Ronnie's Friend Maggie

Margaret Thatcher was Reagan's Churchill; he was her FDR. Their countries, and the world, felt the force of their friendship

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Manchester Daily Express / SSPL / Getty Images

Thatcher, here with husband Dennis, became a defining figure on the world.

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The Iron Lady--a nickname that came from the Soviet Union--played a unique role in modern statecraft. A pioneering conservative force in a socialized Britain, she, like Reagan, shifted the terms of political conversation and of public possibility in her nation by challenging the received liberal wisdom of the postwar era. She quickly became a defining feature of the global landscape, an unapologetic, nearly always blunt advocate of freer markets, greater individualism and tougher anticommunism. Her fellow Tory Alan Clark was once asked whether he liked Thatcher. "Like her?" he replied. "She is not there to be liked. She's a force of nature."

So she was, along with her transatlantic friend Ronald Reagan. Dismissive of the language and ethos of détente with the Soviets, they were frank about the goal of winning, not merely enduring, what JFK had called the "long twilight struggle" with communism. And for all their ferocious and bracing rhetoric--Thatcher's delivered in a no-nonsense British way, Reagan's in the plain-speaking style of the American frontier--they were fundamentally pragmatic. It was Thatcher who first declared that Mikhail Gorbachev was a man with whom she could "do business," and the Soviet leader's ensuing partnership with Reagan (and later with George H.W. Bush) resulted in the collapse of the totalitarian system that had seemed a permanent force before Thatcher and Reagan's joint rise to power in their respective nations.

On the home front, both were attacked as uncaring. Thatcher was dubbed the Milk Snatcher for attempting to reform a free-milk program in British schools when she was Education Secretary in the 1970s; Reagan was pilloried when his Administration proposed categorizing ketchup as a vegetable in American public schools. They both soldiered on, sustained by active historical imaginations; they fervently believed that their countries, and the free world, had a great destiny to fulfill if only individual energies and communist nations could be freed.

The two first met one on one in London in 1975. Thatcher had just been elected leader of the Conservative Party in bleak, unreconstructed Labourite Britain; Reagan was between the California governorship and his nearly successful challenge to President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination. Asked about Thatcher afterward, he said he thought she would be a "magnificent Prime Minister." According to Reagan biographer Lou Cannon, Reagan's British questioner said such a thing could never happen: No woman could be Prime Minister. "England had a Queen named Victoria once who did rather well," Reagan is said to have replied.

Four years later, Reagan was proved right when Thatcher won the 1979 general election. She went to Washington to see Reagan just a month after his own Inauguration in 1981. In a meeting in the Oval Office, she was "as firm as ever re the Soviets and for reduction of govt.," Reagan wrote in his diary. "Expressed regret that she tried to reduce govt. spending a step at a time & was defeated in each attempt. Said she should have done it our way--an entire package--all or nothing." The next day, the Prime Minister went to Capitol Hill and essentially lobbied for the President's economic program. "Some of the [Senators] tried to give her a bad time," Reagan wrote, adding proudly, "She put them down firmly."

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