National Press Club

National Press Club in History: The Queen and I

August 3, 2019 | By Gil Klein | gilbert.klein@me.com

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands during her speech at the National Press Club April 20, 1982.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands during her speech at the National Press Club April 20, 1982.

Photo/Image: Stan Jennings

During its history, 23 kings and queens have spoken at the National Press Club, starting with Peter II of Yugoslavia, who came to our podium in 1942 after fleeing his country during the World War II infighting between Nazis and communists.

But members of royalty are different from the rest of us, even from presidents and prime ministers. Royalty are conscious of their unique position as the symbol of the state, but in a constitutional monarch, not necessarily of the government. Putting themselves up for questioning before a live television audience is risky.

Vivian Vahlberg, the Club’s 1982 president – and the first woman to hold the office – provided this account of the day Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands spoke at the Club on April 20, 1982:

"This was her first appearance in the United States since succeeding her mother as queen. She wanted to do well and, as a lawyer and a serious professional, clearly wanted to create a different image than her very popular mother, who projected a warm matronly air. It became clear to me just how important — and how risky --- Press Club appearances are to foreign leaders two nights before the luncheon, when I was invited to Blair House to meet the queen.

"I thought the invitation was to an official reception with many other guests, so I had my husband circle the block in our car while I made what I assured him would be a quick appearance. It turns out I was the ONLY guest! Just me, the queen, her husband (Prince Claus), the foreign minister and five other Dutch officials together for 90 minutes in the upstairs rooms, and just me and probably 20 or more Dutch officials for an additional 15 minutes in the ground floor reception room.

"Why in the world would the queen spend so much time with me — conferring until almost 10 p.m. on the night before her official visit to the White House and two days before the NPC luncheon? First, for her, as for many leaders, the Press Club lunch was her opportunity to make an impression on the American people -- to speak to them directly and without editing, since all the luncheons are broadcast live.

"Second, the Club was the single riskiest appearance of her trip. Other events during her American visit were largely scripted, but at the Club, we didn't allow speakers to dictate what could or could not be asked during the question period; the Club president controls that.

"And, finally, any misstep would have repercussions at home -- because the whole Press Club event was being televised live not only in the U.S. but also in the Netherlands, where she usually would not be subjected to such open-ended questioning.

"So, since I was the 'wild card' in the whole trip, she was going to spend as much time with me as necessary to make sure that she knew what to expect, that she understood me and that I understood her.

"It was a revealing look into the life of a monarch. I realized that no matter what else went on, a monarch must maintain her dignity at all times. She must never appear to be at a loss, or look startled, or look like she doesn’t know or understand something. To achieve that, preparation and elimination of potential surprises are key.

"So, prepare she did, for 90 intense and serious minutes.

"She wanted to know who would sit where, who would be in the audience, how questions would be handled, and whether she would sit or stand while I asked questions. She wanted to make clear she wanted to be asked serious, nonfluffy questions; she didn’t want the whole luncheon to be about the royal dog.

"What commanded the most time was what would happen if she was asked a question she was not supposed to answer (since the Dutch constitution limits the policy role of the queen), in which case the question was to be handled by the foreign minister. What would she do while he answered: step back or to the side or sit down? It didn’t seem right for the minister to stand in front of her, but it seemed ignoble for her to have to 'pop up and down' on live TV.

Couldn’t he just have a microphone in front of him on the table, she asked, so he didn’t have to stand up? But that would bypass the cameras and the mikes needed for the live broadcast, which were at the podium.

"So, we brainstormed and even did role playing, with the foreign minister, me and others showing how different ways of handling the situation might work.

"All that preparation paid off: she wowed her audiences --- coming across, just as she wanted, as a cool, professional, serious and formidable queen. And, just as we wanted, she made news."

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, society, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.