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Mary McGrory

The Queen Mum's Example

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, April 11, 2002; Page A29

God bless the Queen Mother of England. She served us in death as she did in life. The funeral of the woman who behaved so well gave us an hour's respite from a wraparound spectacle of violence, cruelty and witlessness. Just seeing soldiers holding guns they didn't fire was a treat. And it was nice to see CNN's Christiane Amanpour in Westminster Abbey instead of a box seat at the Middle East carnage.

I am totally in agreement with the London trader who told an Associated Press interviewer he thought it was right "to give the old girl a proper send-off."

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The Queen Mother learned long ago in an earlier war on terrorism, the Battle of Britain. She understood that the first law of politics is to be there. When the Luftwaffe was raining bombs on the Thames, it was suggested that she take her two daughters to a safe haven across the water. She scoffed at the notion. Her girls, she said would not leave without her, she would not leave without the king, and "the king will never leave."

She and George VI toughed it out with the people of London. In her pastel crepe, marabou-trimmed ensembles -- with matching pumps -- her majesty picked her way through the rubble, murmuring pity and encouragement to the bombed-out.

She was credited with one immortal line. After Buckingham Palace was hit, she said -- cynics claim it was fed to her by some public relations whiz -- "Now I feel I can look the East End in the face."

She bonded decisively with the British people, and all over the world people who were saying, without total conviction, that "there'll always be an England," had her in mind. Winston Churchill, Britain's peerless wartime leader, came to regard the king and queen as friends and most valuable allies in the fight against "the guttersnipe" -- his name for Hitler.

When her husband died, waves of sympathy washed over her and the House of Windsor. He never wanted or expected to be king, but his glamorous older brother, Edward VIII, left him and the country in the lurch to run away with Wallis Simpson. Bertie, as he was known in the family, was appalled. He was as shy as his Scots wife was outgoing, and he had a stammer, which made public speaking an agony. At his death in 1952 the incomparable Rebecca West toured the line waiting to file by his coffin. In a poignant dispatch, she reported about Britons who had been moved and inspired to overcome stuttering.

The Queen Mother continued her royal duties. She required no "humanizing" from palace publicists: She went to the racetrack; she was extravagant. She imparted warmth to family gatherings, a knack her elder daughter did not inherit.

Her funeral service was strangely impersonal. The eulogy was given by George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury, who obviously knew her and loved her, and spoke of her "strength, dignity and laughter."

CNN had promised that Princess Anne would speak, but she didn't. She was, it was noted, the first royal to march with the men in the family at a royal funeral, and she certainly was the first to wear a pantsuit -- she was in her Royal Navy uniform -- to enter Westminster Abbey. No one from the family spoke.

The television audience had to content itself with trying to spot Prince Charles's mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, who was an invited guest. But no camera caught her. It dwelt on Charles's two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry.

It was as if the queen wanted to avoid any scenes of public emotion. She was badly burned nearly five years ago when her charismatic daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, died tragically at 36. The British public was outraged at the queen's remoteness from the universal grief. Prime Minister Tony Blair rushed forward with a heaving salute to Diana as "the people's princess." The death of the Queen Mum was hardly a shock; she was 101. But the queen was taking no chances.

It was a wonderful show, of the kind only Britain knows how to do, with trumpets and drums and boy sopranos. The crowd was exemplary -- large, reverent and singing and praying with the congregation inside.

Only the context was jarring: In a news break, Secretary of State Colin Powell was shown in Morocco, whose king understandably greeted him by asking why he was not in Jerusalem. Ariel Sharon was saying, yeah, yeah, he's withdrawing, but he kept the tanks rolling on the West Bank. Yasser Arafat didn't say anything against suicide bombing in any language, and from Boston came new evidence of perfidious prelates who lied and sent a pedophile to an unsuspecting California parish.

No one in authority seemed to be behaving well. The Queen Mother, in a century on earth, showed people how to act: See what needs to be done and do it. That was her way. It seems to have gone out of style.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company