Constancy in a World of Change
Reflecting on 70 years of leadership that includes Queen Elizabeth II and President Dwight Eisenhower
In 1953, the year Elizabeth was coronated—16 months after she became queen—Dwight Eisenhower was inaugurated as US president, Josef Stalin died, Nikita Khrushchev took over the Soviet Communist Party, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed, James Watson and Francis Crick were credited with discovering the Double-Helix, Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Female—and the average cost of a new house was $9,550.
From that time, the world was certain to change. The British empire—with 70 territories when Elizabeth became queen—would see its imperial power dissipate, contracting to 14 overseas territories today as colonies in Africa, Asia and the Middle East pursued their independence. Despite the oft-repeated assertion that “the sun will never set on the British empire,” the fiery globe is barely poking its head above the horizon these days.
Still, for Britain, the US and much of the world, Queen Elizabeth offered stability at a time of declining prestige. She saw 15 British prime ministers and 14 US presidents come and go. Nine out of ten of her subjects have never known another queen or king.
And whether you love or hate the monarchy—whether you wish it would be swept away as an antiquated and poisonous embodiment of colonial rule or hope it survives to continue airing as the perfect soap opera with a dysfunctional family and fancy drapery—it’s hard to refute that Elizabeth represented dignity, grace and constancy as the winds of change and volatility swirled about. Truth is, in her determination to maintain public silence about what she really thought, she made it possible for people to stand by her even if they might have disagreed vehemently with her privately held views.
In the days and weeks ahead, we all will be bombarded with accounts from British historians, royal family observers, anglophile American journalists and other wags who’ve been waiting years, even decades, to unleash and unspool what they’ve collected. No point for me to compete with the coming onslaught.
Rather, before a few final words about Britain’s longest-reigning monarch who died yesterday at the age of 96, I’d like to rewind for a moment to 1953 and the inauguration speech of newly sworn in President Eisenhower. His remarks offer a window into not only his personal mindset but to the values that he thought best represented America. Yes, they may arrive from dusty archives seven decades old, but they remind us that the fundamental principles intended to define America sound anything but antiquated—and still inspire vigor and verve.
Eisenhower’s was a vision of equality and dignity, which he expressed with knowing confidence. His worldview incorporated a notion of public service and a recognition that, without vigilance and dedication, treasonous enemies could strip it all away.
“We know that the virtues most cherished by free people—love of truth, pride of work, devotion to country—all are treasures equally precious in the lives of the most humble and of the most exalted,” Eisenhower asserted. “The men who mine coal and fire furnaces, and balance ledgers, and turn lathes, and pick cotton, and heal the sick and plant corn—all serve as proudly and as profitably for America as the statesmen who draft treaties and the legislators who enact laws.
“This faith rules our whole way of life,” he continued. “It decrees that we, the people, elect leaders not to rule but to serve...And it warns that any man who seeks to deny equality among all his brothers betrays the spirit of the free and invites the mockery of the tyrant.”
Mind you, these are the words of a Republican president, committed to serving all Americans. From today’s perspective, it can seem hard to imagine, at least until you remember that his views were hardened in the firestorm of the Nazis and other fascists. Eisenhower continued:
It is because we, all of us, hold to these principles that the political changes accomplished this day do not imply turbulence, upheaval or disorder. Rather this change expresses a purpose of strengthening our dedication and devotion to the precepts of our founding documents, a conscious renewal of faith in our country and in the watchfulness of a Divine Providence.
It is almost as if he was reaching out from his time to our own: “The enemies of this faith know no god but force, no devotion but its use. They tutor men in treason. They feed upon the hunger of others. Whatever defies them, they torture, especially the truth.”
Less than five months after this speech, a 27-year-old woman crowned queen of England, shared her own words of inspiration, words that we can now see carried her through nearly 70 years leading the monarchy. “I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart, I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.”
And the shape of that service, as articulated that day? “Parliamentary institutions,” she said, “with their free speech and respect for the rights of minorities, and the inspiration of a broad tolerance in thought and expression—all this we conceive to be a precious part of our way of life and outlook.”
In the days ahead, much will be made of the view—and reasonably so—that the monarchy has been a destructive colonizing force, an anachronism in a world in which equality and democracy should lead, and possessing responsibility for the bloodshed and loss of life among the colonized who sought escape from British servitude.
But the impulses of its sovereign, were she less influenced by ideas of “broad tolerance” and a monarchy expected to respect all its people, could have led to far worse outcomes. She ended her coronation remarks by urging her subjects to “cherish” and practice these “living principles.” Then, “we can go forward together in peace, seeking justice and freedom for all men.”
Words worth remembering.
Just a few other points on breaking news from yesterday, both offering reasons for optimism. First, Steve Bannon was seen in Manhattan’s New York County Supreme Court in handcuffs, braying hollowly, “I have not yet begun to fight.” He was there because he allegedly swindled MAGA marks out of millions of dollars in his private “Build the Wall” fundraising scam, now faces a six-count indictment on charges of money laundering, conspiracy and scheming to defraud—and likely will end up with a multiyear prison sentence.
Thursday was also the day when the Department of Justice pushed back against Judge Aileen Cannon and her careless ruling to insert a special master and slow the criminal investigation of Trump and review of classified records retrieved from Mar-a-Lago, including ones involving nuclear capabilities of a foreign government. “The Intelligence Community’s classification review and national security risk assessment are inextricably linked with the criminal investigation,” they asserted, and Cannon’s ruling is “risking irreparable harm to our national security and intelligence interests.”
It remains to be seen whether Cannon will take advantage of the DOJ’s powerfully reasoned request and avoid an appeal, recognizing their assertion that they are still seeking to determine if other highly sensitive documents are still missing. But both this filing and a cuffed Bannon offer signs of hope that justice is still on the horizon.
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