OPINION
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A king's public image

The line taken on the Urdangarin case has also been one of underestimating the dangers inherent in failure to respond in time

We are told that Charles IV of Spain once proudly remarked that kings could not easily be betrayed by their wives, as they would have to do so with other monarchs, and they were too far away. Whatever the truth of this anecdote - which, indeed, is much in line with what we know of the mentality of this Bourbon king - it illustrates the thin ice often walked upon by other reigning personalities, who believed that their exceptional position on the ladder of power made them exempt from risk. Remember Alfonso XIII, who on the one hand complained about his unpopularity in spite of his practicing of elite sports - forgetting how far they distanced him from the people - and on the other imagined that he would never, like Tsar Nicholas II, be left in the lurch by his nobles.

One's impression is that our present monarch is suffering from the same syndrome of self-absorption, as problems pile up around him. Perhaps in this case too much reliance has been placed on the king's wide popularity in the country, based on his admirable performance in the transition after Franco's death, and on the undeniable fact that his intervention stopped the coup d'état in February 1981.

A popularity, remember, attached to his person rather than to the monarchical institution itself. But decades have gone by since that time; the younger generations see these things at a distance, and in the crisis some hazardous circumstances and problems have gathered.

This was the case in the famous incident of the elephant hunt in Botswana, which came to light by chance, and showed the Spanish public a king who indulges in expensive amusements while so many are jobless; who shoots a more or less endangered species; and who goes on safari with a female companion whose expenses are, perhaps, paid by all of us. The king explained his mistake humbly enough, but the harm to his image had been done.

What is worrying, too, is the king's slow reaction to each of these problems. If the royal budget were to come under the Transparency Law - as it will sooner or later - this would dispel its present image as a relic of obsolete privilege.

Questionable, too, is the need for his presence in hotbeds of regional secessionism, as in the recent soccer match in the Basque Country, where he was booed disagreeably - and predictably. Any minister could have awarded the King's Cup, without the king exposing himself to jeers that were, of course, an expression of hatred for Spain.

The line taken on the Urdangarin case has also been one of underestimating the dangers inherent in failure to respond in time. What happened in England with Princess Diana was a good example of the boomerang effect that may occur when royals have been immersed in the bath of public opinion.

True, this is not England. Spain is different. But we do have "courtiers" eager to profit from proximity to the king or queen, in terms of promotion in their careers or favored priority in administrative procedures. Urdangarin appears to have been the tip of the iceberg, and everything indicates that the king might have removed the rotten apple before it contaminated the basket. The mere acquisition of the huge house in Pedralbes was sufficient evidence of wrongdoing, without waiting for a judicial investigation.

Don Juan Carlos's statement that he will not abdicate suggests that a certain siege mentality has set in. Machiavelli (to whose fall from office, five centuries ago this year, we owe the masterpiece he at last had time to write), noted with approval that Ferdinand of Aragon's modernity as a "prince of the new sort" lay in his way of seeing to it that his decisions aroused admiration among the people. An attitude worthy of imitation. Though perhaps it is already too late.