The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Jimmy Carter kissed the Queen Mother in 1977. Tabloids still talk about it.

President Jimmy Carter, second from right, speaks with Queen Elizabeth II, far left, Prince Philip, the Queen Mother and Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti during a visit to Buckingham Palace in 1977. (PA Images/Getty Images)
4 min

LONDON — Jimmy Carter denies kissing the Queen Mother on the lips. To this day, however, the British tabloids paint a picture of a world leader who broke royal protocol in a “scandalous blunder.”

The controversial kiss — cited in British media reports for nearly 50 years reportedly came during a presidential visit to Buckingham Palace in May 1977, where Carter met with the royals and NATO leaders for dinner. The Queen Mother and her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, were in attendance alongside Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip.

While Carter insists that he gave the Queen Mother a peck on the cheek, British media quoted her as saying their lips touched.

“He is the only man, since my dear husband died, to have had the effrontery to kiss me on the lips,” the Queen Mother told her biographer, according to the British press. The Queen Mother has also recalled how she “took a sharp step backwards. … Not quite far enough,” the Daily Mirror reported.

Carter, in his autobiography “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety,” said he was distressed by the characterization in the British media, which he says reported on the kiss about two years after his visit. But he didn’t regret kissing her, as he put it, “lightly on the cheek” as the pair said goodnight after the dinner.

“More than two years later, there were reports in the British papers that grossly distorted this event, stating that I had deeply embarrassed her with excessive familiarity,” Carter wrote. “I was distressed by these reports, but couldn’t change what had happened — nor did I regret it.”

Even a kiss on the cheek would be unusual upon meeting the royals, who are usually greeted by guests with a bow, curtsy or handshake.

Photos taken at the event show Carter wearing a black bow tie and chatting with the royals in the Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace. The Queen Mother’s husband, King George VI, died in 1952 at the age of 56, forcing daughter Elizabeth to take to the throne at just 25 years old.

After the Queen Mother’s biography published in 2009, the Daily Mail noted some key takeaways from the 1,000-page book: she loved owls, fairies and miners. She hated oysters and being kissed by a U.S. president.

Dickie Arbiter, a former spokesman for Queen Elizabeth II, said that it is not uncommon for the British tabloids to make a “big deal” about what presidents do — and don’t do — when meeting senior members of Britain’s royal family.

The queen and the 13 presidents

Former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have also joined the ranks of those accused of breaking royal protocol. Obama in 2011 spoke over the national anthem amid a toast to the queen. Trump in 2018 walked in front of the Queen — a big no-no in Britain — as the pair toured the grounds of Windsor Castle, at one point totally eclipsing her.

‘Did Donald Trump just WALK IN FRONT OF THE QUEEN?’

The fascination is not about just about whether world leaders adhere to royal protocol, Arbiter said. “It’s a matter of good manners and resecting the customs of the country being visited," he said.

Despite his so-called “blunder” with the Queen Mother, Carter, now 98, formed a close relationship with her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, who died in September at the age of 96 after more than seven decades on the throne.

During her extensive reign, Queen Elizabeth II met every American president since Harry S. Truman, with the exception of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Carter was one of many prominent voices around the world leading tributes to the monarch as news of her death rippled around the world. Carter said in a statement that “her dignity, graciousness, and sense of duty” had been an inspiration and that he and former first lady, Rosalynn Carter joined “the millions around the world in mourning a remarkable leader.”

Jimmy Carter: The life of the 39th president

The latest: As Jimmy Carter chose to spend his final days in hospice care at home in Plains, Ga., his tiny hometown is bracing to say goodbye. As tributes celebrate his legacy, here’s a look at the life of former president Jimmy Carter.

The un-celebrity president: Jimmy Carter’s simple and modest lifestyle was rare, in sharp contrast to his successors. He declined the corporate board memberships and lucrative speaking engagements and decided that his income would come from writing. He wrote 33 books and has helped renovate 4,300 homes for Habitat for Humanity.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter: The Carters have been married for 76 years, the longest in presidential history. Their love story blossomed in World War II and survived the searing scrutiny of political life. Rosalynn Carter expanded the role of first lady.