A king who really earns his keep: Spain's Juan Carlos

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In a nationwide children's picture and essay contest last week, 10-year-old Luisa Moreno won first prize for her drawing of King Carlos placing Band-Aids over a divided map of Spain.

The theme of the contest was "What a king means to me." More eloquent than many political speeches, Luisa's prize-winning picture can easily represent the general Spanish feeling for their dedicated King, who will arrive in Washington today on an official visit.

Certainly no other modern monarch has enjoyed as much popularity nor played as crucial a role in shaping the destiny of his country as Juan Carlos of Spain. In the eyes and hearts of most Spaniards, Juan Carlos legitimized his title and underlined his role as the guardian angel of the new Constitution the night of the attempted military coup last Feb. 23 when he almost single-handedly saved the day for the fledgling Spanish democracy.

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Handpicked and groomed by Franco to carry on a fascist dynasty, Juan Carlos surprised most Spaniards and the rest of the world for his role in dismantling the dictatorship after Franco's death in 1975.

Throughout the peaceful transition period to the first free elections in 1977 , and thereafter, the King won the respect, admiration, and support from even the most traditional republican left. Both the major opposition Socialist Party as well as the Communist Party became enthusiastic defenders of the modern Spanish King.

After the attempted coup, the King's role as defender of the Constitution has become so essential that politicians tremble at the slightest mishap.

Last June when the King sustained an arm injury in a minor accident, politicians were reminded again of the fragility of Spanish democracy.

Ernesto Lluch, spokesman of the United Socialist Party of Catalonia in parliament stated then, "If the King should suffer accidents in a stable democracy, it ought to produce only humanitarian concern . . . not endanger democracy itself."

Socialist representative Luis Solana reminded Spaniards at the time that "democracy is hanging on the image of Juan Carlos, which demonstrates the fragility of the former and the tremendous importance of the figure of the monarch."

With the notable exception of the diehard extreme right, all Spanish political parties cling to the royal sleeve and lavish praise on the monarch and his stabilizing influence.

However, the lesson for future coupplotters became immediately obvious. During the King's first trip abroad to Italy several months after the coup, the fascist newspaper El Alcazar published an editorial headlined "Now that the King is gone, here is our big occasion," which caused a major uproar in political circles and drove home again the anxiety that accompanies any absence of the King.

The official two-day visit of the King and Queen of Spain in Washington will be the second trip abroad since the coup.

Much of the Spanish monarch's popularity is due as well to his affable personality and modest life style.

He lives comfortably with his quick-minided Queen, Sophia of Greece, and their three lovely blond children in a rather modest residence outside Madrid. The 42-year-old King is probably one of the lowest-paid monarchs of Europe.

Last year when Arab oil multimillionaire Kashos invited the royal family for a luncheon on his luxurious yacht, Juan Carlos and his whole family showed up crammed into a compact Ford Fiesta with Crown Prince Phillip and a friend jammed in the back baggage compartment. To the astonished look on the oil sheikh's face, the King explained, "One has to save on gasoline."

An avid sportsman, Juan Carlos enjoys skiing, swimming, sailing, tennis, squash, jogging, and just about every other sport. His main passion, however, is motorcycle riding, and he delights in reaching tremendous speeds -- to the anguish of his police escort. He also enjoys incognito escapades on his motorcycle to visit old friends or military buddies from his academy days. Popular legend has it that he will occasionally pick up hitchhikers on these motorcycle runs.

He enjoys driving his own official car and likes to pilot his helicopter as well. Juan Carlos has also gained a popular reputation as "a regular guy," frequently breaking protocol and security circles to give hearty handshakes and hugs.

But beyond any doubt, Juan Carlos owes his enormous popularity to his peacemaker role for guiding the country from dictatorship to democracy without another civil war.

After the coup he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, but perhaps his greatest tribute comes from the mouth of babes. In the children's essay contest of last week, a prize was also awarded to 10-year-old Maria Paz, whose composition described the night of the coup. It was titled "Modern Magician." After writing about her parents' anguish and then their relief and happiness after the King's famous message ordering the Army back to its barracks, Maria wrote:

"Is this King not a magician? I believe so. He pulled out a ver big white dove from his hat who flew all over the country planting a word that we all like. The beautiful word was peace."

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