The King’s Summit

Another war was coming. By June, 1939, it was no longer a question of “if” but of “when.” King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were making the first visit by English monarchs to the United States. They were hours late arriving at President Roosevelt’s home. Cheering crowds had lined the ninety miles of parkway from New York City to the Roosevelt family estate at Hyde Park. Church bells pealed in welcome and people even strewed the royal couple’s path with flowers.

Americans are now familiar with this English king. Last year’s Academy Award-winning movie, “The King’s Speech,” showed how “Bertie” overcame a severe speech impediment. The king suffered painfully from a profound stammer. He had never expected to be king. He would have been happy to live out his life with his beloved family on his country estates as Duke of York. But his elder brother, the fatuous and facile King Edward VIII, was determined to abdicate the throne in order to marry his mistress. With it, he abdicated the stern duties of a wartime monarch.

Oddly, Hollywood’s movie under-emphasized the powerful political elements of the drama, and it skipped completely that fateful meeting between two heads of state on the banks of the Hudson in that last “high summer” of peace.

My diplomatic history professor, the late Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, was also the Biographer Royal of King George VI. He relates how subtly FDR orchestrated that meeting. The president let it be known he had served their majesties hot dogs and beans at a picnic. Isolationist and anti-British sentiment was still very strong in the U.S. It would not do for Roosevelt to be viewed as “taken in” by scheming British imperialists.

FDR also wanted, however, to make friends of the young king and his lovely consort. After dinner, the president ushered the king into his library for hours of urgent talks. The king told FDR how vulnerable England was to air attack from Hitler’s fearsome Luftwaffe. And Roosevelt shared his own concerns about German U-boats threatening shipping off America’s Atlantic Seaboard.

There was born, Sir John informs us, the idea for what would become Lend-Lease. Just 18 months later, President Roosevelt would propose swapping 50 World War I navy destroyers for 99-year leases on bases in Britain’s North American colonies.

Sir John noted something vitally important that happened that night along the Hudson. The king formed a strong bond of trust with the president. At 1:30 a.m., the president leaned forward and tapped the king gently on the knee, saying in his deep baritone, “Young man, it’s time for you to go to bed.”

No one in England would have dreamed of touching the monarch. It wasn’t done. And, of course, no one would have thought of tapping FDR’s knee, encased as it was in ten pounds of iron braces. Since he was stricken with polio at age 40, Roosevelt had never again walked unaided.  Unoffended, the king later asked, “Why don’t my ministers talk to me as the president did tonight?” And he added, “I feel exactly as though a father were giving me his most careful and wise advice.”

Hollywood’s movie featured Lionel Logue who helped the king greatly in overcoming his speech impediment. Lionel could speak boldly, even bawdily to the king. He had no power. The king’s ministers had plenty of power, but their exchanges with their constitutional monarch were governed by centuries of court protocol.

Only with FDR did the king feel at ease. President Roosevelt was very much a powerful political figure. He was planning his campaign for re-election to an unprecedented third term. If this meeting did not go well, it could become a serious political liability.

Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, I later learned, was chosen by Buckingham Palace to chronicle the king’s life because he, too, had overcome a childhood stammer. Perhaps only such a historian would have discerned the true human drama that occurred in the Roosevelt library that June night.

The summit meeting with FDR gave King George VI new confidence in his ability to play the role which history had assigned to him. He and his beloved wife would visit many a bombed-out town and apartment complex during the “Blitz.” The queen and her daughters were urged to seek safety in Canada when German bombs hit Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth, mother of the current monarch, memorably replied: “The princesses will never leave without me. I will never leave without the king. And the king will never leave.” Instead, they practiced with pistols in Buckingham Palace’s shooting range.

We cannot study this summit meeting and its great import for all our lives without reflecting on what disability means today. Each day in America, unborn children with prenatally diagnosed disabilities – some far less challenging than FDR’s and the king’s – are killed. We are told it is more merciful to do so. Are we thus aborting our own hopes for change?

The powerful role played by the king and the president, two great historical actors with disabilities, might give us pause today about our blind pursuit of illusory perfections.

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