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‘One of my favorite people’: What Queen Elizabeth II meant to decades of American presidents


By Kevin Liptak, CNN

When Princess Elizabeth landed at Washington National Airport on the last day of October 1951, she emerged from her airplane in a raspberry red coat, a new velvet-brimmed hat and, some people observed, more makeup than usual.

It was her first official visit to the United States, three months before she would become Queen. President Harry S. Truman traveled in an open-topped limousine to greet her on the tarmac.

In her high voice, its accent a refined counterpoint to Truman’s midwestern inflection, the 23-year-old princess offered warmth for a nation that had rejected British royal rule 175 years earlier.

“Free men everywhere,” she proclaimed, “look towards the United States with affection and with hope.”

It was the first time Elizabeth would encounter a sitting American president. Over her reign, she would meet 12 more, each man paying a degree of homage to the duty-bound woman whose very life charted a century of history.

Perhaps no other person had met personally with so many American leaders or had witnessed at close range the upheavals of war, technology and politics that have defined the “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Removed from the politics of transatlantic relations, yet still at the very center of British identity, the Queen provided American presidents a connection to their predecessors, a reminder of what a life devoted to public service looks like and a bit of uniquely royal glitz.

Many emerged enchanted, spellbound or starstruck.

“Whenever anyone becomes acquainted with you,” Truman told Elizabeth that day in 1951, “they immediately fall in love.”

It was a sentiment that would be repeated, in so many words, for the next 70 years, as American leaders visited her at her palaces in the United Kingdom or when she traveled to the White House.

“She is truly one of my favorite people,” then-President Barack Obama said during a visit to London in 2016, after the Queen and her husband drove in their Land Rover to pick him up at Windsor Castle. “She’s an astonishing person, and a real jewel to the world and not just to the United Kingdom.”

Some presidents, like Ronald Reagan, bonded with the Queen over horses and country life. Others, like Bill Clinton, found themselves impressed by her political aptitude.

In recent years, as she aged, presidents saw in her their own pasts. President Donald Trump said after meeting her, his Scottish-born mother would be proud. When he visited the Queen at Windsor last year, President Joe Biden said she reminded him of his own mother.

Queen Elizabeth’s first state visit to Washington came in 1957, hosted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, at an important moment for the new sovereign to represent her country with its most important ally.

Yet even Eisenhower, the commanding general of US forces in Europe during World War II, found himself humbled in the presence of the Queen.

“There have been a few times in my life when I have wished that the gift of eloquence might have been conferred upon me,” he said during his toast at the state dinner. “This evening is one of those times.”

As it turned out, the Queen had a penchant for bringing out the relaxed side of the American leaders she encountered. After inviting Eisenhower to Balmoral, her estate in the Scottish Highlands where she died on Thursday, the Queen promised to provide him her recipe for scones. She followed up in a letter several months later.

“Dear Mr. President,” she wrote in her scrawling, distinct hand. “Seeing a picture of you in today’s newspaper, standing in front of a barbecue grilling quail, reminded me that I had never sent you the recipe of the drop scones which I promised you at Balmoral.”

When President John F. Kennedy arrived in London for a state visit in 1961, he and his glamorous wife Jacqueline were met with crowds of Britons lining the streets. The dinner was described as “pleasant,” though later there were rumors of tensions between the Queen and first lady over the guest list.

Kennedy, who was assassinated two years later, did not meet the Queen again. But when Britain dedicated a memorial to Kennedy in Surrey, around 20 miles outside London, the Queen paid tribute alongside Mrs. Kennedy and the slain President’s children.

She never met President Lyndon B. Johnson as his presidency became consumed by the war in Vietnam; he remained the only president she did not meet during her reign.

The Queen had already met Richard Nixon when he was serving as vice president, but met him again as president in 1969, when he paid a visit to the United Kingdom. Later, when the Queen’s children — Prince Charles and Princess Anne — visited the Nixon White House, observers thought the President seemed unusually interested, hiring bands and arranging a special ceremony.

There was even a hint of potential romance — though it didn’t pan out.

“That was the time when they were trying to marry me off to Tricia Nixon,” Charles recounted in an interview with CNN in 2021.

President Gerald Ford was serving in office as the United States marked the 200th anniversary of American independence, a bicentennial that also marked its severance from Britain. Perhaps in a show of enduring US-UK ties, Ford hosted the Queen for a state dinner underneath a tent in the Rose Garden.

In a yellow chiffon gown and diamond tiara, the Queen was whisked around the dance floor by the President.

“The Queen was easy to deal with,” then-first lady Betty Ford recounted in her memoir. “She was very definite about what she wanted and what she didn’t want. She loves Bob Hope and Telly Savalas, so we invited Bob Hope and Telly Savalas.”

President Jimmy Carter had a somewhat more mortifying experience during his visit to Buckingham Palace in 1977: He kissed the Queen Mother on her lips.

“Nobody has done that since my husband died,” she exclaimed. Her husband, King George VI, died in 1952.

No president appeared more comfortable with the Queen than Ronald Reagan, who became the first American leader to spend the night at Windsor Castle in 1982. A shared love of horses — she the English rider; he the Western cowboy (at least in movies) — seemed to cement their relationship.

“I must admit, the Queen is quite an accomplished horsewoman,” Reagan wrote in his memoir. He invited her the following year to his Rancho Del Cielo property in California, initially making plans for her to sail into Santa Barbara harbor on the royal yacht.

A severe storm scuttled the maritime plans, forcing the Queen to arrive by airplane. At the ranch, Reagan wore a jean jacket and bolo tie to serve her and her husband a Tex-Mex lunch: enchiladas, chiles rellenos, refried beans, tacos, rice and guacamole.

Their friendship would stretch beyond Reagan’s presidency. In 1989, she granted Reagan honorary knighthood to recognize the US assistance during the Falkland Wars.

When she came to Washington a few years later, President George H.W. Bush brought her to a Baltimore Orioles game and hosted her at the White House — where she ended up encountering another, future president.

Speaking with George W. Bush in 1991 about the new pair of boots he was wearing for her visit, the younger Bush revealed they’d been stamped with the words “God save the Queen.” That prompted her to ask if he was the black sheep of the family.

“I guess so,” he acknowledged.

“All families have them,” she replied.

During President Bill Clinton’s presidency, he met with the Queen during a tour of her palace and at the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings. But during a visit to London in 1997, he and his wife Hillary turned down the Queen’s invitation to tea, preferring instead to “be a tourist,” according to documents released by the UK’s National Archives last year.

“The Americans said that the President and Mrs. Clinton were very grateful for HM The Queen’s invitation to tea at the Palace, but would wish to decline politely,” a note from Blair’s private secretary, Phillip Barton, revealed.

Still, Clinton was impressed by the Queen’s unique abilities.

“Her Majesty impressed me as someone who but for the circumstance of her birth, might have become a successful politician or diplomat. As it was, she had to be both, without quite seeming to be either,” he wrote in his memoir.

More than a decade after their chance initial meeting in his father’s White House, George W. Bush meet the queen several times, including when he became the first US president to be received with a state visit to Britain in 2003.

He would host Queen Elizabeth’s final visit to the White House in 2007; it was a symbolic nod to her first State Visit as queen 50 years earlier and marked the 400th anniversary of the English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia.

During his welcoming remarks, he inadvertently suggested the Queen had also visited the White House in 1776 — adding 200 years to her age.

“She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child,” he said after winking in the monarch’s direction.

The aging queen would not return to the White House again but continued receiving American presidents in Britain. When Obama and his wife arrived in London in 2009, they came bearing an iPod loaded with footage of her previous visits to Washington, along with recordings of some of Obama’s speeches.

Etiquette hawks were aghast when Michelle Obama placed her hand on the Queen, but the Queen herself did not seem to care. Speaking with aides after a dinner at Buckingham Palace, Obama remarked she reminded him of his own grandmother.

“She’s just like Toot, my grandmother. Courteous. Straightforward. All about what she thinks. She doesn’t suffer fools,” he said, according to a memoir by one of his aides.

His two predecessors also felt pangs of maternal memory when they encountered the queen in the final years of her life.

“I was walking up and I was saying (to wife Melania): ‘Can you imagine my mother seeing this scene? Windsor. Windsor Castle,'” Donald Trump told an interviewer afterward.

Trump’s mother, born on the Outer Hebrides islands of Scotland, was enraptured by the Queen; Trump recalled her watching Elizabeth’s coronation on television. While his own visit to Windsor had awkward moments, like when he walked in front of the Queen as they were reviewing an honor guard, the Queen herself evinced no displeasure.

When Biden visited the United Kingdom for a Group of 7 summit in 2021, the Queen made a surprise decision to travel to the Cornish coast to meet world leaders, a signal of her desire to remain engaged in global affairs.

When she hosted Biden later at Windsor Castle, she asked him about two authoritarian leaders, Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Unlike Trump or Obama, Biden is not an Anglophile. He’s a proud Irish American who has — sometimes jokingly — made references to the long British rule over his ancestors’ island.

Last year also wasn’t his first time meeting the Queen; as a young senator, he’d received advice from his mother — an Irish American born with the surname Finnegan — ahead of a planned engagement with the monarch.

“Don’t you bow down to her,” she told him in 1982, according to a memoir Biden published several years ago.

When he met her last year, he did not bow. But he did remark on a familiar resemblance.

“I don’t think she’ll be insulted,” he said, “but she reminded me of my mother.”

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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