The Iron Lady was an inappropriate epithet for Margaret Thatcher. She disliked it, but learned to use it to her advantage. For those who knew her in her prime, however, it did not do justice to her.
Returning aboard her plane from a trip to Japan, I offered to help her open a bottle of Champagne. “No, Nicholas,” she ordered, pointing to her chair. “Sit down. I’ll do it.” I protested that if there was one thing I was good at, it was opening Champagne. She fixed me with a stare, passed the bubbly to her press secretary, put both hands on my shoulders, and pushed me down into her seat. I felt a charge go through my body. I have thought of it ever since as my Mrs. Robinson moment.
It was Mrs. Thatcher’s charisma that those who thought of her as merely a hectoring bossy-boots did not grasp. And it was that sense of subdued danger and not-quite-erotic excitement that inspired the most important Anglo-American alliance since that of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
From the moment they met, in April 1975, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan bonded. They agreed on almost everything, and even completed each other’s thoughts. When he encouraged Paul A. Volcker, the Federal Reserve chairman, to deliberately set off a recession in the hope of purging hyperinflation, she encouraged him to resist the alarmist warnings of those who thought the resulting high unemployment and business bankruptcies were too dear a price. She had been there and done that.
On the world stage, she was mostly the good cop to Reagan’s bad, though sometimes they switched places. Reagan’s pointless tirades against Communism may have remained just that, had Mrs. Thatcher not explored a way to engage with a new generation of Soviet leaders. Having attended two funerals of the grumpy old men who ran what Reagan dubbed “The Evil Empire,” she invited two young Kremlin rivals to London. When Mikhail S. Gorbachev arrived at No. 10 Downing Street, she perceived that he was the man on the rise and swiftly called Reagan to say he was “a man who you can do business with.” The resulting Reagan-Gorbachev summit meetings hastened the Soviet Union’s demise.
Reagan and Thatcher did not end the cold war — proper credit goes to defiant dock workers in Gdansk, Poland; decades of brave resistance by refuseniks in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere; and John Paul II, the “Polish pope” — but together, with her worldly sense of what was possible alongside his bonhomie and charm, they helped ensure that the transfer was peaceful.
What the British like to think of as the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain flowered under Mrs. Thatcher. She offered sound advice and urged resolution on a president anxious to do the right thing. Her example taught her successor, Tony Blair, that to increase his influence in the world he must befriend first Bill Clinton, then George W. Bush. That was fine when, as in Kosovo, Mr. Blair and Mr. Clinton agreed on the same approach. When Mr. Bush became intent on invading Iraq, Mr. Blair’s opinions on the occupation of Iraq were dismissed and yet he, too, fell in line, a serious blemish on his tenure.
Reagan, for all his jokes and banter, was aloof, even to close members of his family. Mrs. Thatcher, too, often kept her distance, and with good reason. A woman who stormed the male chauvinist citadel that was the Tory Party, she lived with the constant threat of revolt, as she found out when they took turns stabbing her like Caesar on the steps of the Roman Senate. Yet in each other Thatcher and Reagan found not merely kindred spirits, but life partners. It is not extravagant to suggest that the alliance they forged was a political marriage.
Of the two, Thatcher was more fiercely loyal and Reagan more likely to play the henpecked husband. Once he interrupted a meeting in the Oval Office to take a call from her. Putting a hand over the mouthpiece, he held up the phone so the others could hear her hectoring like Ethel Merman. “It’s Margaret,” he said, amusedly. “Isn’t she wonderful?” After he dared to invade Grenada, a member of the British Commonwealth, without tipping her off in advance, he called her to say, “If I were there, Margaret, I’d throw my hat in the door before I came in.”
“There’s no need to do that,” was her chilly reply. It took some minutes of awkward explanation, laced with Reagan charm, before she thawed.
The Thatcher papers reveal a close rapport conducted literally in the margins. No official memorandum was too important for them not to scribble personal notes, like birthday wishes or best regards to their spouses, Nancy and Denis, at the end, as if they were torrid teenagers texting. Sometimes messages of support were not enough. When Reagan was consumed by the Iran-contra affair, Thatcher wrote to him, “Whatever happened over Iran is in the past and nothing can change it.” She flew to his side and did the rounds of the breakfast shows, wagging her fingers at those who dare suggest her office husband was anything but perfect.
When Reagan, in his childlike optimism, almost traded away the West’s nuclear arsenal at Reykjavik, Iceland, at a summit meeting in 1986, Mrs. Thatcher leapt into a plane and took the president aside, telling him the world would not be a safer place if mutually assured destruction were removed. And the alternative — huge standing armies and thousands of tanks facing each other across the East-West border — would break the bank. It was the only genuine disagreement they ever had.
Nicholas Wapshott, a former editor at the British newspapers The Times and The Observer, is the author of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage and, most recently, Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics.