World

Joe Biden has tea with the Queen: Six takeaways from a closely watched visit

Maclean's royal watcher Patricia Treble on the Queen's brooch, Biden's sunglasses and a monarch who is clearly back to enjoying herself

Queen Elizabeth II was born in 1926 and grew up in palaces and castles; Joe Biden was born 16 years later in Scranton, Penn. Their backgrounds couldn’t be more different, yet they have lots of characteristics in common.

Both have chosen lives of public service, and continue to work well past the usual age of retirement. Each has a famously good sense of humour, yet has also worked hard to overcome traits that others might have found limiting: she is a naturally reserved woman; he has a stutter. Both are heads of large families to which they are devoted, even when those same relatives are the sources of angst and negative headlines.

Until a reception and dinner during this week’s G7 summit in Cornwall, England, the monarch and the president hadn’t met since 1982, according to White House reporters. Yet first impressions of that brief encounter were of two professionals at ease with each other, comfortable on the world stage and with the attention focused on their meeting.

On Sunday, as the G7 summit was ending, Joe and Jill Biden flew to Windsor Castle for a one-on-one meeting with the Queen, including an inspection of a guard of honour, and afternoon tea. No other leader got such an opportunity, but then, no other leader is as important to the future of the United Kingdom as the president of the United States. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau settled for a video audience with the Queen of Canada. And, as with the visit of the Trumps, the Queen was on her dais inside Windsor Castle, waiting for the Bidens to arrive, although no, she didn’t generate memes by glancing at her watch like she did three years ago to make sure the carefully timed schedule was being adhered to.

“It was a charm offensive” on the Queen’s part, said Kate Bennett of CNN, of the events the monarch attended at Windsor Castle and earlier at the G7 summit. “The soft power of the royal family is not to be underestimated,” explained royal biographer Sally Bedell Smith, who suggested the next big royal tour by Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, would be to the United States (previous visits have been brief).

The symbolism of the visit to Windsor Castle is not to be underestimated, either. The Queen has met 13 out of the past 14 presidents of the United States (the exception is Lyndon Johnson), and such frequency speaks to the importance of personal relationships between monarch and presidents.

Six takeaways from Sunday’s meeting:

The Queen is a consummate professional

She’s been the face of the United Kingdom for 69 years and has a reputation for never revealing what she thinks of a politician, any politician. Her experience and interest means she has an encyclopedic knowledge of world leaders and events. After the tea ended, Joe Biden called her “very gracious,” saying, “She reminded me of my mother.” Then he  revealed that Elizabeth II had asked him about Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s president, Xi Jinping. 

Now, we have to talk about her brooch. Seriously.

When then-President Donald Trump visited her in 2018, social media lit up with ill-informed theories that she was secretly dissing the U.S. leader through her choice of brooches. The entire affair was dubbed Broochgate and its theories were both popular and ludicrous, so much so that I and others who study royal jewellery (yes, it’s a thing) spent a lot of time pointing out the many holes in their theories, some large enough to swallow a castle or two.

So, for the record: when the Queen first met Joe and Jill Biden at the G7 leaders reception and dinner on Friday evening, she chose to pin a brooch to her floral dress that had absolutely no specific connection to any of the countries. Her sorghum brooch, a diamond-and-gold floral piece representing a spray of sorghum (millet), had been a gift from the president of Botswana in 2007 during a Commonwealth leaders’ meeting.

On Sunday, she wore one of her favourites, her Jardine Star Brooch, a Victorian diamond star design given to the sovereign by Lady Jardine in 1981. It is “a natural choice for an American presidential visit, given its starry design,” says Lauren Kiehna, who has a royal jewellery site, The Court Jeweller. “The Queen has worn the brooch at least two other times for presidential meetings: with George H.W. Bush in 1993, and with his son, George W. Bush, in 2003.”

And given that it has been worn when meeting both Republican and Democratic presidents, it’s hard to see how it could be seen as anything by royally apolitical.

The Queen is back and enjoying herself

After 69 years on the job, she has nothing to prove. She genuinely enjoys her job and likes meeting people. She could have stayed in Windsor Castle, where she sheltered during the pandemic, leaving it to Prince Charles to lead the royal contingent at the G7. She has the best of excuses: her husband, Prince Philip, died at 99 just two months ago. But she didn’t. Instead, she undertook more public engagements in the past week than she’s done since the pandemic started.

If this marked Biden’s entry on the world stage as U.S. President, then the events of the past few days, culminating with her invitation for tea at Windsor, marked the Queen’s re-entry into her public life of duty.

Along the way, she grabbed the media spotlight from the politicians, reminding everyone that, in a crowd of people whose every utterance or action could spawn headlines around the world, she is the brightest star. As the leaders at the G7 summit in Cornwall, England, organized themselves around her for a group photo, she asked, “Are you supposed to look as if you’re enjoying yourself?” Amid laughs from the politicians, her British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, replied, “Yes.”

Earlier, at a community lunch organized to thank area volunteers “for their efforts supporting their communities through the challenges of the past year,” as the royal press release explained, the Queen asked Col. Edward Bolitho, the Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, to surrender his ceremonial sword (specifically a Mameluke sword, reportedly the favourite weapon of the Duke of Wellington).

The tiny monarch wanted the sword to cut a cake, even though it was almost half her height. When gently reminded that a knife had been provided for the cake-cutting, she retorted, “I know there is! This is something that is more unusual.” In the end, the combination of a heavy sword, 95-year-old gloved hands and the need to keep holding onto her purse proved too much. Her daughter-in-law, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who has a fondness for using such weapons to cut cakes, finished the royal duty for the Queen.

During the Windsor Castle visit, she looked both relaxed and confident. She’s done scores, if not hundreds, of similar events and knows exactly what to do and how everything should look.

Her staff are consummate professionals 

They knew that everyone would be comparing this Windsor Castle visit to the one three years before. Everything had to be seen to be equal, whether the guest of honour is a Republican or Democratic president. They want attention focused on the meeting itself, not speculation as to whether the Queen was making her pleasure or displeasure known through the ceremonial aspects of the short visit.

So while the soldiers being inspected may have changed (Grenadier Guards in 2021; Coldstream Guards in 2018), virtually nothing else did. The operational notes from Buckingham Palace that explained what would happen during the 2018 visit to Windsor Castle by Donald and Melania Trump is almost word-for-word the same as that for the visit by President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill.

The only thing out of their control is whether the visiting head of state has actually read the briefing material and knows exactly where to stand and how to proceed. Three years ago, Donald Trump blocked the Queen’s path during their inspection of the guard of honour. He looked unsure where he should go next, though the Queen ignored the faux pas, directing him to his required position and continuing as if nothing unusual had occurred. When it was Biden’s turn, the Democratic president looked tentative while inspecting the guard of honour (though he’d clearly been briefed) and seemed happiest when that part of the visit was over.

Even the official photographs documenting the respective visits of the Trumps and Bidens were taken at exactly the same spot inside the castle.

The Queen is 95

The Queen did not accompany Biden as he inspected the guard of honour like she did with Trump in 2018—a significant change. The likely reason is that most unmentionable reality: she’s three years older than when the last American president arrived by helicopter in Windsor Home Park to have tea with her.

When one is a nonagenarian, three years is a long time, especially for a monarch whose husband died two months earlier and who spent the past few days entertaining G7 leaders, as well as marking her own official birthday with a pandemic-sized Trooping the Colour at the same location inside the walls of Windsor Castle.

And that brings us to the next item.

Donald Trump can still boast of one one royal exclusive

The Queen accompanied him as he inspected the guard of honour, which appears to be the only time she’s done that for a foreign head of state in Britain.

After the event, Trump boasted that the Queen “reviewed her honour guard for the first time in 70 years, they tell me. We walked in front of the Honour Guard and that was very inspiring to see and be with her.” His pronouncement was initially ridiculed—Queen Elizabeth II has inspected umpteen honour guards in her life. Yet his garbled account contained nuggets of truth. For when foreign heads of state came to Britain, they were usually accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip. I and three royal experts scoured research books and could find no other instance of the Queen walking beside a foreign head of state as that leader inspected a guard of honour in Britain.

Joe Biden looked a bit nervous

Biden has been on the world stage for years but even he looked just a little unsure of himself during this public event, which was packed with military pomp and royal ceremony. He was on the Queen’s turf, playing by her rules, and it showed. At one point, squinting in the strong sun, he reached into his pocket as if to retrieve his aviator sunglasses, which he’d removed earlier. Then he glanced at the Queen and, perhaps thinking better of the action, stopped.  (And no, Biden initially wearing sunglasses in brilliant sun isn’t a gaffe; the Queen has done the same at past engagements. Just google “Queen sunglasses.”) When Donald Trump met the Queen again in 2019 for a state visit at Buckingham Palace, he looked so nervous and subdued that his trademark aggressive handshake was reduced to an awkward fist bump.

Jill Biden, on the other hand, looked like she was having a thoroughly enjoyable time. Then again, she’s spent years in classrooms. There is no training for handling pressure like being a teacher.