President Biden grew up with a set of lessons that included a maxim from his mother: Don’t kiss the pope’s ring, and don’t bow down to the queen.
After their meeting last year, he paid her one of the highest compliments Biden can: He compared her to his mother.
“We had a long talk,” Biden said. “She was very generous. I don’t think she’d be insulted, but she reminded me of my mother, in terms of the look of her and just the generosity. She was very gracious.”
Elizabeth, who died Thursday at 96 after a 70-year reign, was one of the few who could rival Biden’s time on the political and international scene. She met every sitting American president since Harry S. Truman, other than Lyndon B. Johnson, making Biden the 13th president to have an audience with her.
He will likely now be the first American president to have an audience with King Charles III.
And there are some similarities between Biden, 79, and the new king, 73. Both are men who late in life assumed a role they had spent decades positioning themselves for, and who took their positions with a deep well of experience after having served as an understudy. They also arguably capture less of the public’s fascination than their predecessors, have low approval ratings and are overseeing countries in the midst of upheaval.
Biden on Friday told reporters that he plans to attend the queen’s funeral. He said he hadn’t yet spoken with King Charles, but said that he does know him.
Biden first met Elizabeth in November 1982, when he traveled with other senators to a meeting of the British-American Parliamentary Group and was among a group that met with the monarch. It was when Biden told his mother that he was going on that trip that she responded, “Don’t you bow down to her.”
“You’re a Biden,” she said, according to an account in his memoir “Promises to Keep.” “Nobody is better than you. You’re not better than anybody else, but nobody is any better than you.”
A bow or curtsy is not a requirement when visiting the queen — the Obamas also opted for a handshake on a 2016 visit, as did the Trumps in 2019 — but it is the traditional way to greet her.
Still, the queen boasted some of the working-class appeal that Biden has sought throughout his political career, managing to break down traditional barriers between public figures and ordinary citizens.
“Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was more than a monarch. She defined an era,” Biden said in a lengthy statement released after the Royal Palace announced her death Thursday. “In a world of constant change, she was a steadying presence and a source of comfort and pride for generations of Britons, including many who have never known their country without her.”
He also credited her for being the first British monarch to whom people “could feel a personal and immediate connection” and praised her for “an unwavering commitment to duty, and the incomparable power of her example.”
It has gone unmentioned in his initial statements, but one of Biden’s favorite movies is “The King’s Speech,” which depicts the unlikely ascension to the throne of Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, and his struggles to overcome a speech impediment to give wartime speeches on the radio. Biden has spoken previously of the emotional experience of watching the film, having himself grappled with a stutter, adding that he marks up his own speeches in the same way as the king did in the film.
The queen met with almost every American president in recent history. She rode horses with Ronald Reagan and attended a baseball game with George H.W. Bush. Donald Trump was particularly taken with the grandeur of the queen, having often recounted how his mother — an immigrant from Scotland — watched for hours on television as the queen was crowned.
When the Bidens visited Britain last year, they were greeted by a show of pageantry as the queen greeted them in the quadrangle of Windsor Castle. It was her first time in the international spotlight since the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip.
“She charmed us with her wit, moved us with her kindness, and generously shared with us her wisdom,” Biden said Thursday.
After the visit, Biden revealed to reporters that Elizabeth had asked him, as they sipped tea, about China’s leader Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin — a disclosure that royal watchers noted was a breach in protocol, since it’s considered improper to recount what was discussed with the queen behind closed doors.
The incident was part of a long pattern of American presidents struggling to adhere to the age-old traditions of the British crown, even as they speak of the strong ties and “special relationship” between the two countries.
Trump walked in front of the queen as they strolled the grounds of Windsor Castle, something that is generally not done. President Barack Obama bungled a toast by speaking over the British national anthem. President George W. Bush, celebrating the queen’s visit to the U.S. in 2007, added two centuries to her age by remarking that she had earlier been to the United States in 1776, before correcting that he meant 1976.
George H.W. Bush had to apologize after his staff failed to adjust the lectern before the much shorter queen spoke during an arrival ceremony, leaving her striped purple hat just visible above the microphones. During a 1976 visit, Gerald Ford escorted the queen, wearing her diamond tiara, to the dance floor as the band in the White House played, “The Lady Is a Tramp.”
Biden, though, brought perhaps a bit more baggage to the relationship than some of his predecessors.
His strong Irish heritage has been a point of pride with him, and he’s often referred critically to the British rule of Ireland, at least in jest. “The BBC?” Biden said when a reporter from that network once tried, unsuccessfully, to stop him for a question. “I’m Irish.”
On his father’s side, Biden’s family is English and French (his mother’s sister used to tell him, “Your father is not a bad man. He’s just English.”). But his mother’s side has strong Irish roots, with some 10 of his 16 great-great-grandparents having been born in Ireland in a family tree that includes the Blewitts from County Mayo and the Finnegans from County Louth.
His mother also reportedly wrote poems conveying her dislike of the British and refused to sleep on the bed at a hotel where the queen had once stayed, unwilling to rest in the same spot as the monarch, Biden told screenwriter Georgia Pritchett in an exchange recounted in her recent memoir.
When he arrived in Great Britain last year ahead of his visit with the queen, Biden quoted “Easter, 1916,” a poem by William Butler Yeats about an uprising against British rule.
Later, he and the queen spoke about the vastness of Windsor Castle, with Biden remarking that the entire White House could fit in the courtyard.
“She said, ‘What’s it like in the White House?’ ” Biden recalled. “I said, ‘Well, it’s magnificent, but it’s a lot of people.’ ”
It’s also a building that Biden has previously boasted was designed by an Irishman, architect James Hoban. He said he invited the queen to visit, an invitation that will now likely be extended to her son.
“Her legacy will loom large in the pages of British history,” Biden said on Thursday, “and in the story of our world.”