06/05/2014 09:50 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

Juan Carlos the King, and Juan Carlos the Man


I met King Juan Carlos on a few occasions. I also spent a couple of hours with him alone at his office. And what I saw was a great man who was trapped in a lifetime job he did not choose, a person who had to fight his own instincts to be a free man and struggle hard to stay on as king. And if he stayed on until today, it was not because he loved to be king but because he loves Spain -- not royal Spain but all of Spain.

Most people think being king is a great job and blame monarchies for giving this awesome position to a person who was not elected for it. But if people really understood what the job is like, most would refuse it. And I actually do know people who rejected that job in other monarchies. These are people who had the opportunity to marry a prince and did not, mainly because of the lack of freedom and constant public appearances that the job entails, or people who abdicated to marry somebody they were in love with and wanted to lead a more normal life.

From what I could tell, King Juan Carlos' dream would have been to not be king. When he was younger he would escape from his kingly duties, drive somewhere in his car, and try to be a free individual for a few hours. Being king is a daily obligation, not a choice.

The first time I met King Juan Carlos, I had to dress in a special kind of tuxedo to dine with him in the royal palace. It was mandatory. And when I walked to greet him, my discomfort with wearing those clothes became so obvious that he read my mind and said, "Hombre, Martín, y tú, ¿qué crees? ¿Que a mi me gusta ir vestido así?" ("You think I like to go around dressed like this?") and gave me a big smile. After that comment I felt at home in his palace. That, to me, said it all about how he felt about being king. To me it meant that behind Juan Carlos the king there was Juan Carlos the man -- a funny, kind man who came to greet me with a charming, ironic comment. And in that meeting I realized how Juan Carlos the man was actually greater than Juan Carlos the jing. Yes, King Juan Carlos had shortcomings and his share of family scandals. But King Juan Carlos fought for democracy and led Spain through a period in which without him, paradoxically, democracy would have been more fragile. When I think of the Spain that he got at the start of his reign and the Spain that we have now, I am grateful to him. Everyone focuses on the fact that kings are not elected, but few think of how kings themselves do not choose what to do with their lives. Are we at their service, or are they the ultimate public servants? In Europe's constitutional democracies, it's the latter.