Letter from Madrid: How did King Felipe VI Come to America?

The reception for Spain’s new king, Fulbright and Georgetown alumnus Felipe VI, involved a very long receiving line at the Palace. Besides the setting, which is magnificent and historic, it was the modest event it was proclaimed to be. The guests were divided into a number of immense waiting rooms filled with friends, diplomats, ministers, and military leaders. I am sure there were other Americans, but none that I could see or hear.

What I did hear repeatedly was the praise of the American education that Felipe received. As one State Minister put it, “now, more than half the cabinet have U.S. degrees, and many are Fulbrighters.” The Spanish-American Fulbright Commission recommended to the Fulbright Board that Felipe be made an honorary Fulbrighter when he was admitted to graduate school in 1993, because he met all of their criteria for academic excellence and civic service.

Fulbright was much in the news in Madrid last week for winning Spain’s equivalent of a Nobel Prize—the 2014 Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation.

So how did Felipe come to America?

Some years ago, the then Spanish Ambassador to Washington came to see me at Georgetown, where I was executive dean at the School of Foreign Service. The Ambassador was on a mission, he said, “from King Juan Carlos.” His Majesty wanted to give his son “the rarest of all gifts a king could give a crown prince: two years to study seriously and not have to undertake any royal duties,” said the Ambassador. Both the length of unencumbered time and the course of study mattered, and Felipe and I realized that, once it was over, he would never be able to have that kind of experience again. Within hours of Filipe’s graduation from the Master of Science in Foreign Service program, he was on a plane back to Madrid and many delayed duties.

The Ambassador made it clear that Georgetown was one of several schools at which he was looking—and mentioned only that he had just returned from Cambridge, Mass.

When I met the King, he said that he wanted to find a place where Felipe could study without paparazzi or similar distraction. He also needed safety, as separatist terrorism was then gripping Spain. We agreed that there would be one, and only one, press conference when the prince entered the gates of Georgetown for the first time, and that would also be the last time that anyone would refer to him as royalty. His security detail took classes with him (and we gave them honorary Master’s Degrees).

Most important, the King and Felipe kept their word. Two years of serious and fulltime study followed. Felipe majored in U.S. foreign policy and contemporary Arab studies. When I asked his father why the latter, he said technically the King of Spain is also the King of Jerusalem.

At the reception, Felipe and Letizia greeted every guest. It took quite a while. But, as I waited, I recalled his graduation and the events surrounding it. At the evening dance the night before his graduation, some of our female students told me they hoped he might dance with them. He actually did with every single one. And at the degree ceremony, I was told that afterwards some classmates wanted to take a picture with his family and theirs. Felipe also made that happen—and for all.

In his speech to the Parliament on Thursday, the new King spoke in depth about inclusiveness for Spain, where despite strong regional identities “we can all fit.” And he concluded by saying that “nothing would honor me more than if, through my work and my daily efforts, Spaniards would feel proud of me.”

In Felipe, what you see is what you get. And I am already proud of him. So are, I am sure, all those classmates who have those pictures with a patient and humble prince of a graduation that was special and inclusive for all.