US: 'Used beans' and 'The Talking Hat': Queen Elizabeth's visits with presidents didn't always go as planned

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WASHINGTON – At the start of her reign, Britain's 25-year-old Queen Elizabeth II got some crucial advice from Winston Churchill: Stay close to the Americans.

“And that’s exactly what she did,” said Anita McBride, a board member of the White House Historical Association and former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush.

Even when the visits didn't go as planned – and often, they didn't – the queen’s many interactions with U.S. presidents strengthened the important ties between Great Britain and her former colony.

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Queen Elizabeth visited the White House multiple times during her 70-year reign and met more U.S. presidents than any other head of state. In fact, she met every president from Harry S. Truman to Joe Biden, with one exception: Lyndon Johnson.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first U.S. president the queen entertained at home, found the scones served at her Scottish estate so tasty he asked for the recipe – which is now in Eisenhower's presidential library.

Even Richard Nixon – not known for his sunny demeanor – seemed unusually relaxed during his visit to Buckingham Palace, said presidential historian Alvin S. Felzenberg.

“He was having a ball,” Felzenberg said.

The bond between the two nations is “felt very deeply by every president,” McBride said. While visits by any foreign dignitary to the White House are planned with great care, a little “extra sparkle and shine” was put into preparations for Queen Elizabeth’s 2007 visit. It was the only white tie dinner that Bush – who wasn’t big on formality – held during his eight years in office.

'Used beans' and 'The Talking Hat': Queen Elizabeth's visits with presidents didn't always go as planned

  'Used beans' and 'The Talking Hat': Queen Elizabeth's visits with presidents didn't always go as planned Queen Elizabeth met with more U.S. presidents than any other head of state. Some of those encounters got attention for unexpected reasons. End of an era: Queen Elizabeth II dies at 96; King Charles III takes the throne Donald Trump Donald Trump, no stranger to controversy and never a stickler for conventionality, was ridiculed for multiple missteps during a teatime meeting with the queen at Windsor Castle in 2018. He kept the queen waiting for more than 10 minutes, shook her hand instead of bowing, turned his back on her for a few seconds, and left his jacket open and flapping and his too-long tie trailing.

Hosting the queen at the White House, Felzenberg said, was a sign that “you really made it.”

“You made it as a commoner in an upstart nation that was not given much chance when it broke away from the U.K.” he said. “And you made it as a person.”

And when visits went awry, presidents were grateful that Queen Elizabeth also had a sense of humor and could dispense with protocol, overlook a faux pas and connect not as world leaders but as two human beings.

“She is truly one of my favorite people,” Barack Obama said during a 2016 visit to London.

Here are some of the interactions that got attention for unexpected reasons.

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Donald Trump

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He kept the queen waiting for more than 10 minutes, shook her hand instead of bowing, turned his back on her for a few seconds, and left his jacket open and flapping and his too-long tie trailing.

His biggest sin, however, transpired when he and the queen inspected the scarlet-clad troops assembled in the castle’s Quadrangle. Trump walked in front of the diminutive monarch, then 92, and then stopped, cutting off her path and forcing her to step around him – a breach of royal protocol.

Royal watchers dubbed Trump’s behavior an insult to their beloved monarchy.

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Barack and Michelle Obama

Barack Obama had been president just three months when he got his first audience with the queen during the Group of 20 leaders’ summit in London. But it was first lady Michelle Obama who caused a stir when she committed what the tabloids and the Twitterati branded an epic breach of royal protocol.

She touched the queen.

The trip started off well enough with a formal visit between the new first couple and Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at Buckingham Palace. Later, toward the end of a party for G20 leaders, Michelle Obama was surprised to find the queen, who was wearing a pair of pristine white gloves, standing at her elbow.

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“You’re so tall,” the queen remarked, the first lady recalled in her memoir “Becoming.”

Glancing down at the pair of black Jimmy Choos that Michelle Obama was wearing, the queen shook her head and asked, “Those shoes are unpleasant, are they not?” The queen gestured toward her own pair of black pumps, and both women confessed that their feet were hurting.

Then, the first lady wrote, she did what she does instinctively whenever she feels connected to someone she has just met: She expressed her feelings by affectionally laying a hand across the queen’s shoulder.

Cameras captured the moment for posterity, and photos of the forbidden contact were reproduced in media reports all over the world. The touching incident “revived some of the campaign-era speculation that I was generally uncouth and lacking the standard elegance of a first lady,” Michelle Obama wrote.  But, “if I hadn’t done the proper thing at Buckingham Palace, I had at least done the human thing.”

A few years later, in Barack Obama’s final year as president, he and the first lady took a helicopter from the U.S. ambassador’s residence in London to Windsor Castle in the British countryside for a luncheon with the Queen and Prince Philip. The plan called for the royals to meet the Obamas when their helicopter landed and personally drive them back to the castle.

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Michelle Obama had been instructed to sit up front next to Prince Philip, who would drive, while the president was to ride in the back seat next to the queen. But when it came to get into the Range Rover, the queen gestured for the first lady to join her in the back seat, Michelle Obama wrote.

“Did they give you some rule about this?” the queen asked, sensing the first lady’s hesitation. “That’s rubbish. Sit wherever you want.”

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George W. Bush

George W. Bush, who had a well-earned reputation for mangling syntax, got an icy stare from the queen when he made a verbal gaffe during a state visit to the White House in 2007.

Trumpets blared to mark the royals’ arrival, a military band played both nations’ national anthems, and Bush warmly welcomed the queen during a ceremony on the South Lawn. Things seemed to be proceeding according to plan when Bush appeared to suggest that the long-serving monarch had been around for a couple hundred years.

"The American people are proud to welcome your majesty back to the United States, a nation you’ve come to know very well,” he said. “After all, you’ve dined with 10 U.S. presidents. You’ve helped our nation celebrate its bicentennial in 17…”

Realizing his blunder, he quickly corrected himself. “In 1976,” he said.

The damage was already done. Bush awkwardly glanced over at the queen, who didn’t seem amused. “She gave me a look that only a mother could give a child,” he said as the crowd roared.

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Later, the queen had the last laugh.

At a formal dinner at the British ambassador’s residence later that night, the queen poked fun of Bush’s blunder during her formal toast to the president. Grinning, she joked, “I wondered whether I should start this toast by saying, 'When I was here in 1776...'"

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Queen Elizabeth II peers over microphones while giving arrival remarks on the White House South Lawn as President George H.W. Bush looks on May 14, 1991. © Doug Mills, AP Queen Elizabeth II peers over microphones while giving arrival remarks on the White House South Lawn as President George H.W. Bush looks on May 14, 1991.

George H. W. Bush

George H. W. Bush was the president closest to Queen Elizabeth in age and also, like the queen, served in World War II. While Bush would later receive the Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath – which includes an enormous heavy gold chain and a large chest ribbon – the queen’s 1991 visit to the White House began with a glitch.

After Bush delivered welcoming remarks on the White House lawn, he turned the lectern over to the queen.

“Her Majesty looked lovely in a purple linen suit with a smart straw, purple, black and white hat,” former First Lady Barbara Bush wrote in her diary.

But after the president spoke, no one had pulled out the step needed to elevate the much shorter queen to a height above the microphones.

“You literally could not see her face as she spoke; just the hat bobbing up and down,” Bush recalled.

After the incident was dubbed “The Talking Hat,” the Bushes were grateful for the monarch’s wit and humor.

Addressing a Joint Session of Congress the next day, Queen Elizabeth began by saying, “I do hope you can see me from where you are sitting.”

“She had them in the palm of her hand from that moment on,” Barbara Bush later wrote in her memoir.

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President Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II raise their glasses in a toast during a state dinner at the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on March 3, 1983. © Ed Reinke, AP President Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth II raise their glasses in a toast during a state dinner at the M. H. de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park on March 3, 1983.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan and Queen Elizabeth bonded over their shared love of horses. But Reagan’s plan to take the queen riding on his mountain top ranch was foiled in March of 1993 when California’s famously sunny weather took a British holiday.

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First, a tornado prevented Queen Elizabeth from sailing into Santa Barbara on the royal yacht. Then fog grounded the helicopter planned for the ascent to Rancho del Cielo. Instead, four-wheel drive vehicles made the seven-mile climb up the twisting one-lane road flooded with water in several places.

“It gets almost as bad as this in England,” Michael O’Shea, the queen’s press secretary, told the Associated Press at the time.

Finally arriving – in beige raincoats and high rubber boots – Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were served enchiladas, chiles rellenos, tacos and refried beans. The queen particularly praised the “used beans,” according to Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of the monarch.

The bad weather prevented the planned horseback ride through scrub oak. But while Reagan was “naturally disappointed,” according to an aide, the queen found the trip to the ranch “very enjoyable and very exciting,” O’Shea declared.

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President Jimmy Carter meets with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in London in May 1977. © AP President Jimmy Carter meets with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in London in May 1977.

Jimmy Carter

The Georgia peanut farmer who became president caused a royal ruckus when he reportedly kissed the queen’s mother right on the mouth.

The scandalous smooch took place at Buckingham Palace in 1977 while Carter was in London for an economic summit. During a meeting with members of the royal family, Carter declined to bow before the queen and gave the Queen Mom, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a peck on the lips.

According to news accounts of the diplomatic dustup, the Queen Mother took an instant dislike of Carter and his brand of southern hospitality. She even claimed she’d seen his lips coming at her and tried –  albeit unsuccessfully – to get out of the way.

"I took a sharp step backwards,” she said, but “not quite far enough.”

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Queen Elizabeth II dances with President Gerald Ford at a state dinner at the White House in 1976. © HO, AFP/Getty Images Queen Elizabeth II dances with President Gerald Ford at a state dinner at the White House in 1976.

Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford hosted a state dinner for the queen during her 1976 visit in honor of the nation’s bicentennial. Ford gave tribute to the former ruling country, saying the United States – after breaking away – “established a nation that adapted the best of British traditions to the American climate and to the American character.”

But the after-dinner dancing provided fodder for late-night comics because of a “royal dance faux pas.”  When Ford escorted Queen Elizabeth, in her diamond tiara, onto the dance floor, members of the U.S. Marine Band began playing “The Lady is a Tramp.”

“Band members thought that no one would catch the unfortunate timing,” David G. Wright, a saxophonist in the band, later wrote in a letter to the editor published by The Washington Post. “But sure enough, The Post published the AP story the next morning. The leader of the Marine Band received a call from the commandant of the Marine Corps at 6 a.m. asking for an explanation.”

Ininstead of Ford getting credit for being an elegant dancer, that’s how his twirl with the queen will be remembered, lamented Felzenberg, the presidential historian.

“And I wonder how many stars the commander who organized that lost on his shoulders,” Felzenberg added.

A chance encounter between the British royals and the Fords’ middle son also caused an uncomfortable moment for the first lady.

Betty Ford recalled years later that she was escorting the queen and Prince Philip to the White House Yellow Oval Room when the elevator doors opened, and there stood the Fords’ son, Jack, his formal shirt untucked, shirt studs in his hands. Other versions of the tale claim Jack was dressed in a T-shirts and jeans.

Either way, Betty Ford was mortified. The queen, however, wasn’t fazed.

"The queen said, 'Oh think nothing of it. I have one of those at home,’” Betty Ford told The Washington Post in 1983.

The queen was apparently referring to her oldest son, Prince Charles, the future king.

Michael Collins and Maureen Groppe cover the White House. Follow Collins on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS and Groppe @mgroppe.

Contributing: Maria Puente and Susan Page.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Used beans' and 'The Talking Hat': Queen Elizabeth's visits with presidents didn't always go as planned

Live updates: Military rehearse queen's Windsor procession .
WINDSOR, England -- Hundreds of troops from the British army, air force and navy have taken part in the first full rehearsal of the procession that will bring the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II to its final resting place. With troops lining The Long Walk, a picturesque path leading to Windsor Castle, the thumping of drums echoed as marching bands walked ahead of a hearse early Saturday. On Monday, they will do the same, only surrounded by thousands of people expected to travel to Windsor for a final farewell to the queen, who died last week at age 96.

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