Queen Elizabeth II to address Congress

By STEVE GERSTEL  |  May 12, 1991
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WASHINGTON -- For the first time in American history, a British monarch will address a joint meeting of Congress, a singular honor bestowed with increasing frequency in recent years.

Queen Elizabeth II, paying a three-day state visit to the United States, will speak to members of Congress in the vast House chamber Thursday. She is certain to receive a tumultuous, commoner-style welcome.

Although she has been in the United States before on state and private visits during her reign of nearly four decades, it is the first time she will speak to members of the Senate and House and galleries full of special guests.

Queen Elizabeth's father, King George VI, was a guest at a reception in the House chamber in 1939. Historians say King George did not give an address but spent about 45 minutes talking with members of the Senate and House.

Despite the snub of the British -- or perhaps the refusal of their monarchs to speak to the legislature of a former colony -- Congress has been more receptive to other royals.

The Dutch seem to be exceptional favorites.

Queen Wilhemina of the Netherlands addressed a joint meeting in 1942 during her exile from the Nazi occupation of her homeland. Queen Juliana of the Netherlands spoke 20 years later.

The very first king to address Congress was David Kalakaua of the Hawaiian islands who spoke in 1874, after which royal families were ignored until the reception for King George.

The congressional treatment of royalty improved in the 1950s with an appearance by Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia. What followed was a run that included King Baudouin of Belgium (1959); Mahendra, king of Nepal (1960); Bhumibol Adulyadej, king of Thailand (1960); the shah of Iran (1962) and Juan Carlos I, king of Spain (1976).

These royal figures spoke to joint meetings of Congress, a ceremony considered a rank below a joint session, which is reserved for the president of the United States and for the formal counting of electoral votes.

An invitation to address Congress is made by the speaker of the House, but it often is done at the behest of the administration, which weighs the political ramifications of the occasion.

Congressional leaders wanted to accord the honor to the dalai lama last month, but the administration, fearing negative repercussions from China, had the event moved to the rotunda of the Capitol, a somewhat less exalted forum.

The nation's first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, spoke to Congress in an 'annual message,' now known as the State of the Union address. But Thomas Jefferson stopped the practice as the third president and it was not resumed until 1913 by Woodrow Wilson.

The first foreigner to address Congress was the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman who played a heroic role in the revolution. He spoke in 1824. Ten years later, President John Quincy Adams read Lafayette's euology before Congress.

Foreign dignitaries from Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle to Ngo Dinh Diem, president of Vietnam in 1957, have addressed joint meetings of Congress.

Translators and copies of speeches by foreign speakers often were provided, but when they were not, Congress sometimes found itself guessing as to when it should interrupt with applause.

The prime minister of Canada and the president of Mexico, because their countries are U.S. neighbors, are almost certain to address Congress on their first visit to Washington after taking office.

U.S. military leaders who addressed Congress include: Gen. John Pershing, commander of U.S. forces in World War I, in 1919; Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of allied forces in Europe during World War II and later the 34th president, in 1945, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, in 1951 after his firing by President Truman for advocating policies contrary to those of the administration. And just last week, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, head of coalition forces in the Persian Gulf War, became the first commanding general to speak to both houses since William Westmoreland appeared before Congress in 1967.

Some of the most moving speeches have come in recent years from leaders who fought oppression in their countries -- like Lech Walesa, the former head of Solidarity movement and now president of Poland; Vaclav Havel, the playwright-president of Czechoslovakia and African National Congress President Nelson Mandela, freed by the South African government last year after 27 years in prison.

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