Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, known by her professional name Queen Elizabeth II, spoke to the world about the Covid-19 pandemic Sunday night. Her speech demonstrated why modern skeptics – including small-d democrats and small-r republicans — still find themselves awestruck by the ancient institution of monarchy.
Of course, Queen Elizabeth is not just any monarch. She carries with her person the aura of lengthy history. When she first addressed her realm she was a 14-year old Princess. World War II was in its early stages, Winston Churchill had been Prime Minister for only 5 months, the United States was neutral, and Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany were cooperative partners in a non-aggression pact. Her speech was designed to comfort evacuated British children who had been sent to the Commonwealth nations and the United States for safety. The broadcast was Churchill’s idea. He thought to use the young Princess to charm America into entering the war on Britain’s side.
On her 21st birthday, when she addressed her people again, she spoke as a confident young woman, who was nobody’s tool. She said: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
Her life has certainly been long. She is almost 94 years old. She has ruled Great Britain and the Commonwealth for 68 years, longer than any other British monarch: 20 years longer than her namesake Queen Elizabeth I, and 5 years longer than her paternal great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.
Her reign has had its share of successes and scandals, of family heroism and squalor. Just a few months ago, before anyone had heard of Covid-19, the press was full of stories about Prince William, Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle, and Prince Harry: where they were living, who was talking to whom, and other such delectable irrelevancies. None of that seems to matter now. On Sunday night, the Queen spoke as if her long and eventful life had been a preparation for the moment.
She spoke for 4 minutes. Her tone and cadence were those of a wise old grandmother, who has seen a great deal of life and is not easily shaken. She thanked the personnel of the Britain’s National Health Service, working on the “frontline.” She thanked the caregivers and the providers of essential services. She even thanked the vast majority who are merely staying at home.
Her speech, like her debut broadcast in 1940, was intended to reassure her audience. In 1940, it was to help children deal with the pain of separation from their parents. In 2020, it was intended to help people forced to endure another kind of separation from loved ones. Likely, some of the children who heard her reassurance in 1940 are alive today, now in their 80s, and therefore in the demographic most vulnerable to the virus. It is pleasant to contemplate these same individuals deriving solace twice in their long lives from the same royal comforter.
She expressed confidence that the “great advances of science” and the people’s “instinctive compassion to heal” would lead to success. And she evoked the spirit of Winston Churchill, her first Prime Minister.
On June 18, 1940, after Germany had defeated France and Britain stood alone, Churchill gave perhaps his most famous speech, concluding with these words: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
In her 2020 speech, the Queen similarly encouraged her people to take heart by imaging how they will be viewed by Britons of the future:
I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge, and those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any, that the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humored resolve, and of fellow feeling still characterize this country.
She concluded on a hopeful note: “We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.” The last sentence resonated with older members of her audience who recognized We’ll Meet Again as the song that became Britain’s unofficial national anthem during the blitz, made famous by Vera Lynn (who is alive and well at 103).
At its height, almost a quarter of the world’s population and land mass comprised the British Empire. That Empire is smaller today, but the Queen’s message was not confined to its borders. People of other nationalities felt themselves her audience. Inevitably this led to comparisons between the Queen and the world’s political leaders – nearly always to the disadvantage of the latter, especially in the United States.
This is unfair. Much of the mystique of the British monarchy lies in the fact that the Queen is aloof from politics. Regardless of who wins elections, she remains the Queen and the victor becomes her Prime (as in first) Minister. The Queen represents what Charles de Gaulle called l’esprit de la nation. The Prime Minister represents its Chief Executive. Two separate roles for two separate persons.
In the United States, we do things differently. We invest in one person the dual roles of Chief Executive and Head of State. The Presidency is inherently political. As Chief Executive, he (and so far, it has always been a he) must campaign and win votes. Then he must deal with other politicians in Congress to get things done. In performing these duties as Chief Executive, the President also serves as leader of his political party. It is very much a partisan job.
But on occasion, the same Chief Executive and political leader must assume a different persona, and represent the nation as Head of State. In that capacity, he must represent all, even those who bitterly oppose his administration and are actively working to ensure its earliest possible termination.
In our long history, only one President fit both roles comfortably. When George Washington was first elected, there were no political parties. So it was possible for him, the Father of Our Country, to serve as Head of State, the nation’s symbol, at the same time he served as Chief Executive, engaged in the nitty-gritty of running the country.
Since then, no one has served the dual roles as well. The Presidents we consider our greatest – Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt – were intensely divisive figures in their time. We may look at them as successful war leaders of a unified nation, but this is myth. Roosevelt faced his toughest election fight in 1944, and although he ended up the decisive winner, there was real concern in October that his opponent Thomas E. Dewey was gaining strength. Abraham Lincoln expected to lose his reelection bid in 1864, and he would have, if not for the conveniently timed capture of Atlanta by William Tecumseh Sherman in September.
At best, our Presidents have enjoyed transitory moments of filling both roles. Ronald Reagan showed how to do both on January 28, 1986. He was preparing to deliver his State of the Union address to Congress, an inherently political task, when news hit of the explosion of the Challenger, a disaster that took the lives of all seven crew members, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe. The tragedy was broadcast live, and witnessed by schoolchildren across the nation.
He postponed his State of the Union address and delivered a speech made for delivery by a Comforter-in-Chief rather than a Chief Executive. He spoke the name of each crew member in turn, and said “We mourn their loss as a nation together.” Then, projecting the aura of a worldly grandfather, he said:
I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America… I know it’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted. It belongs to the brave.
At that moment, it really didn’t matter to his listeners whether Ronald Reagan was a Republican or a Democrat.
Queen Elizabeth’s Sunday night speech aimed at the same purpose. It was addressed to an audience profoundly shaken by events beyond their control, and it provided comfort and hope. Because of the nature of the jobs, it might be easier for a monarch than for a President or a Prime Minister to accomplish that task. But the monarch must have special qualities of experience and grace to carry it off successfully. Fortunately, Queen Elizabeth was up to the test.