Britain's Queen Elizabeth meets well-wishers outside Windsor Castle in southern England on 80th birthday
Stephen Hird  /  Reuters
Queen Elizabeth meets well-wishers outside Windsor Castle on Friday.
By Keith Miller Senior foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/24/2006 7:40:39 PM ET 2006-04-24T23:40:39

LONDON — So what do you give a queen celebrating her 80th birthday?

Another crown seems pointless — she owns the world's most magnificent ones.

Wait, she's an animal lover!

Nah — the London Zoo is full of such four-legged gifts, including a jaguar, sloths and two black beavers from Canada.

What about a nice $100 bill in a fancy envelope?

Won't make much of an impression — Queen Elizabeth II is one of the world's wealthiest women, with personal assets of around $470 million. (And that doesn't take into account her interest in the Crown Estate, the sovereign's hereditary portfolio, which is valued at something like $20 billion.)

OK, we're desperate here. How 'bout a nice plate of succulent seafood? (She's been seen fishing, after all.) Well, she officially owns all the whales, dolphins and sturgeon in British territorial waters, so that's probably a non-starter. (I have it on good authority, though, that she doesn't keep count.)

No, what the queen needs on this momentous occasion is nothing save recognition for a lifetime of devotion to duty and her tireless effort to keep the Great in Britain.

54 years on the throne
And that's exactly what she's getting.

Hours of prime time television specials are being aired. Newspapers are busily printing special editions with blown up photos of the rather attractive young woman who came to the throne at the tender age of 26. And, radio talk shows are buzzing with loyal subjects by the dozen remembering those special times when the queen opened this flower show or attended that charity event.

Those radio reminiscences got me thinking. I wondered if, in fact, that many people could have come in contact with a monarch who sometimes has been accused of being aloof.

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Well, the numbers tell the story. Elizabeth is the patron of more than 620 charities and organizations. She's had more than a million people round to Buckingham Palace for her semi-annual garden party. That's a lot of weak tea and strawberries.

And there's the fact that she has spent 54 years on the throne (and has only a few years to beat the record of her predecessor Queen Victoria). When Elizabeth was born in 1926, the Charleston was the dance craze of the day. Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States, and Charlie Chaplin (a Brit, by the way) was one of Hollywood's biggest stars.

Enduring figure in changing times
So, just what is the source of her popularity?

Many of her subjects say they adore her endurance. What endears her to the British is she has never wavered.

Britain was bombed by the Germans. The empire collapsed. In the course of serving 10 prime ministers — starting with Sir Winston Churchill — there was social and political upheaval. Three of her four children were divorced.

But there, always, was Elizabeth, waving to the crowds and hiding whatever disappointment she felt. Her beloved father, King George VI, warned her to never shed a tear in public. This lady learned early to stay strong for her subjects.

Said historian Andrew Robbers: "I think she is good at making us feel, however much the world changes in sometimes dispiriting or nerve wracking ways, that there is something solid at the heart of the British constitution, and that's her."

Author Penny Junor, who is close to the queen's oldest son, Charles, and wrote a book about the royal family called "The Firm," says part of the queen's allure comes from not being involved in politics. "The strength of hereditary monarchy is that no one choose them, therefore no one is disappointed."

Not that she has not come close to losing her sure touch. When Princess Diana was killed in a Paris car crash in 1997, she was slow to help heal the nation's anguish. Britain's notoriously judgmental newspapers pounced, denouncing the queen for not joining in the public display of grief over the tragic loss of the world's most photographed woman. Some wondered if the royal family had got caught in a time warp and lost the pulse of modern Britain.

Eventually, though, the queen got the message and returned to Buckingham Palace from Scotland to lead the nation in mourning. It was a close call, the first time that the royal stiff upper lip could be seen to quiver.

Public and private personas
In private, the queen is, by all accounts, very different from her public persona.

I can tell you on good authority that she has a wicked sense of humor at home. And after a long day creating knights of the realm and making small talk the queen likes nothing better than to sit down to dinner in front of the telly. The word is that she likes soap operas.

She also likes to relax by tending to her animals — a world-class collection of racehorses and a doted-upon gaggle of corgis, which she feeds personally with a spoon (silver, of course).

Which reminds me.... Still looking for that perfect gift?

Well, I'm out of ideas. Just know that all the wild swans in the British Isles are hers as well....

Keith Miller is a senior foreign news correspondent for NBC News based in London.

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