“It was wise not to underestimate her,” former President Bill Clinton said of Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday at the age of 96. “She was a smart person. She knew what she was doing. And she believed that the life she had devoted to preserving the British monarchy was not a wasted life.”
Clinton, like almost every other president since Dwight Eisenhower, made it a point to see – and be seen with – Queen Elizabeth.
Correspondent Rita Braver asked, “Why did American presidents time after time carve out time to do this, to meet with someone who really didn’t have any actual power?”
“You do it the first time because it’s a show of respect to the country,” Clinton replied. “You do it the second or third time – as I did – either because she wants you to and invites you, or because you got something out of it. And I gained a much keener insight into the whole culture of the country.”
Clinton said that during their very first meetings, at a 1994 British state dinner, and a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day, he was impressed by the Queen’s curiosity.
Braver asked, “What did she want to know about, like policy questions?”
“She wanted to know about what was going on in America, how we were dealing with the economic travails we’d been through for the last few years. If she hadn’t been born into royalty, I think she might have made it on her own as a distinguished politician or diplomat.”
“When you are about to meet with the Queen, is there a whole list of instructions that you get?”
“Yes, you’re supposed to say, ‘Your Majesty,’ no matter what!” he laughed.
“And you’re not supposed to have physical contact?”
“No, no, not unless she invites it. If she sticks her hand out, you’re supposed to shake her hand.”
Over the years there were some amusing moments: When President Gerald Ford danced with the Queen, the Marine Band just happened to play “The Lady Is a Tramp.”
She certainly knew how to get a laugh out of Ronald Reagan …
President George W. Bush almost aged the queen by 200 years: “You helped our nation celebrate its bicentennial in 17 … in 1976.”
But the next day, she came right back: “I wondered whether I should start this toast by saying, ‘When I was here in 1776 …'”
But, while 13 presidents came and went, the Queen endured.
Braver asked Clinton, “Is there something she said to you that you particularly remember?”
“There’s one thing, but I can’t really … still, it’s inappropriate to reveal …”
“Oh, come on!”
“Let’s just say this: if she trusted you not to say what she said, she would occasionally say something to remind you that she was all business,” said Clinton. “When I said something that I meant to be supportive, but she may have thought was a tad patronizing? And it was the effect of what she said was, ‘Yes, I quite understand that. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing the way I’m doing it.’ And I loved it, I just loved it. I thought she was a very special person.”
“I think a lot of Americans have just almost seen her as a cut-out figure, and you’re saying she was a heck of a woman?” asked Braver.
“She was an amazing woman,” Clinton replied. “When her own marriage had problems, she felt pain. When her children were troubled, it bothered her, as a mother and as the representative of the country in terms of what it would do to the crown. I’m telling you, she knew that her job was to keep the United Kingdom united, to keep the United Kingdom on track with America.
“There’s something to be said for someone who wants to keep the show on the road, and Queen Elizabeth did. And by and large, she succeeded, often against all the odds.”
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Story produced by Ed Forgotson and Robert Marston. Editor: Chad Cardin.