The Magazine

Pathology of Power

Sally Bedell Smith and the many forms of monarchy.

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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After tales such as this, it is with relief that one turns to Smith’s first book about genuine royalty, Elizabeth II, queen of England for some 60 years now and, by some standards (those of Henry VIII, for example), the least kinglike in manners of all. There are no displays of ego, much less of sadism. Her tastes and her interests are modest and simple. Her surroundings and temperament seem at an impasse: She seems like, and probably is, a good civil servant on a very high level, plunked down in settings of incredible splendor, an upper-middle-class woman who lives in a palace and now and then puts on a tiara and rides in a coach. 

Three of her four children have been divorced (two are remarried) and some of her kin have been fodder for tabloids; but she herself has been happily married for 65 years to the man she fell in love with at the age of 13. One of these things is not like the others, and she is entirely different from Smith’s other subjects, which is a function not only of temperament but of the order of power she wields. 

A great tycoon dominates the organization he owns and has limitless power within it, and the institution is shaped by his character. A president fills an institutional office
with a mystique of its own, infused with his personality, as he tries to advance his agenda. A constitutional monarch such as Elizabeth inhabits a world in which her personality is subsumed by the office she holds. A tycoon or a president leads by imposing his will; Elizabeth has been trained all her life to disguise her intentions. Presidents lead by imposing their preferences, but a queen’s job is to deny that she has any, and, in this, her efforts have met with success. 

“It has also taken vigilance and
discipline for her to keep her views private,” writes Smith. “With the exception of a few relatively inconsequential remarks .  .  . her political views remained a matter of conjecture long after the Sunday Times tried to portray her as a soft Tory, against Margaret Thatcher’s hard line.” The chapters about her relations with Thatcher—the brilliant, abrasive, controversial prime minister—describe the differences between institutional and political leaders, and why the two jobs are so very different. 

One such difference is the active-and-passive discrepancy, a divide which is still more profound. While the others sought out, and fought for, their destinies, Elizabeth was given her job by external forces, through no decision or choice of her own. The lives of presidents and executives involved drama, self-reinvention, and great shifts of fortune—Clinton and Paley rose from obscurity to power and wealth, Kennedy was born to power and wealth but reset his whole life on the death of his brother. Elizabeth was born to her social position, became the heir to the throne while still a child, and has been much the same person for all of her life. 

This person is nicer than Smith’s other subjects; but then, she has never had to be otherwise. They clawed their way up against fierce competition while she ascended serenely, with no opposition, to a life term (or life sentence!) in office. Job security doesn’t seem to be one of her problems: She will never be faced with a primary challenge, and no one is going to run against her for queen. One way of saying this is that presidents, by definition, are abnormal people who fight for and largely enjoy their own power, while royals, more or less, are normal people who find themselves by sheer happenstance in an office much larger than life. 

As Smith says, “The story of Elizabeth II turns on what she made of the life that was given her.” With the others, it turns on the lives that they invented. 

Elizabeth’s luck—and her country’s—is that she seems wholly designed for the life that fate gave her. She is highly intelligent in a practical, commonsense manner, strong-minded while being nonconfrontational, perceptive while being non-otherworldly, reliable, calm, and diplomatic by nature, a woman whose constant, dependable presence makes her a sturdy sheet anchor in times of high tides and strong winds. 

This is in contrast to her son, the prince of Wales, who has, over the years, “questioned the values of a materialistic consumer society, denounced climate change skeptics, called for a ‘revolution’ in the Western world’s ‘mechanistic approaches to science,’ ” and attacked genetically modified crops for “jeopardizing the delicate balance of nature”—for which he was condemned by his father and sister, who have done a great deal of charity work against hunger and said that without such crops, millions of people would starve.