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How a top yachtsman donned crown, won Spain's affections

By Kathy WhiteSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 1985


JUAN Carlos I is no ordinary king. Of all the reigning monarchs in Europe, the King of Spain has had to work the hardest to earn his crown. Today, 10 years after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco, the tall, relaxed monarch is revered by political parties and the public as the leader who single-mindedly upheld democratic principles through the delicate moments of transition from a 40-year dictatorship to democracy.

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He can also be more concerned about people than protocol. In March 1979, for instance, then-Prime Minister Adolfo Su'arez had just returned, ill and weary, from a grueling trip. Rather than asking Mr. Su'arez to come to him for a briefing on the trip, King Juan Carlos donned his helmet and rode off into the night on his motorcycle to the prime minister's residence on the outskirts of Madrid.

The King has built his present popularity from a past darkened by mistrust, humiliation, and political uncertainty.

When General Franco died on Nov. 20, 1975, the newly proclaimed King was up against all odds. Hardly anybody wanted Franco's hand-picked heir, who was mocked for his wooden speeches and blank gaze.

And, in the latter half of the 20th century, who wanted a monarchy? Certainly not the left-wing opposition and not even the right-wing extremists. Exiled Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo dubbed the future king ``Juan Carlos the Short-Lived.'' The public hardly knew Juan Carlos to be anything more than a champion yachtsman.

In short, King Juan Carlos sorely needed credibility and legitimacy. It was a strange destiny for this Bourbon prince, born in exile in Rome during the Spanish Civil War, to be named successor to a dictator.

Obsessed with providing continuity and respectability for his regime, Franco had curiously declared Spain a kingdom in 1947. Only in 1969 did Franco finally designate Juan Carlos to succeed him, saying that he was not restoring a monarchy but establishing anew one that would uphold the principles of his regime.

As late as 1974, during the Socialist Party congress held in exile, Spain's present premier, Felipe Gonz'alez, said, ``We cannot commit ourselves to a regime, such as a monarchy, born -- like it or not -- of Francoism.''

The greatest surprise in this transition to democracy is how the man who was generally seen to be the continuation of Francoism proved to be the very negation of that regime.

An old school friend of Juan Carlos says one reason for this is the liberal principles the King received in his education.

In later years, Juan Carlos's political awareness grew from contacts with visitors to his residence at the Zarzuela Palace. There are plenty of tales of clandestine meetings. Opposition figures like Javier Solana -- now spokesman for Prime Minister Gonz'alez, then an underground socialist militant -- were smuggled into the palace by trusted friends, faces well-hidden in motorcycle helmets.

Visits abroad also brought Juan Carlos into contact with political leaders such as President John F. Kennedy, who shared the King's hopes for Spain's future.

In those difficult years as a prince with no official status or purpose, Juan Carlos had to prove himself to Franco, to both the right and left, and to his father, with whom he long maintained a tense, painful relationship.

Previously, various stints in different military academies led Juan Carlos to establish a close, comrade-in-arms relationship with the military.

This was to be instrumental in keeping the Army in check during touchy moments of the transition to democracy, such as the legalization of the Communist Party in 1977.

Juan Carlos lacks ease when speaking in public. His simplicity and warmth, however, have won him the enthusiasm of crowds and the sympathy of traditional republican stalwarts.