Back in May 2012, Barack and Michelle Obama made a state visit to the UK that involved the usual photo-friendly rigmarole such as wreath-laying and Beefeater-inspecting. They also spent the night at Buckingham Palace and attended a state dinner in their honour where Obama gave a short speech and toast to the Queen. Journalists, however, noticed something unusual about the man who is one of the most eloquent politicians of all time: he was nervous.
“You could really see that he seemed a bit anxious,” recalled Max Foster, CNN’s royal correspondent. But if the Obamas displayed characteristic American hesitancy about royal protocol, they also shared that equally typical American sentiment in having an enormous fondness for the Queen. According to Foster, Obama later told the US ambassador that his visits to Britain were among his favourite trips abroad.
More illustrative of the closeness between the Queen and the Obamas was a moment that came the following year after the state dinner when the then US president and first lady were back at Buckingham Palace for a G20 reception. To the astonishment of the press, Michelle Obama put a friendly arm around the Queen, who warmly reciprocated the gesture. The Daily Mail gasped and described the moment as “electrifying”.
Few countries are as obsessed with celebrity as the US, and royals are the ultimate celebrity, being exotically unattainable and – unlike most other celebrities – intriguingly silent. Even the most arrogant come over all awed in her presence. When then president Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, made their 2019 state visit, he might not have understood royal protocol, occasionally walking in front of the Queen during a parade, but he was still uncharacteristically respectful in her presence.
Later, he told American journalists that the Queen hadn’t “had as much fun in 25 years” as she had with him. Buckingham Palace declined to comment. It was perhaps because Trump was just too much fun that the palace did not let him stay there during his visit, even though it had hosted the Obamas and the Bushes. It was a sign of how much the normally hyper-touchy Trump reveres the Queen that he did not take this as a slight. It was also a sign of how much Americans respect the Queen that they eagerly looked for silent messages from her expressing her mockery of their divisive president: was she trolling him by giving him a book as a present? Were there messages in her tiaras?
Just as Brits sought hidden meaning in her jewels during the EU referendum, Americans saw in the Queen a silent source of wisdom. The chaos surrounding Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex’s move to California only elevated the Queen in the eyes of many: Harry and Meghan have become a reality TV show, but the Queen is a blockbuster epic.
US royal correspondents agreed that, when it came to the British royal family – and that is, bluntly speaking, the only royal family Americans have ever taken an interest in – the ones Americans tuned in for were Princes William and Harry, Princess Diana, the Duchess of Cambridge and the Queen.
The princes and the Duchess of Cambridge are the most celebrity-like of the royals: they look like the kind of glossy pin-ups American teenagers get excited about and have been treated accordingly, attracting screaming fans and paparazzi.
The Queen, by contrast, was held in respectful fascination. She was popular from the beginning of her reign – the US magazine Time decreed her “woman of the year” in 1952 – and she was largely spared the criticism she suffered in the UK after Diana’s death.
Instead, she was consistently seen by the US public as a combination of a noble stateswoman, a character out of an ancient fairytale, and a mother. Not even the scandal around Prince Andrew damaged her image abroad, and no one ever suggested that she might have been the royal who allegedly made racist comments to Meghan. The US coverage of the diamond jubilee in 2012 was remarkable in terms of its ubiquity and its deferential tone.
“Americans were very reverential of the Queen,” said Foster. “With William and Kate they want to know about their daily lives but with the Queen they were always fascinated with her as an icon.”
It was the Queen’s parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who laid the groundwork for the American public’s relationship with her when they paid the first visit to the US by a British monarch in June 1939 at the invitation of President Roosevelt, just before the outbreak of war. The visit was a huge – and somewhat surprising – public relations coup for the palace, and thawed Anglo-American relations. It also established the royal family in the minds of Americans as a glamorous, benign force, one beyond politics but important in terms of diplomacy. As one newsreel commentator noted during the visit, the last time the British had visited, it had been “to burn the White House”.
Lauren Collins, European writer for the New Yorker, said: “Americans are interested in the Queen for the same reason Brits are interested in Las Vegas: she seems wonderfully exotic. Besides that, she offers Americans a portal to a grandiosely imagined past.”
She also served as a unifying force for American politicians. “Politicians loved having their photos taken with the Queen,” said Foster, “and the American public loved seeing her in photos with all the presidents. She linked them. The only other person who had such an international presence for them was Nelson Mandela.”
She was comfortable with them all, even managing to look more glamorous than Jackie Kennedy during the Kennedys’ 1961 visit to the UK. Well, nearly all: welcoming her on a 2007 visit to the US, George W Bush was his usual Bush-like self. “You’ve dined with 10 US presidents,” he said. “You helped this country celebrate its bicentennial in 17 – er, 1976.” And how did the Queen react to being aged by two centuries? According to Bush: “She gave me a look only a mother could give a child.”