Straining to Catch a Glimpse of the Queen

Washingtonians can get somewhat blasé about visiting dignitaries.

Presidents, prime ministers, celebrities and ambassadors routinely come and go, and busy, downtown D.C. professionals are more likely to be annoyed than impressed by motorcade traffic disruptions.

But then again, it's not every day that a queen comes to town.

'Commoners' Clamor for Peek at Her Majesty

"I wanted to see her," said William Jegl of Washington, D.C., straining as he peered down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Standing with a large group of tourists and professionals behind an impromptu Secret Service barricade near the White House, Jegl admitted he'd left his nearby office for a few minutes, hoping to catch a glimpse of the queen.

"As a reigning monarch, she's one of the few left," he said, adding, "she's a pretty strong woman."

For tourists coming to see the White House, news that they might see the 81-year-old monarch was an added bonus.

"I was just coming to see the White House and just heard about the queen," said a delighted Mary Kroonen, a flight attendant from the Netherlands on a three-hour work break.

Kroonen likened the role of England's Queen Elizabeth II to that of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

"She doesn't have much power," said Kroonen. "She's more of a symbol for the country."

Nearby, Kim and Kevin Langhbehn of Fergus Falls, Minn., waited to see the queen with their two children, Sarah and Seth.

On vacation in Washington, D.C., they happened to be walking by the White House and decided to join the crowd.

Asked what they knew about the monarch, Seth replied, "Not a lot," before adding, "She lives in England."

American schoolchildren may be forgiven for not knowing a lot about Queen Elizabeth II. The last time she visited Washington was in 1991, when George H.W. Bush was president.

But this visit is historic. Monday night's state dinner honoring the queen is the first white-tie event at the White House in 13 years. President Clinton hosted the last one, for the emperor of Japan.

Exclusive Invitation

Catching a glimpse of the queen wasn't going to be easy.

The Secret Service pushed the crowd of tourists and professionals back almost two blocks, away from the entrance of Blair House, where the queen and Prince Philip are staying during their visit.

Tourist Max Jefferson said he was angry that the fleet of cars reserved for the queen's motorcade made a U-turn onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I guess they think just 'cause they're the queen, they can violate our laws," said Jefferson, a retired factory worker from Anderson, S.C.

With only 134 tickets available for Monday night's state dinner and 7,000 tickets for the queen's arrival ceremony on the White House south lawn reserved for the powerful and well-connected, most folks tried to make the best of it behind the gates.

Some joked that their invitation must have been lost in the mail.

"I'm still waiting for mine," said Anne Wilcox, who walked to the White House from her nearby office with two of her colleagues, Andrea Wilkes and Joan McGee.

Royal Watch

Suddenly, the crowd began snapping pictures as the queen and her entourage emerged from Blair House and got into the waiting motorcade.

"There they are!" exclaimed Andrea Wilkes.

"She looks short!" said Wilcox.

"Wave! No, the royal wave!" Wilkes said, waving her hand high.

"She didn't look too fancy," said McGee.

With a blur of her white-and-black suit and black-and-white hat with a large flower, the queen disappeared into a waiting black SUV. Her motorcade drove a half block and into the White House's north entrance.

Later, as the crowd dispersed, the three women reflected on why they came.

"It's part of the fun of living in Washington, D.C.," said Wilcox.

With the U.S. and Britain embroiled in the war in Iraq -- and the queen's grandson, Harry, deploying to Iraq -- Wilcox suggested a few minutes of pomp and ceremony are a welcome change. "It's a distraction," she said.

Nodding in agreement, Wilkes explained that Americans have a curiosity about England's royal family.

"I think we fell in love with Princess Diana," she said. "The whole princess happily ever after story."

Wilcox said British actress Helen Mirren's Oscar-winning performance in "The Queen" also gave her a new perspective on the monarch.

"She's a woman who knows what she's doing, and she's not going to be pushed around by the media or anybody."

With the queen safely inside the White House gate, the Secret Service removed the barrier and opened up Pennsylvania Avenue. Tourists strolled down the street of the White House, lined with British, American and D.C. flags.

Queen Is a 'Big Deal'

Michael and Wendy Higman of Sussex, England, posed in front of Blair House for a picture.

"She's a very big deal for people of our generation," said Michael, who said he and his wife didn't know that the queen would be in town when they booked their ticket to Washington D.C. to visit their grandchildren. "People in England love her. She's our queen," said Wendy.

Canadians Robert and Louise Nietrzeba of Winnipeg, Manitoba, tried to catch a glimpse of the queen from the south lawn. But without a ticket, they couldn't see much, let alone royalty.

Snapping pictures outside the gate of the White House, Robert said, "She's come to visit Canada a few times," he said. "It's a big deal. People go out and see her."

However, even though Canada is a commonwealth country that still views the queen as the symbolic head of state, Nietrzeba said nobody takes the monarchy too seriously.

"The ordinary daily talk is of our own affairs, own own prime minister and how the government is running," he said. "We really don't have much to do anymore with England so it's nice to come out and see them when they come."