In Britain, the death of Queen Elizabeth II will bring visible changes to everyday life, including new currency, postboxes, and maybe the loss of a few commonwealth countries. In America, we’re losing one time-honored tradition, too: watching our leaders make fools of themselves as they try to behave appropriately around a monarch we rejected at our founding.
Throughout her 70-year reign, the queen worked to reinforce the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, meeting with each of the last 14 presidents, except Lyndon Johnson (she made up for it by meeting Herbert Hoover more than 20 years after he left office). While the ascension of King Charles III shouldn’t have any concrete impact on diplomatic relations between the two allies, we can certainly expect a vibe shift: Polls show that while his mother was the most popular living monarch among Americans, King Charles and Camilla, the Queen Consort, are two of the least popular royals – and as Politico notes, their favorability ratings may sink even further when Republicans learn about the new king’s climate-centered political activism.
So will there will be a “social media frenzy” the next time a U.S. president walks slightly ahead of King Charles? As Intelligencer’s foremost monarchy expert (because I watched Spencer and own a hilarious shot glass celebrating Charles and Camilla’s wedding), I say no. So to commemorate the end of an era of presidential kowtowing to British monarchy, here’s the definitive ranking of how U.S. leaders comported themselves during visits with the queen, listed from most to least disastrous.
13. The Kennedys Serve Up Divorcée Drama
Everyone looked fantastic during John and Jackie Kennedy’s visit to Buckingham Palace in June 1961, but the trip was so drama-filled that The Crown devoted an entire episode to it. The Netflix show has been criticized for taking artistic license with the royals’ lives, and we’ll never know if the queen was actually jealous of stylish First Lady. But according to Reader’s Digest the Kennedy’s dinner at the palace was a “minefield”:
The guest list has been the subject of negotiation: Traditionally, divorcées are not invited, so the queen has been reluctant to welcome Jackie’s sister Princess Lee Radziwill, who is on her second marriage, or her husband, Prince Stanislaw Radziwill, who is on his third. Under pressure, she relents, but, by way of retaliation, singularly fails to invite Princess Margaret or Princess Marina, both of whose names Jackie has put forward. Jackie’s old paranoia returns: She sees it as a plot to do her down. “The queen had her revenge,” she confides to Gore Vidal. “No Margaret, no Marina, no one except every Commonwealth minister of agriculture they could find.”
Jackie reportedly told Vidal, “I think the queen resented me. Philip was nice, but nervous. One felt absolutely no relationship between them.” She described the queen as “pretty heavy going,” and when Vidal repeated this to Princess Margaret years later, she responded, “But that’s what she’s there for.”
12. Carter Plants an Unwanted Kiss
There’s breaking protocol and then there’s giving the Queen Mother an unwanted kiss on the lips, which is something President Jimmy Carter inexplicably did during his May 1977 visit to Buckingham Palace. If the kiss was caught on video, it hasn’t made its way to YouTube, but the Queen Mother later described the incident, which she found mortifying. “Nobody has done that since my husband died,” she said. “I took a sharp step backwards – not quite far enough.”
11. Ford Faces the Music
President Ford and the queen looked magnificent as they took to the dance floor during a bicentennial state dinner on July 7, 1976. Too bad the Marine Band accidentally struck up “The Lady is a Tramp” just at that moment.
As described in the video below, the queen was also subjected to the Fords’ shirtless, boxer-short clad son while exiting a White House elevator.
10. George Bush Strikes Out
You would think the Bush family would have a particular affinity for hereditary monarchy, but maybe not. The queen’s 1991 state visit to the U.S. got off to a rough start when no one adjusted the lectern for her after the much-taller President George H.W. Bush spoke at her arrival ceremony. All you could see was the queen’s hat. She later opened her address to a joint session of Congress by quipping, “I do hope you can see me today from where you are.” The audience laughed and clapped, but the queen didn’t crack a smile.
The Bushes later took her to a baseball game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland Athletics. She was stationed in a dugout, and a procession of sweaty players proceeded to shake her hand. This week, Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart told USA Today that he tried to joke with the queen:
“I remember like it was yesterday. We were all lined up to meet her in that procession,” recalls Stewart, whose No. 34 will be retired by the A’s on Sunday. “So Three Stooges was one my favorite comedies. … So when she passed (in line), I did like a Three Stooges thing: ‘Queenie, nyuk nyuk.’
“She laughed. Well, cracked a smile. … Put it like that. The rest of the team was cracking up.
“It was cool for me. I’m sure it was for everybody too, but I had to go act like a god-dang fool.”
The announcers’ commentary in the MLB video below is very American and borderline rude, so if you’re “not the biggest fan of the queen,” enjoy.
9. W. Shows He’s a Chip Off the Old Block
Somehow, President George W. Bush managed to have a more respectful visit with the queen than his dad did, but he still tripped over his words, suggesting that she was alive back in 1776.
8. Nixon Fails to Nab His Prince
Nixon met the queen twice when he was serving as vice president. According to the Associated Press, on one of those occasions he was “wearing a borrowed tuxedo that did not fit” but “the Queen seemed not to notice.”
After Nixon became president, he was invited to Buckingham Palace, and the following year Prince Charles and Princess Anne were invited to the White House. Charles later described the visit as “quite amusing,” saying, “That was the time they were trying to marry me off to Tricia Nixon,” the First Daughter.
7. Trump Stays on His Best Behavior
Despite the uproar surrounding Trump’s state visits to the U.K. in 2018 and 2019, he was shockingly well-behaved with the queen herself. Trump took a lot of flak for breaching protocol by briefly walking in front of her during the first trip, and placing his hand on her back in a gesture of thanks during the second trip. But just take a look at his appropriate, ad lib-free toast to the queen. If you didn’t know anything else about Trump you might think he’s a normal president.
6. Biden Gives the Queen Shade
President Biden met the queen multiple times during his long political career, most recently in June 2021. Biden kept his sunglasses on as he and the queen inspected a guard of honor at Windsor Castle, which is apparently yet another breach of protocol, but it seems like a pretty innocuous gaffe. I read political news all day and don’t even remembering this happening, so it seems he emerged unscathed.
5. Clinton Enjoys Smooth Sailing
After Jimmy Carter got a bit too familiar with her mother, Queen Elizabeth might have been nervous about experiencing another U.S. president’s take on Southern hospitality. But the Clintons’ first meeting with the queen, an overnight stay on the royal yacht in 1994, proceeded without incident.
4. The Obamas Hug It Out
In her book Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama recalled that she committed an “epic faux pas” by putting her arm around the queen’s shoulder – but the queen was into it. “She only pulled closer, resting a gloved hand lightly on the small of my back,” Obama wrote.
During a subsequent visit, the queen invited Mobama to sit in back of her Range Rover with her and the First Lady hesitated. According to journalist Ashley Pearson, the queen asked, “Have they warned you that you can’t do this?” When Obama said yes, the queen replied, “Rubbish — you can sit wherever you want.”
3. Truman Grins and Blairs It
Then-Princess Elizabeth made her first trip to America in 1951, dropping by D.C. for just two days when the White House was undergoing a major renovation. She and Prince Philip stayed in the First Family’s temporary home at Blair House, and President Truman gushed over the young couple, saying they “completely captured the hearts of all of us.”
2. Eisenhower Cooks Up Goodwill, Pancakes
Elizabeth first encountered General Dwight Eisenhower when he came to Windsor Castle for a tour during World War II. They met for the first time as president and queen in October 1957, when Ike held a state dinner in her honor. During Eisenhower’s visit to Balmoral Castle two years later, he raved about the queen’s drop scones (a.k.a. Scottish pancakes) and she sent him the recipe in a handwritten letter.
1. Reagan Bonds With the Original Horse Girl
Queen Elizabeth’s relationship to Ronald Reagan “was very close—more than any other president,” according to historian Craig Shirley. They connected over their shared love of horses, taking rides together during their multiple visits in the U.S. and U.K.
During the queen’s first trip to California in 1983, Shirley recalled at Fox News, the two couples wound up sharing an unexpected adventure:
Bad weather and fog stopped the planned trip into Santa Barbara on the queen’s yacht, Britannia. So they drove up to the [Reagan] ranch instead – along a steep and harrowing seven-mile road with no guard rails.
The road became so treacherous, midway, they had to get out of their bulletproof limos and switch to SUVs. They later feasted on Mexican cuisine, a favorite of Reagan’s. The food included enchiladas, refried beans and guacamole. Not your normal British cuisine.
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the queen — who preferred well-done meat and hated garlic — digging into a big plate of enchiladas, but apparently she really did enjoy the Reagans. According to her press secretary, the queen described the trip as “delightful and terribly exciting,” and their friendship continued even after Reagan left office. Maybe the other presidents should have concentrated less on proving they could mind their manners and more on showing the queen a genuinely good time.
More on the royals
- Sorry, Americans, But King Charles May Hate Us
- King Charles III’s First Major Challenge Is Fancy Pens
- Charles in Charge