The Reagan Centennial Celebration kicks into high gear as we approach Sunday's 100th anniversary of the birth of one of America's greatest presidents.
I cannot let this observance pass without featuring one of the most successful international partnerships between a U.S. president and a foreign leader during the 20th Century. In many ways the partnership between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was stronger and more united than that between Winston Churchill and FDR. Both Thatcher and Reagan were cut from the same conservative clothe and that unity of purpose and vision created the foundation upon which extraordinary history was made.
A Meeting of the Minds in 1975
Reagan and Thatcher first met one on one in London in early 1975 after Thatcher had become the first woman ever to lead a political party (Conservative) in Britain. However, she had been aware of Reagan's view well before then going back to his time as Governor of California.
It was at this meeting in 1975 that the two began their personal friendship and laid the foundation for a political partnership that was to dominate the late 20th Century.
Reagan's first handwritten letter to Thatcher after that visit can be seen at right (larger image at the Thatcher archives). Note Reagan's concern over the fall of Saigon. Both Thatcher and Reagan were vehement anti-communists.
In her memoirs, Margaret Thatcher described her feelings after a subsequent meeting with Reagan in 1978:
In the early years Ronald Reagan had been dismissed by much of the American political elite, though not by the American electorate, as a right wing maverick who could not be taken seriously. (I had heard that before somewhere.) Now he was seen by many thoughtful Republicans as their best ticket back to the White House. Whatever Ronald Reagan had gained in experience, he had not done so at the expense of his beliefs. I found them stronger than ever. When he left my study I reflected on how different things might look if such a man was President of the United States. But in November 1978 such a prospect seemed a long way off.One year later Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of Great Britain. Two years later, Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States.
Weeks before Reagan left office in January 1989 Prime Minister Thatcher, who continued in office until November 20, 1990, asked the following question in National Review: "How is it that some political leaders make the world a different place while others, equally able, equally public-spirited, leave things much as they found them?" Her answer was that a great statesman like Reagan achieved so much because he combined the rare gift of political leadership based on strong convictions with personal courage and the ability to represent the views of the average American.
The great English journalist Walter Bagehot once defined a constitutional statesman as a man of common opinion and uncommon abilities. That is true of President Reagan and one of his greatest political strengths. He can appeal for support to the American people because they sense rightly that he shares their dreams, hopes, and aspirations; and he pursues them by the same route of plain American horse-sense.Five months later in May 1989 then former President Reagan returned the favor in kind with his own reflections on his relationship with Margaret Thatcher in National Review:
Personal relations matter more in international politics than the historians would have us believe. Of course, nations will follow their overriding interest on the great issues regardless, but there are many important occasions when the trust built up over several years of contacts makes a real difference to how things turn out. I found it personally advantageous to have a friend as well as an ally in Downing Street. Margaret was always frank and forthright in her dealings with us. Generally, she and I agreed with each other. I was grateful to have her moral and material backing when we decided that we would have to bomb terrorist targets in Libya in order to protect our forces in Europe and Americans around the world against state-sponsored terrorism. Whether we agreed or not, however, I knew that her advice came from someone who was a friend of the American people and who shared the same basic outlook. We place the same high value on freedom. We were fortunate in that, sharing the same outlook, we were elected at a time when opportunities were opening up for extending our own freedom to other countries — to many Third World countries, to Afghanistan, to Eastern Europe, to the Soviet Union itself.Reagan, ever the story teller, closed his account with a joke he intended to play on Thatcher at the Economic Summit Reagan hosted at Williamsburg, Virginia:
We held this dinner in what had been the British Governor General's home. Before general conversation started, I was going to address Margaret and say, "Margaret, if one of your predecessors had been a little more clever, you would have been the hostess at this meeting." Well, I started, "Margaret, if one of your predecessors had been a little more clever" — and that's as far as I got. She quietly interrupted me and said, "Yes, I know, I would have been hosting this gathering."Reagan was a quick wit. But apparently no match for Thatcher!
Mike's America Remembers Thatcher's Last State Visit
I was privileged during my brief time working in the Reagan White House (story here) to attend the welcoming ceremony for the last official State Visit held by President Reagan. State Visits are the occasions when the red carpet REALLY gets rolled out and include a lavish formal banquet in the White House.
It is fitting that Margaret Thatcher was the head of government honored at Reagan's first State Visit in February 1981 and the last in November 1988.
I've posted the program for the welcome ceremony at left (larger image here). It was an event complete with military bands, an honor guard of soldiers for inspection (WH Photo), a 21 gun salute and speeches (Reagan's remarks are here) by both leaders on the White House lawn looking towards the Washington Monument.
As the inspection of troops came to an end, Prime Minister Thatcher paused to thank one of the officers who conducted the event. President Reagan looked on with obvious admiration as she did. You can see the photo documenting that moment at the Margaret Thatcher web site or you can view the original taken by Mike's America below:
Welcoming Ceremony for the State Visit of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the South Lawn of the White House, November 16, 1988. Photo by Mike's America.
Reflecting on Reagan's record of accomplishment, Prime Minister Thatcher turned to him sitting in the chair opposite in the Oval Office (WH photo) and said Reagan's legacy was based on "staunch and consistent leadership. The President staked out the ground on which he wished to fight; he stood on that ground. And you fought, and you won."
Reagan and Thatcher's Legacy for a Conservative Future
In June 2004 President Reagan died. Margaret Thatcher, now 86 suffered from a series of small strokes and the loss of her husband in 2003. Her daughter Carol describes the slow and painful loss of her faculties in this excerpt from her 2008 book, A Swim-On Part In The Goldfish Bowl: A Memoir, by Carol Thatcher. Happier memories of her Mother can be found also in Carol's recounting of how much her mother loved living at Chequers, the Prime Minister's official country house (puts Camp David to shame).
I will always remember the last time I saw Margaret Thatcher. It was on a visit to London in 2000 when I just happened to be walking through the square on which she lived and her motorcade pulled up to her house and she bounced out full of life with her husband Denis trailing after her.
And the last time I saw President Reagan was from afar as I stood on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol after the inauguration of his successor George H. W. Bush as the helicopter bearing Mr. and Mrs. Reagan lifted off the Capitol grounds and soared directly overhead. The Reagan Library archive has a photo of the President looking down on the Capitol as the Marine One rises and waving goodbye. I'm standing down below waving back!
There may never be another Reagan, or another Thatcher. But the lesson they give to history is to look for politicians who have authentic beliefs which connect directly to the goals and values of the American people. As Margaret Thatcher said, a man, or woman, who leads with that "same route of plain American horse-sense!" And just to be clear, we are talking about "horse sense" not a horses ass!