The Corner

The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister For All Seasons

I confess to be an enthusiastic fan of John O’Sullivan and his book, The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister. So I was thrilled to learn that it has been published in Italian. He was just in Rome for its launch there. So I took the opportunity to let him paint the scene there, talk about what he’s learned since writing the book, and … well any conversation with John is a good one. We talk a little about Sarah Palin and New START, too. I hope you enjoy it — maybe a little Christmas gift? And if you were looking for one last gift, perhaps The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister is it?

Lopez: You were just in Rome for the launch of your book there. Set the scene a little for those of us who didn’t have the airfare.

O’Sullivan:: My Italian book launch — a blend of panel debate and cocktail party — took place against two very contrasting backgrounds. It was held at the offices of the Lepanto Institute in a quiet old monastery building that overlooks the ancient city. My three hosts there were my publisher, Il Borghese, the Rome branch of the Acton Institute, and the Foundation itself. And the debate was chaired by the scholarly head of Lepanto, Roberto de Mattei, whose latest book is a study of Vatican councils from a traditionalist standpoint. So, despite the prosecco, the debate we had was a sober intellectual discussion of the interplay between religion and politics, illustrated by the events of the 1980s

But the event took place in the middle of a full-blown Italian political crisis. Berlusconi was defending his government’s record in the parliamentary no-confidence debate at exactly the same time as the party was taking off. So several members of the Italian Parliament who would otherwise have been present to discuss the book, including one old friend, had to send apologies. And one or two audience members were surreptitiously checking the course of the other debate over their blackberries.

Most of those at the Rome launch were, however, orthodox Catholics with an intellectual bent and an interest in politics. The audience mainly reflected the work of the Lepanto Institute, which defends traditional Catholicism, and of the Acton Institute which seeks to reconcile classical liberalism with Catholic thought. There was a good sprinkling of young American Catholics who work in, or near, or in some respect with the Vatican and who plainly love living in Rome.

Not everyone was a conservative Catholic by a long chalk. And not everyone agreed with my thesis. The discussion got quite lively and expanded at times well beyond the book — into current politics, Sarah Palin, the Iraq War, and all that jazz — but it generally returned to religious and providential themes.

I suppose it’s possible that if politicians had been there in force, the atmosphere might have been, well, more secular.


Lopez: When in Rome … was the JPII the real star there?

O’Sullivan: Not as much as you might expect. There was enormous respect and even love for the late pope, of course. But this was a gathering that knew more about John Paul II than I did. They were curious about what they didn’t know and thus about Reagan and Thatcher. My “unique selling proposition” with them, so to speak, was my work for Lady Thatcher both in Downing Street and later on her memoirs. They were interested in her, for instance, as someone brought up as a Methodist. How had that affected her political views? Did she think — as the pope and Reagan certainly did — that she had been saved from assassination for some great purpose? (She didn’t. She felt it would be vainglorious of her to think so.) It was interesting to me that they found her practical commonsense outgoing un-mystical Christianity rather simpatico if also somewhat provincial. Mrs. Thatcher is indeed the incarnation of provincial Methodist virtues — like Reagan, a very simple person, not riven by doubt about essentials, and decisive for that reason. The sophisticated Romans seemed to find that touching as well as impressive.

Lopez: Was the Roman emphasis different from an American’s?

O’Sullivan: Once again, not as much as you might expect. American audiences tend to be quite interested in the religious causes of the end of the Cold War — how John Paul’s visit to Poland began the erosion of communist control of Eastern Europe, etc. It is the Western Europeans who are intellectually resistant to any mention of God in this kind of context. There may have been some Europeans of that kind in my Roman audience. One blogger got mildly derisive because I mentioned Sarah Palin as an example of how a Christian politician can affirm positions rooted in her faith and still prosper politically. He seemed to think that any praise of her was a presidential endorsement. But most of those present were Christian believers and therefore, like most Americans, receptive to historical explanations rooted in religion.

Lopez: Your book is in six languages. How does that come about? Pitching? Requests?

O’Sullivan: Word of mouth mainly, I think. Not my mouth, incidentally, but that of the readers. The Italian edition, I learned at the party, was suggested to the publisher by Jose Maria Aznar, the former Spanish prime minister (and, incidentally, a great man), whose think tank in Madrid had earlier published the book there. My American publisher, Regnery, also did a great job early on in selling the rights to my Polish, Spanish, and Portuguese publishers. At least one of the foreign editions came as a complete surprise to me and to them. I learned of it from a friend who telephoned to congratulate me about it after seeing an advertisement. Still, all’s well that ends well.


Lopez: You don’t read six languages, do you? Is it odd to have your book published in languages you can’t communicate in?


O’Sullivan: No, I read and write in English and I can handle a little pidgin French after a month in the country. So it’s a slightly weird experience to look through the book in Spanish, Czech, or whatever. You recognize a particular passage, then you remember what you wrote in English, and finally you try to translate the passage on the basis of your recall. It’s a little like reading the old Loeb classics in which the Greek or Latin was on the left page and the English translation on the right. But I’m told that I’ve had excellent translators. So my book may have gained something in translation.


Lopez: How do Europeans feel about the Reagan part of the story?

O’Sullivan: European attitudes to Reagan have altered dramatically in the last twenty years. He’s now seen across the political spectrum as a formidable statesman whose contribution to the defeat of Communism was massive and indispensable. The Left’s attempt in the 1990s to give Gorbachev rather than Reagan the principal credit for ending the Cold War has really evaporated. Gorbachev is still respected for his refusal to send in the tanks to preserve the Soviet empire. But he is no longer seen as a motor force of history. His reforms were the Soviet Union’s response to the pressures exerted on it by my three heroes. Gorbachev was an effect more than a cause: Without Reagan, no Gorbachev.

But there are still large gaps in Europe’s knowledge of Reagan — they know much less than Americans about Reagan’s public and private writings that have emerged since his death. I find that they are surprised and impressed that this Hollywood star and symbol of American capitalism was privately a man of great simplicity and humility. Descriptions of the modest Reagan Ranch as a material reflection of his soul especially interest them. They are fascinated that this “cowboy” — the 1980s European view — turned out to be a thoughtful and even radical nuclear disarmer. And because they have such a low opinion of their own political leaders, they see Reagan as an admirable and principled man even when they on the opposite side to him politically.  


Lopez: Is the START treaty a sign we’re missing some lessons of history in your book?

O’Sullivan: I am nervous of drawing direct comparisons between the arms control controversies of the 1980s and those of today. The circumstances are very different: The Soviet Union was a rising world superpower, still expanding its empire in 1980, and today’s Russia is a declining power with terrible problems in economics, demography, and almost everything else. It needs to be coaxed out of a stupid, short-sighted, and aggressive neo-imperial mindset that is making enemies of all its neighbors. That policy is unsustainable in the long run, but it is capable of doing immense damage before it collapses. So we have to meet it with a combination of firm resistance on behalf of our East European and other allies and a willingness to cooperate on mutually beneficial economic and military programs. What that means for START I leave to the arms-control experts.

Friends whose judgment I respect are on both sides of that debate.


Lopez: How is your book a book of the hour right now?

O’Sullivan: Well, the centenary of Reagan’s birth takes place on February 11th, 2011. It will be celebrated all over America and Europe both with scholarly reconsiderations and with public celebrations. So my book has become topical again.

But if you will forgive the boasting, Kathryn, there’s another reason too. I would say The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister is a book for all seasons. At one level it’s a popular and fast-paced history of how the Cold War ended. At a deeper level it’s a story of how faith, courage, honesty, and hope withstood and overcame cynicism, lying, despair and cowardice. Reagan, John Paul II and Thatcher defeated the evil empire because they were brave and virtuous. Once they had slain their enemies, those enemies rose transformed from the ground and embraced them as friends. That kind of story never grows stale. Should I mention C. S. Lewis here?


Lopez: What would a tea-partier most get out of your book, reading it this Christmas-time?

O’Sullivan: I hope that, like any other reader of my book, the tea-partier would get from it an exciting historical story well told. But since the tea-partiers are outsiders by almost every definition, I hope they would also notice that my three heroes begin the book as outsiders — the pope as a Pole in an Italian Church where he was “too Catholic;” Mrs. Thatcher as a woman in a male-dominated Tory party where she was “too conservative;” and Reagan as a cock-eyed optimist surrounded by Jimmy Carter’s gloomy post-American malaise in which he seemed “too American.” Outsiders often bring a fresh perspective and fresh energy to a tired metropolis. And they also have to fight metropolitan snobbery to succeed.

I believe there’s biblical support for this view: see John 1.43.


Lopez: Why might you counsel new members of Congress to read it?

O’Sullivan: Well, I don’t think I want to go around counseling Congress. They already have enough burdens to bear. But I might gently hint that they should read those passages in which timid and time-serving politicians (both in the U.S. and Europe) seek to frustrate the policies of my three protagonists out of creeping ambition, deference to fashionable opinion, or a kind of ideological post-patriotism. Those pols, including at least one American “icon,” look shamefully low and conniving in retrospect. Don’t risk looking like them down the road when the archives are opened.


Lopez: What do people most frequently tell you about the book? Does it depend on the country?

O’Sullivan: My favorite judgment on the book so far came from the then Polish Foreign Minister, Anna Fotyga, at the Warsaw launch in the British Embassy. She said (I’m quoting from memory): “This book reads like a thriller.” Others have said similar things. And I have been lucky in having splendid book launches for almost every edition. It doesn’t seem to depend on the country.

Mrs. Fotyga delivered her judgment at a book party given jointly by the British and U.S. ambassadors that was attended by half the Polish establishment. Her successor, Radek Sikorski, shared a platform with me a little later at which we discussed both our books. In the Czech Republic President Klaus invited me to the Prague Castle to discuss it. In Madrid the former Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar invited me to share a platform with him when he both introduced the book and delivered a major political critique of the Spanish socialist government’s appeasement of Basque terrorism. In London Lady Thatcher turned up at the launch and offered to sign books herself! As a result literally everybody bought one.

So I can claim to have had an extremely distinguished readership as well as a decently sized one. I hope the quality of the book is part of the explanation for this ceremonial tour, but I must acknowledge that the great and growing admiration for Reagan, Thatcher, and the pope account for most of the hoop-la — and most of the sales.

Lopez: Any good JPII/Thatcher/Reagan Christmas stories?

O’Sullivan: Well, there’s a very good Thatcher story involving Andropov, a Kremlin champagne reception, and a pair of fleecy, fur-lined, high-heeled boots. But you’ll have to buy the book to read it.

It was told to me by Bob Kingston, one of the team of detectives who protected Mrs. Thatcher for the better part of three decades. Bob died not long ago, alas. He and his colleagues were very fine people, loyal, brave, and with a great sense of humor. They became friends of the Thatchers as well as their guardians.

Bob told me several Thatcher stories during the writing of her memoirs — one of them a story against himself.

He had been with Thatcher from her days as Leader of the Opposition. About two years into his job, Bob overslept one morning and woke up to realize that he was already overdue to pick up Mrs. T. at her Flood Street home in Chelsea. Throwing black leather on top of his pajamas, he drove his motorbike at top speed down the King’s Road. As he approached Flood Street, Bob saw the Thatcher car driven by her aide, Alison Ward, emerge into King’s Road and drive past him. He swiveled his motor-bike around in a U-turn and took off after it. Seeing this black-clad Fury pursuing them, Alison speeded up. Bob speeded up too. This happened twice more until, eventually, Mrs. Thatcher was driven by exasperation to complain: “Isn’t this just our luck, Alison. Some terrorist decides to attack us on the one day that Bob doesn’t turn up.”

Reagan would have been wittier; John Paul more profound; but I find this note of housewifely annoyance in the face of apparent terror extraordinarily reassuring.


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