She had a clear vision and a blunt way of expressing it, and for 11 years as British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher wasn’t afraid to dispense tart advice to successive U.S. presidents.
“This is not the time to go wobbly, George,” she famously told the President George H.W. Bush after Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990.
It was vintage Thatcher, a message that was made possible by her cultivation of the closest possible relations with Bush and, before him, Ronald Reagan, in part to shore up her own image in Britain and in Europe as the embodiment of what was then a special U.S.-British relationship.
But only she could have gotten away with offering such advice over the telephone to an American president.
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Thatcher, who died Monday at age 87, was a towering figure in modern European politics, and her legacy shows the outsize impact a middle power can have on world affairs if led by a smart, determined and gutsy person – in this case the first woman to serve as prime minister.
She had a special talent for spotting trends – predicting the demise of communist rule, which actually happened while she was in office – and talent, such as when she identified Mikhail Gorbachev as a promising future leader of the Soviet Communist Party. “I like Mr. Gorbachev. This is a man I can do business with,” she said.
And though she despised communism with a passion, she delighted in being called the “Iron Lady,” the epithet given her by the Soviet Army newspaper Red Star in 1976, before she was prime minister. She quickly took it on as her own, telling parliamentary constituents a week later that she was proud to wear a “Red Star” evening gown and serve as “the Iron Lady of the Western world.”
Her trademark was to state her principles and adhere to them, even when they led to direct clashes with top U.S. leaders, or early in her time in office, to war. She took on her country’s national coal miners union early in her term, provoking a strike, which ended in the unions losing much of their power.
She also took on Britain’s welfare state and attempted to replace the cradle-to-grave free government services with a more competitive society.
When the Argentine military junta invaded the Falkland Islands (which Argentina calls the Malvinas) in April 1982, she ignored the misgivings of her own Cabinet and the lack of support from Washington and dispatched a British military task force 8,000 miles across the globe to forcibly dislodge the invaders.
At the time, her political stock was at rock bottom. But after the task force reclaimed the rocky archipelago, she suddenly became a popular and viable leader.
She took on anyone with whom she disagreed, often dismissing European leaders with thinly veiled contempt, but also on occasion an American president.
After the revelations of the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan administration that showed the U.S. was sending weapons and spare parts to Iran in a vain bid to buy freedom for American hostages held in Lebanon, Thatcher flew to Washington to have it out with the president.
“We pursue a policy of not delivering lethal weapons to either side” in the Iran-Iraq war, she told reporters after the meeting with Reagan. But adhering to principles did not translate into giving credible answers when it came to the foibles of a U.S. leader. After Reagan insisted that he had not authorized the shipment of U.S. spare parts to Iran, she told reporters, “I believe implicitly in the president’s total integrity on that subject.”
But she wasn’t always consistent. She claimed her hard-line stance had helped accelerate the end of the Cold War – and Gorbachev, in a tribute to her, agreed that she had helped end the four-decade East-West standoff. But she was the most reluctant of Europe’s leaders to support the reunification of Germany and to acknowledge the power that a united Germany was about to take on.
At home, her mastery of the briefs of domestic and foreign policies and her feisty manner made for a dazzling show in Parliament. Barry May, a former Reuters reporter who covered her at parliamentary question time, recalled it was “like being on the edge of a bear pit, where the great she-bear always wins.”
She had the reputation of being utterly humorless, but in the European Union, where she attempted to give Britain a unique role and to head off any move that would shed the political sovereignty of Parliament, she traded barbs with her fellow European leaders, who made no secret of their dislike for her.
In 1989, after NATO agreed on East-West negotiations to reduce the stock of U.S.-supplied short-range nuclear weapons, Thatcher declared she was “very, very satisfied” with the “very tight” conditions under which negotiations would open, and particularly that the Germans, “wriggle as they may, that is what they all signed up for.” German Chancellor Helmut Kohl called her “temperamental.”
“Mrs. Thatcher stood up for her interests in her temperamental way,” he said. “I supported mine. We have different temperaments. And she’s a woman, and I’m not.”
Peter Gregson, a fomer Reuters reporter who covered Thatcher for her final four years in office, recalled that at a meeting to discuss strengthening European central authority, French President Jacques Chirac charged Thatcher with putting her foot “firmly on the brake of Europe.” She shot back, “That’s rich, coming from him. He hasn’t even gotten in the car yet.”
Reporters who covered her recalled that she would sometimes put her personal touch on party and even travel arrangements. At No. 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence in London, the Iron Lady “was as much in control of domestic matters as she was of the country’s politics,” recalled May, the former Reuters correspondent. He recalled a Christmas party where he saw Thatcher, clutching her handbag, “fussing over the curtains and ordering flunkies about,” and taking no rebuttals from anyone.
Thatcher also had the gift of a great politician to be able to completely ignore her own shaky base and to carry on regardless. She was in Aspen, Colo., on the day that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein sent his forces across the border into Kuwait. Bush, after holding early meetings on the crisis, flew to Colorado for a long-planned meeting.
There she told Bush that appeasement in the 1930s had led to World War II, and she warned that Saddam soon would have the Persian Gulf at his feet and 65 percent of the world’s oil supply with it, according to Thatcher’s memoirs. Her forceful delivery at a news conference, compared to Bush’s hesitations, left the impression that Thatcher had tried to strengthen his backbone.
All the while, Thatcher, who had seemingly lost interest in her country’s domestic affairs, was losing support among her own Conservative Party, which decided at a subsequent party conference to oust her as party leader. In November 1990, the party replaced her with John Major, a high school dropout whose calm demeanor, businesslike style and seeming lack of any ideology was a near-complete contrast.