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Spotlight on the queen never fades

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
Queen Elizabeth waves to the crowds on her grandson's wedding day.
Queen Elizabeth waves to the crowds on her grandson's wedding day.
  • Bob Greene: Royal wedding a highlight in nearly 60-year reign of Queen Elizabeth
  • Greene says queen has been focus of public and media attention for all that time
  • Greene says Elizabeth has lasted through many cycles of change in media
  • Coverage of the queen has gone from worshipful to probing, he says

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Even as her grandson and his new bride were saying their vows Friday, there she was, being gazed upon by the world.

It would have been an extraordinary, perhaps even terrifying, feeling, were it being experienced by anyone else. But for her, for almost 60 years, it has been a fact of life. For her, the unending global gaze cast in her direction has been the definition of ordinary.

Queen Elizabeth -- for most people now alive, there has never been a time when Elizabeth was not the queen, or when those two words have not conjured up a picture of her. For her, the spotlight never goes out.

Without ever asking for it, she became a person who has been the focus of every eye and camera lens even before her coronation. She didn't solicit the attention, and the attendant news coverage, and she couldn't have stopped it even if she had wanted to. Unless you blame her for being born, you perhaps shouldn't resent all the decades of public fascination about her. She didn't apply for the job.

It has been a more-than-half-century storm of words, pictures, newsreels, videotapes, magazine covers, television specials, even feature films. She has lived in the (mostly) calm center of that storm, observing it rage all around her.

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The storm gathers force at specific moments -- weddings and funerals foremost among them. With Friday's wedding of her grandson William to Catherine Middleton, she became once again, even in the midst of all that, a hub of X-ray-like scrutiny.

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For her, it started in the era of Teletype operators and static-filled radio transmissions; on Friday, Twitter comments and color photographs sent from cell phones were reaching their intended audiences instantly. What must it be like, to have lived through six decades of that, from the era of big-circulation afternoon newspapers delivered by boxy, rumbling trucks to the era of crystal-clear, high-definition online video updates?

She'll probably never say, not in detail. Yet what a story that would be: Her own contemplations, from the heart of it, about being the seemingly stoic subject of all those words, spoken and written, of all those photos, still and moving. Her account of what it has felt like to be looking outward toward all of those who are aiming their eyes and their lenses inward. From the days of Linotype machines to the days of iPhones, being the woman on the receiving end of the perpetual stares.

The tone of the attention paid to her has shifted as radically as the technology. In 1951 -- just before Elizabeth became queen -- Fred Astaire and Jane Powell starred in a sunny musical with the title "Royal Wedding." It was a fictional tale set against the real-life 1947 wedding in London of Elizabeth and Prince Philip; color footage from the wedding day was spliced into the make-believe narrative of the movie. It all felt good-natured and trouble-free.

By 2006 a wonderful and complex movie, "The Queen," starring Helen Mirren, took a much darker look at Elizabeth's life. What the see-no-thunderclouds "Royal Wedding" and the anguish-around-every-corner "The Queen" had in common was that, as much as audiences 55 years apart may have been entertained by them, the one person who might be expected to have the biggest emotional stake in them, Elizabeth herself, had no say in how the stories would be told. Her personhood, in an odd way, was considered almost incidental.

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The swiftness with which the news and visual images of Friday's wedding in London is being disseminated is taken for granted by viewers and readers around the world. We're accustomed to that now. Elizabeth had already been queen for 13 years when the death of a fellow citizen of the United Kingdom and her first prime minister -- Winston Churchill -- was breaking news. To cover his funeral, Life magazine chartered a DC-8, outfitted it with a flying darkroom, a reference library, light tables and typewriter stands, and put 34 reporters, editors and photo-lab technicians aboard. The plane flew from New York to London, picked up the film that Life's photographers at the funeral had just shot and immediately took off again and sped toward Chicago.

The Life staff on the plane developed the film, wrote the copy, laid out the pages and prepared the magazine for publication on the way back across the Atlantic. They arrived in Chicago, where the printing plant was located, and they got the magazine out and onto newsstands on time, with the triumphant words on the cover: "24 Pages in Color." In that era, it seemed just short of miraculous: being able to get the color photos from England back to the U.S. and in front of readers so speedily.

On Friday, wedding photos were back in the U.S., and everywhere else, while the ceremony was still under way, while the strains of "God Save the Queen" were still echoing within Westminster Abbey. So was all manner of digital commentary, both kind and unkind.

One person, on Friday and for all the decades leading up to it, has been there through all the change. Most of what she has seen and felt, from the core of that ceaseless storm, she undoubtedly will take with her to her grave.

Which will not stop the storm. It is destined to outlast even her. She surely knows it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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