Alvin Felzenberg is writing a biography of National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr. In an interview with National Review Online today, he shares some WFB stories on Mrs. Thatcher and some of his own.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How did WFB know Margaret Thatcher?
ALVIN FELZENBERG: Bill did at least two interviews with her on Firing Line before she became prime minister. In one she was education secretary. Another time she had just become opposition leader. He was obviously very taken with her. After their first meeting after she became prime minister, Bill wrote a column titled “Call me Mr. Bill.”
As I recall it, some people in Britain had been confused at Americans’ tendency to call people they did not know personally or had never even met by nicknames, which, of course, suggest familiarity.
The “Jimmy Carter” phenomenon was one such instance. People, not yet born yet when the Kennedy administration ended talking about “Jack Kennedy” was another. After Thatcher became prime minister, Buckley engaged her in a conversation as to whether he might call her “Mrs.Thatcher” or “Mme. Prime Minister” on his show. She advised him to call her “Margaret” as a sign of their friendship. Incidentally, “Mrs. T.” as her staff referred to her, took on an Americanism of her own when referring to her favorite predecessor as merely “Winston.”
Buckley and Mrs. T. had many mutual friends on both sides of the pond. Buckley was among the first Americans to see Thatcher as a “comer” in British politics. The friendship was one of mutual attraction based on the power of their ideas. They were kindred spirits.
Naturally, Bill appreciated the great support “Maggie” (as she was only known to intimates) gave to Buckley’s favorite president, Ronald Reagan. He admired the courage and determination she showed during the Falklands War and especially how she resisted handing over a part of Britain to a military dictatorship merely to be “politically correct.” He admired how she resisted the trade unions that had brought Britain to its knees. He looked on in admiration as she cut taxes, retained the pound, and brought Britain back to the point that it could influence events once again on the world stage.
LOPEZ: Are there points you imagine WFB would be making about her now?
FELZENBERG: As a skillful debater himself, he reveled in how she handled herself during “Question Time” in Parliament. I can see him now watching and proclaiming “marvelous!” He also admired the way she got Britain to believe in itself again.
LOPEZ: You’ve been around politics. You must have your own memories of her?
FELZENBERG: The year was 1996. She had not been out of office very long. Mrs. Thatcher was in town to deliver talks at Washington think tanks and to meet with prominent American conservatives. I had the great pleasure of talking with her on two of her stops.
The first was at the American Enterprise Institute. Thatcher related the first time she heard Ronald Reagan speak. It was in the deepest depths of the Carter era. Reagan mesmerized audiences in London with his depiction of the choice that Americans and their British friends had before them. “We owe it to those who come after us to be able to answer the one important question,” she quoted Reagan as saying. “And that is ‘where were you when freedom died. What did you do to prevent the forces of darkness from taking over the entire world. Let us resolve to do all we can to see that our children and grandchildren never ask us that question.”
The second occasion was at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Steve Forbes had announced or was about to announce his candidacy for president. He was addressing a well-attended talk after breakfast. Seated in the back of the room, I turned around and spotted what I thought was a familiar face. She was wearing a very elegant emerald green dress and what looked like a turban of the same color. “Mrs. Thatcher?” I whispered. “Shhh,” she replied. “I don’t want anyone to know I am here. But I have heard some wonderful things about this young man and wanted to hear what he had to say.” About 15 minutes before Forbes concluded, she rose. I accompanied her to the lobby and asked an employee at the hotel to put “my friend” on a service elevator where she would be alone. She thanked me and we chatted for a minute or two. As our still-anonymous visitor darted onto the service elevator, another elevator stopped beside it and emerged what seemed to be an endless throng of people, all talking loudly.
“Ghastly,” I heard her say as the door closed.
Two hours later, Mrs. T., dressed to the nines, and sporting her trademark “handbag,” reappeared. She was very much in character as she mounted the rostrum to deliver the keynote speech at lunch. She delivered a stellar “call to arms” speech to conservatives everywhere. She received a thunderous standing ovation. Ever the politician, after spotting me as she made her exit — this time escorted by some of the best known conservatives in town — she told me how much she enjoyed exchanging pleasantries with me after breakfast. That sure got a few heads turning!
LOPEZ: Why are Americans so fascinating by her?
FELZENBERG: Americans admired Thatcher’s determination, courage, and spunk. She was a real original.
LOPEZ: Did she and Reagan really get on as well as we think? What was that about?
FELZENBERG: They were kindred spirits too. And both, after all, had been “outsiders” within their respective parties. The “washed up actor,” son of an alcoholic father who could not hold a job, and the “grocer’s daughter’ hit it off at first sight. Remember, it was Thatcher who told Reagan that she could do business with Gorbachev. The rest, of course, is history.
Reagan trusted her completely. She returned favor in multiple ways. The only disagreement they ever had was over Grenada, a commonwealth country he invaded without informing her in advance. I am told that when she called to “chew him out,” Reagan put on the speaker phone, muted the sound, and said to those in his office, “Isn’t she wonderful?”