Politics & Policy

Cold War Couple

The marriage that did in an Evil Empire.

“They were ying and yang, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, identical but opposite.” Opposites attract, even in politics.

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of the new book, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher: A Political Marriage. He recently took questions about the historic partnership from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why did you pick “marriage” as the description of the Ronald Reagan — Margaret Thatcher relationship?

Nicholas Wapshott: Because their friendship and working partnership was far closer than any other, even more intimate even than that of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, where Roosevelt never let Churchill forget that he was a supplicant. Not only were Reagan and Thatcher completely in concert with their political beliefs, their unshakeable personal alliance echoed those harmonious arrangements in which men and women combine perfectly at work and take office husbands and wives.

If you read the many recently declassified private letters and telephone conversations between them I reproduce in the book for the first time, it is hard to avoid the fact that they had transcended the barriers which usually divide great political leaders and had come to share their White House and Downing Street decisions as a married couple might. Indeed, most married couples would think themselves lucky to take part in such a stimulating, productive, sympathetic, loyal, and affectionate union as Reagan and Thatcher enjoyed. You would either have to be very stuffy, or inappropriately proprietorial about the two of them, to object to the word marriage.

Just take another look at Reagan’s state funeral three years ago at the National Cathedral in Washington. If you knew nothing about who was being celebrated and who was mourning, it would be easy and understandable to conclude that Margaret Thatcher was the widow. It is not too much of a stretch to say that in the interment that followed at the Reagan Memorial Library in Simi Valley there were three widows, his former wife Jane Wyman, his wife Nancy Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.

Lopez: How were Reagan and Thatcher opposites? How important was that?

Wapshott: They were ying and yang, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, identical but opposite. When they first met in 1975, when Reagan was already 65 and Thatcher 50, it was like H. M. Stanley stumbling across Dr. Livingstone. They finished each other’s sentences from the moment they met.

But they were executives of a very different cast. Reagan was a great delegator, a broad brush leader who assumed that everyone knew what was expected of them and he allowed them to get on with it. Thatcher trusted few of her ministers to get things right without constant prodding. She was a naturally intrusive character who once told Nigel Lawson, her most successful chancellor of the exchequer, that it was time he had a haircut. And she did not hold back from pointing out to Reagan where she thought he was going wrong.

In the Falklands War, the invasion of Grenada, the imposition of economic sanctions against the Soviet Union over martial law in Poland, above all in the nuclear disarmament talks in Reykjavík with Mikhail Gorbachev, Thatcher made it clear, through the letters and telephone blasts that I quote from, that she thought Reagan needed some guidance. He was such a sweet, warm, charming, sunny fellow that he quite liked being handbagged by her. Many husbands and wives will recognize this aspect of their relationship.

Lopez: Were Nancy or Denis ever worried?

Wapshott: Worried about what? Nancy Reagan and Denis Thatcher didn’t get much of a look in. They had long before resigned themselves to being their partner’s principal moral support and refrained from offering political advice. What Reagan and Thatcher found in each other was a common understanding of what it was to operate in the sparse and heady air at the very top of public life. And they both came from backgrounds where good manners were important. Reagan was an old fashioned courtly fellow who enjoyed treating Thatcher as a special lady. It was an aspect of Reagan that Thatcher particularly enjoyed.

Thatcher always credited Denis with providing her the means to pursue a political career. After they married, she was free to follow her ambition without having to worry about where the next pay check was coming from. And Nancy was wholly devoted to Ronnie, whatever he wanted to do. As someone I quote in the book says, “After meeting Ronnie, Ronnie was Nancy’s career.” Nancy and Denis knew that they could never take part in high-table discussions and were content to confine themselves to standing on the sidelines. There was no jealousy involved, just pride in their partners’ achievements.

When Ronnie and Margaret were off debating the future of the world there must have been some awkward moments for Nancy and Denis left in each other’s company. Perhaps one day Bill Clinton will be able to tell us what it is like to be the only man in a room full of First Ladies.

Lopez: Was there a most-historic moment between Reagan and Thatcher?

Wapshott: When they met they were on the threshold of what was to be one of the most successful political collaborations in the long history of the relationship between America and Britain. It turned out, in retrospect, to be one of the most important encounters of modern times.

And the reason they were so close was that they had so much in common. They both considered themselves ‘conviction politicians,’ by which they meant that they had formed their beliefs through their upbringing and personal experience. Their common sense had led them to their ideology, not books nor political theorists. That is not to say they had not read the key conservative texts, such as Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom and Milton Friedman, but that they read them after they had come to similar conclusions without help. The theory echoed their beliefs. And they had both acquired their near identical views through their families, their churches, and their experience in life and government.

Had they not coincided with each other, both would have found it far more difficult to change the course of the world, as they were able to do in concert. After the first meeting they worked out a modus operandi which led to all the other important events on which they combined, so that first meeting is perhaps the key to the golden age of conservatism they left behind.

Lopez: How much in your book is new and how did you get your hands on it?

Wapshott: As the main narrative of their lives has been so well dug over, I have tried to make a virtue of allowing them to tell their own stories as much as possible in their own words. As one of the first biographers of Thatcher, Thatcher published in 1983, I was also able to borrow from my own research. I also reported on Thatcher when political editor of The Observer through the end of the Eighties and into the Nineties, during which time I went into Downing Street most days and watched her trounce her Labour opponents in the Commons each week. I traveled with her on numerous foreign trips and came to know her quite well. I also relied on a number of people who worked closely with her at the time, such as Charles Powell, now a member of the Lords, who is a dear friend and who has always been a generous contact since those early days.

However, the real breakthrough in new material has come from the fact that over the last few years enormous numbers of private letters and transcripts of secret telephone conversations have been declassified. They are to be found in the Reagan Library and the Thatcher Archive in Churchill College, Cambridge, and are meticulously listed in the endnotes of my book. Students of the two leaders have an easy crib on which they can base their arguments.

I am amazed that even those who have written recently about the two of them did not think it worth spending time trawling through the archives, which prove to be a diamond mine of original and revealing insights into their collaborative efforts. Even the most mundane official letter is often appended with a personal note written in their own hand revealing the scale of the intimacy between them.

Before I set out on the book I knew that they had worked side by side to enormous effect. What I could not have imagined, and what has made the book such a breakthrough work for those interested in the history of modern conservatism, is how much new material there was left to discover. I count myself very lucky that someone else didn’t beat me to it. Coming across this new material, I felt as happy as Howard Carter in 1922 breaking into the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Lopez: How important are marriages of these sorts to politics?

Wapshott: Few leaders can make much headway on their own. Good politicians always forge alliances which means that their efforts are magnified by a multiplier effect. But few have every come as close as Reagan and Thatcher. And it would be hard to downplay the importance of the fact that one was a man and the other a woman. They were both leaders of powerful nations which had fallen into a pessimistic state of mind and together, armed with a short list of important but achievable ambitions, they were able to see off their rivals and their opponents.

A good example of this is how Thatcher was able to smooth the way for Reagan in international summits. She was elected more than a year before Reagan and had come to understand how such cumbersome meetings work. As Charles Powell explained to me, due to the lack of imagination of those who make the arrangements for such summits, seating is allocated alphabetically, meaning that the U.K. is always alongside the U.S. Reagan was severely underestimated by other world leaders before he became president, not least by the snobbish Europeans who thought he was an uneducated, foolish cowboy, a former “B” picture Hollywood actor without sophistication. Thatcher mentored him through the first few summits and kept the others in check until he could find his feet. He counted on her and she delivered.

Lopez: Do the Clintons remind you at all of Reagan and Thatcher?

Wapshott: Not much. Though, now I come to think of it, Bill Clinton is the only politician in recent times who was able, like Reagan, to effortlessly charm anyone he met. I have been in audiences of blue rinsed self proclaimed Clinton-hating Republican women who have drooled when Clinton-entered the room. I have heard lifelong Democrats say the same about Reagan.

And Hillary is similar in some respects to Margaret Thatcher, in as much as Thatcher prided herself on being dubbed “The Iron Lady” by the Soviet leadership and Hillary is undoubtedly steely, as anyone who has met her but does not know her well will attest. But in her close circle, Hillary is, apparently, as charming as Thatcher can be when relaxed among friends.

Thatcher was always a man’s woman, by which I mean that she was quite happy to use her feminine wiles to charm men into doing what she wanted. I have been at the receiving end of her charm myself and it is devastating. I felt like Benjamin in The Graduate attracting the attention of Mrs. Robinson. Hillary, however, is a woman’s woman. If you ask those who know her well you discover that while men find it difficult to like her, women bond with her very easily.

So, now you come to mention it, the comparison with the Clintons tells us more than I might have imagined. It was a good question.

Lopez: When was the last time Reagan and Thatcher really talked?

Wapshott: Really they didn’t exchange views, except for pleasantries, beyond the moment Reagan left the White House in 1988. Thatcher has little small talk and although they kept in touch and Thatcher visited Reagan on his horse ranch in Santa Barbara, they did not continue their dialogue about conservatism. Reagan was happy to retire. He walked away from the White House without looking back. He had no regrets. His idea of a good time, as he expressed it, was spending a day leafing through horse and gun magazines.

Thatcher is quite the opposite. She likes a good animated discussion still, even though her power is much diminished. Her political assassination at the hands of her colleagues was terribly hurtful to her, almost like a bereavement, but she has, much to the annoyance of the Conservative Party, continued to prod and cajole them to keep them up to the mark.

Lopez: Did Thatcher-Reagan and the Cold War influence Blair-Bush and the war on terror?

Wapshott: Reagan and Thatcher allowed America and Britain to regain their confidence in the world. They disparaged appeasement. They thought that the spirit of Winston Churchill was the right one to invoke when western civilization was threatened. And so did Bush and Blair. It is possible Bush and Blair would have responded as robustly without the example of Reagan and Thatcher to follow, but it was by no means automatic.

If you remember, shortly after Reagan had retired and George H.W. Bush was president, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. I remember it well as I was on Thatcher’s plane on the way to a conference in Aspen, Colorado, when the news came through that the Iraqis were in Kuwait City. Bush Sr. hesitated for a moment until Thatcher wagged her finger at him, saying, “Don’t go wobbly on me, George.” George W. Bush’s view of his father’s behavior at that time is not known, though it would be hard to imagine that it did not play its part in his decisive response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, and his decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

I cannot imagine any circumstances in which any prime minister of Britain would do anything except stand shoulder to shoulder with an American president, particularly in times of crisis. The national interests of America and Britain are identical and all British leaders know that. People forget that Blair was as close, perhaps even closer, to Bill Clinton as he was to George W. Bush. And Gordon Brown will continue to back George W. Bush and will continue to be close to the next president, whoever that turns out to be.

Lopez: Does the war on terror need a marriage right now?

Wapshott: I’m not sure it needs a marriage, but it would be easier to wage the war on terror if the president were as articulate and persuasive and charming to our allies as Reagan was. What we need is for everyone to understand that western civilization is at stake if we do not stand firm. That means strong and persuasive leadership in the White House and the ability to forge alliances with everyone in the west so that everyone plays their full part.

Lopez: What is the British fascination with poodles? Thatcher was knocked as Reagan’s, Bush as Blair’s….

Wapshott: I think poodle is are a particularly harsh expletive for the Brits because the poodle is thought of as a French dog. Although Thatcher was sometimes called Reagan’s poodle, it was hardly a serious accusation, more a piece of mindless abuse from those who didn’t pay attention to what was going on. As the newly published letters and transcripts in my book show, she was far from being a poodle, more like an English terrier. (Churchill, we know, was a British bulldog.) Thatcher was capable of giving Reagan a nip if she thought he was straying from the path.

Blair, however, suffered because the public perception of him was to do everything that Bush asked of him without question. We will have to wait 20 years before the letters and the telephone conversations between them are declassified to discover whether, like I found out about Reagan and Thatcher, there was more disagreement behind the scenes than we realized.

Lopez: Most of the Republicans running for president have visited with Lady Thatcher. Has she given any clues as to who reminds her most of her Ron?

Wapshott: No, she is far to smart to involve herself directly in American politics. She is delighted, however, that she has come to symbolize the strength and purity of the fundamental conservative ideals she and Reagan came to epitomize. As long as a Republican wins, she will be happy. And, knowing her, she will be eager to come and visit him — alas, there are no women on the shortlist — at the earliest opportunity.

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