Queen Elizabeth II and Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess… (Leon Neal /AFP/Getty Images )
No one does pageantry like the British, whether it’s an annual event (the State Opening of Parliament) or a daily one (changing the guard at Buckingham Palace.) So, of course, the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, commemorating her 60 years on the throne, launched an outsize celebration in London, including a flotilla of 1,000 boats sailing on the Thames in a downpour Sunday while the London Philharmonic played and a choir on a barge floated by, lustily singing “God Save the Queen” with rain-soaked hair plastered against their faces. On Monday night, the queen was serenaded in concert outside Buckingham Palace by Paul McCartney and Elton John, who fittingly sang his defiant “I’m Still Standing” to the 86-year-old monarch. On Tuesday afternoon, Royal Air Force planes flew over the palace in formation as the queen and her family stood on a balcony.
The only vaguely restrained aspect of this four-day effusive display was the queen herself, who showed her customary composure whether she was standing on the royal barge for hours in the cold or watching fireworks in front of Buckingham Palace. A smile, sometimes a grin, a wave of an always gloved hand. As she stood on the balcony of Buckingham Palace before a throng of thousands on Tuesday, she was thought to have mouthed the word “amazing.”
That calm reserve and hardiness have been Elizabeth’s hallmarks for decades. She’s changed with the times enough to look relatively modern -- electing to pay taxes; accepting her children’s very public divorces, romantic scandals and remarriages; letting her grandson, William, tear up the list of royal courtier-approved guests for his wedding when he told her that most of them were strangers to him and his fiancee.
Photos: Queen Elizabeth II through the years
Yet she maintains the traditions of royalty -- the palaces and castles, the dogs, the horses -- enough to satisfy tourists and traditionalists. Though it’s difficult to think of a job in which you have ladies-in-waiting as any kind of heavy lifting, she has said, time and again, that she considers herself to be serving her country and she will keep at it until she drops -- which she shows no signs of doing, as she ably demonstrated in the last few days.
While other royals-by-birth are either dictators oppressing their people or cashiered heads of kingdoms lolling their lives away on Mediterranean islands, Elizabeth has managed to stay respected and respectable. When she was crowned, Winston Churchill was prime minister (and a big fan of hers). She’s met every sitting American president since 1952 -- except Lyndon Johnson -- and, as far as I can tell, carried the same handbag for the last 60 years. Or just the same style.
She may be the only famous woman in history who makes the wearing of diamonds, pearls and tiaras (she has one of the largest jewelry collections in the world) look less Marie Antoinette frivolous and more Hillary Rodham Clinton businesslike.
Being royal without being pretentious seems to have held her in good stead for 60 years. What presidential candidates wouldn’t give their war chests for that sea of flag-waving fans outside Buckingham Palace?
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God save Queen Elizabeth -- and then what?