The Queen and Congress: Elizabeth II addressed lawmakers on Capitol Hill in 1991
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“I hope you can see me from where you are,” Queen Elizabeth II said dryly in front of a crowded chamber of the house.
Members of the House of Representatives and Senate had squeezed into the room to hear the Queen address a joint session of Congress. At first they roared with laughter at the Queen’s dry wit. They then stood up to give the Queen a standing ovation.
Legislators from both sides certainly do seen Elizabeth on this day – May 16, 1991. You saw her peachy dress, peachy hat and pearls.
After all, the Queen spoke to Congress from the very podium in the House of Representatives chamber where Presidents each year deliver their State of the Union remarks to lawmakers — complete with the late Speaker of the House Tom Foley, D-Wash., and the looming former Vice President Dan Quayle behind her.
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With Prince Phillip at her side, everyone in the American Legislature could hear – and see – the Queen on the House podium.
That was not the case in the White House the day before.
A bank of microphones and a towering lectern embossed with the President’s seal enveloped the 5-foot-tall Queen as she spoke alongside then-President George HW Bush. Commentators referred to the speech as a “sorting hat”. All people could see on TV was the Queen’s triple-brimmed hat – her eyes were barely visible over the microphones.
But the Queen’s devious sense of humor echoed in the halls of Capitol Hill when she became the first British monarch to address a joint session of Congress a day later.
The late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressing a joint session of Congress in 1941.
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“Your Congress and our Parliament are the two pillars of our civilizations and the most important of many treasures we have inherited from our predecessors,” the Queen told lawmakers. “An essential part of your social contract is also based on habits. But the spirit is the same. It’s the spirit of democracy. But these ideas must never be taken for granted. They need to be nurtured by fluctuations and changes.”
But the Queen’s speech to Congress was not without controversy. Former Rep. Joseph Kennedy, II, D-Mass., and other lawmakers boycotted the address. Kennedy protested what he described as the British “occupation” of Northern Ireland.
The Queen arrived in Washington just months after Bush, former British Prime Minister John Major and other world leaders assembled a massive international coalition to stare down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and drive his forces out of Kuwait during the Gulf War.
“The best progress is made when Europeans and Americans act together,” the Queen said during the joint meeting. “I know that the soldiers and women of Britain and all members of the Coalition were proud to act alongside their American comrades for a cause.”
The maneuvering to build the international partnership against Iraq was extraordinary. The international community had not gathered in this way since World War II.
The queen knew about conflict and standing up against the forces of evil.
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Elizabeth’s first public speech was a little like what she said at the White House in 1991. People could hear her. They just couldn’t see her. A 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth spoke on BBC radio’s ‘Children’s Hour’ in 1940 as the German Luftwaffe and Royal Air Force fought in the skies during the Battle of Britain. A Royal Air Force victory eventually stopped Germany from invading the United Kingdom.
Elizabeth’s comments on the show were an attempt to reassure British children and show sympathy for the upheavals of the war.
“Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated from your fathers and mothers. My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you as we know from experience what it means to be apart from those we love most,” said the queen-to-be. “You, the you in a new environment live, we send a message of true sympathy and at the same time want to thank the kind people who welcomed you into their homes in the countryside.”
Elizabeth concluded with this:
“And when peace comes, remember that it’s up to us to make tomorrow’s world a better, happier place for today’s children.”
The Queen ascended the throne at a time that was perhaps a little happier. But the world was quickly slipping into the Cold War – still ongoing but waning – when Elizabeth was addressing Congress in 1991.
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“The world was still emerging from the shadow of World War II and into a bold, uncertain, unexplored future,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said on the ground shortly after Elizabeth’s death. “During her reign, the atomic age began. The age of the internet. The fall of the Soviet Union. An unprecedented global pandemic. Not only did she witness the great twists and turns of history. She helped shape it.”
Schumer characterized the queen as “a rock,” adding, “I daresay we shall never see a leader like her as long as we live.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ordered the flags on the Capitol to be lowered to half-mast shortly after the Queen’s death.
During an event in San Francisco, Pelosi spoke about how her father — the late Baltimore Mayor and Rep. Thomas D’Alesandro, Jr., D-Md. – attended the Queen’s coronation while in London with the US Mayors’ Conference.
Pelosi said she attended a garden party at the British Ambassador’s residence in Washington when the Queen visited in 2007. Pelosi said she confided in the queen that her father was present when she ascended the throne.
Pelosi said when the Queen walked in at the end of the party, “She just said one thing. ‘The speaker’s father was at my coronation.’”
Pelosi confided that she had never told this story before.
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“Your loss is our loss,” Senator Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said of the Queen’s death. “She has led the country through very difficult times. And of course, in a monarchy like this, like all of us, they have family problems. And she has guided the family through difficult times.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Queen was “sterling in character.”
“The Queen made sure her reign was never really about herself. Not for her fame. Or her feelings. Or their personal wants or needs,” McConnell said.
The House of Representatives will meet on Tuesday for the first time since early August. Pelosi’s office says the House of Representatives will pass a mourning resolution and later adjourn for the day in honor of Queen Elizabeth.