Joe Biden’s visit to Queen Elizabeth will require of her none of the diplomatic skills that Donald Trump’s 2019 visit did. Instead, her focus will be on banishing talk of abdication and racism.
The British monarch rarely lets us into her head. On the rare occasions when she or somebody close to her lets slip what the queen thinks of this or that person (like an “uncaring” Margaret Thatcher), or what she thinks of this or that policy (like Brexit), it often makes constitutional and diplomatic waves.
But it seemed fairly obvious at the time that the days of the two appearances of Donald Trump at Windsor Castle were not her best on record. Thousands of Brits protested the visit.
The queen looked stiff and formal with the Trumps. There was certainly none of the easy intimacy that characterized her interactions with the Obamas, whom the queen and Prince Philip famously picked up themselves from the helipad, with Philip driving the Range Rover. Barack sat upfront while the ladies took the back seats.
The queen almost always prefers to let her actions do the talking, and for that reason it will be fascinating to compare the way in which she greets Joe Biden and his wife Dr Jill Biden on Sunday, June 13—announced Thursday—with her manner towards Trump (professional courtesy) and the Obamas (as close to fangirl as she ever got).
The writer Matthew Dennison, whose new biography of the queen is published this week, told The Daily Beast: “My understanding is that the queen will approach both visits from the same perspective: in her role as head of state, formally welcoming the leader of Britain’s most powerful ally on behalf of the British people. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the queen is both pragmatic and practical; she understands the impact of her own soft power in these cases and she recognizes the importance of the royal role in British diplomacy.”
“Obviously, palace officials will anticipate Biden’s own behavior being less controversial than that of his predecessor—the queen wouldn’t allow herself to express a view.”
— Matthew Dennison
But will she be happier about the prospect of meeting Biden than Trump? “Obviously, palace officials will anticipate Biden’s own behavior being less controversial than that of his predecessor—the queen wouldn’t allow herself to express a view. Biden’s understated manner and old-fashioned courtesy ought to commend him in royal circles.”
Joe Little, the managing editor of Majesty magazine, told The Daily Beast: “This will be a very affable meeting, and whatever form it takes, whether tea or lunch, it is likely to be very relaxed. This is one head of state meeting another. It is something she clearly enjoys and is good at on a personal and diplomatic level. Whatever stress other people might have felt at the queen meeting Donald Trump, the queen herself would not have been stressed by the prospect. She has met all sorts of people from all walks of life.”
And yet it would feel odd if the grieving monarch were not to connect easily with Biden, who has his own bitter experience of that cruel emotion.
Biden wrote privately to her after the death of her husband, as The Daily Beast has reported, and issued a public statement saying: “From his service during World War II, to his 73 years alongside the Queen, and his entire life in the public eye—Prince Philip gladly dedicated himself to the people of the U.K., the Commonwealth, and to his family.”
Meeting the queen is now a rite of passage for American presidents. After Biden departs, the queen will likely be the only person on the planet who is able to say she has met 14 of the last 15 American presidents (Lyndon B. Johnson is the odd man out; he declined the offer of a state visit to the U.K. because he was so enraged by the then-Labor government’s lack of support for America in the Vietnam War.)
Usually it is understood that while the encounter may be an interesting enough way for the monarch to pass the time, meeting the queen is usually of more PR value to a visiting head of state than Her Majesty, who undertakes these tasks at the request of the Foreign Office.
“For a family so vested in the symbolism of their actions, the message here may as well be written in 60-point type: The lady is not for quitting.”
Sunday’s meeting, however, has a special significance to the monarchy as it is by far the queen’s highest profile public engagement since Philip’s death.
And for a family so vested in the symbolism of their actions, the message here may as well be written in 60-point type: The lady is not for quitting.
Royal sources have indicated to The Daily Beast that they are very happy for the queen’s meeting with Biden to be interpreted as a physical statement of her ongoing commitment to her duty, echoing the remarks she made on her 21st birthday (which are given some prominence on the royal family’s website) when she said, in a radio address: “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.”
The “imperial family” may be gone, but the queen’s appearance alongside Biden makes it very clear: She is going nowhere. She has no intention of stepping back or standing down from her frontline royal duties in the wake of her husband’s death.
Although the queen has appeared in public several times now since Philip’s passing, this will be by far the most public demonstration of her continuing commitment to her royal role since he died.
Comparisons to Queen Victoria’s 40-year mourning for Albert are being very obviously kicked into the long grass. Within the palace the visit of the American president is clearly understood as a marker, that Her Majesty has no intention of quasi-abdicating in favor of her son Charles.
The meeting with Biden will, symbolically enough, be taking place just three days after her husband would have celebrated his centenary, which would have been marked with much pomp and ceremony (despite the fact that Philip himself was said to have been an unwilling celebrant).
Now, it is the meeting of Biden, 78, and the queen, 95, which will steal the headlines.
The meeting was announced on Thursday, just as the palace was pushing back against an extraordinary revelation by British newspaper the Guardian that the palace explicitly banned non-white individuals from taking office jobs in the royal family as late as 1968, and carved themselves out an exemption from British equality legislation which continues to this day.
The palace told The Daily Beast that the Guardian’s report was based on “a second hand account of conversations from over 50 years ago” and said such accounts “should not be used to draw or infer conclusions about modern day events or operations.”
It was a surprisingly sharp and specific rebuttal of the charges, and in disputing the accuracy of a “second hand account” it carried a whiff of the hand which penned the phrase “recollections may vary” to try and take the heat out of Harry and Meghan’s allegations of racism.
The British press, other than the Guardian, was already looking unwilling to devote much time or space to the racism story, preferring instead to focus on the announcement of a four-day weekend in 2022 to celebrate the queen’s platinum anniversary. Coupled with the announcement of the Biden visit underlines a ruthless royal PR principle: When you are queen, there is always a bigger, better and more glamorous event coming up very shortly.
And if it doesn’t involve having to smile through gritted teeth at Donald Trump, so much the better.