their behaviors against the high bar set by the Queen. It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison since we don’t have a royal family, per se, of course, though many have acted as if they belonged to one: JFK with his serial mistresses, many apparently bedded in the White House itself, Nixon with his burglars and lies, the Clintons with their shady real estate and financial dealings, Pelosi with her husband’s probably legal but almost certainly unethical financial activities and stock-market shenanigans. Even some of the ultimate protectors of our constitutional rights are ethically tarnished: consider U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s refusal to recuse himself from cases concerning his über conservative wife Jennie, a 2020 election denier and Trump fanatic, who on her very public platform has routinely kicked aside that nettlesome rule of law that her husband once swore to uphold back on October 18, 1991, in a televised ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
The Queen would never have dreamed of betraying a promise to her country like that, and undoubtedly tsk-tsked in disapproval at that bit of dirty American laundry within the privacy of her castle walls; she would have been too polite to comment outside of them. And even though she never ran for office and didn’t directly participate in the bare-knuckled business of governance, her stoicism and unflappable devotion to duty were reassuring to Brits who still love their country’s historic royal pageantry despite the fact that these days it’s pretty much anachronistic theatre.
Then there’s the century-old bond between our country and the Queen’s, reinforced throughout the bloody twentieth century. Several years ago I visited the Eagle pub in Cambridge, England, where Allied airmen used wax candles, petrol lighters, and lipstick to write their names and squadron numbers on the ceiling of the rear bar while the Second World War raged. As I ate my banger and mash I imagined boisterous Yanks standing on their tippy toes on chairs and tables to scribble their names on that English ceiling nearly 80 years ago. The ceiling’s unofficial and spontaneous existence is incredibly moving; it’s a sort of everyman’s monument, created by soldiers far from home, many of whom doubtless slaughtered during the D-Day invasion of France.
Whatever the source of public admiration for the Queen, it endured throughout her 70-year reign. So…musing here…maybe her unassuming qualities could become a kind of litmus test for the characters of our own leaders. Dignified, ethical, and dutiful sound like fine if uninspired personal attributes: nothing flashy, just steady, honest, clear-eyed folks who care about their fellow citizens and always act in their interest. It would certainly be a refreshing change in media-world.
I, too, admired the Queen’s personal dignity and public character over the years as she loyally supported her subjects through the tricky shoals of the social upheaval of her reign and calmly reassured them that everything will be all right in the end. But whether those subjects will continue to support their monarchy, with all the expensive perks that go along with it, remains to be seen.
One thing I know for sure: If I were a British subject and given the opportunity to vote up or down on the future of the monarchy, I’d check the box next to the bloodless modern version of “Off with Their Heads” with nary a twinge or a backward glance.