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The King of All Spaniards

At 1:15 a.m. on the morning of February 24, 1981, King Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón saved Spain. In an act of surprising courage and unexpected conviction, the king, dressed in full military regalia, addressed the nation concerning the recent attempted coup d'état staged by a mustached buffoon named Antonio Tejero. Tejero, accompanied by a group of disgruntled (and heavily armed) Civil Guard troops, had stormed the Cortes on February 23rd—the act has become so infamous that Spaniards simply refer to it as "23-F"—and demanded a return to the military-run, reactionary policies of the recent past. The Parliament was in full session, and around the benches sat the entire leadership of Spain's political parties, elected officials with constituencies of their own, and noted politicians whose names resonated through decades of resistance to Francisco Franco's dictatorship (for example, Dolores Ibarruri, the firebrand Communist known as "La Pasionaria," was an elected official). Tejero's henchmen, with loaded guns, brought the government to a standstill. Spain listened in horror (radio broadcasts recorded the whole sordid affair), and feared the worst: a return to the repressive past. It was expected by many that Juan Carlos—educated in Franco's Spain, untrained in statesmanship, known dismissively as "Juan Carlos the Brief" by opponents in the days following Franco's death in 1975, and titular head of the armed forces—would side with the insurgents. They were wrong.