- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006



By John O’Sullivan

Regnery Publishing, $27.95,

448 pages


More than a quarter of a century on, it is almost impossible for those who were not of age at the time to recall the miraculous transformation that Pope John Paul II, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher achieved in the history of the world in the brief period from 1978 to 1982.

In 1978, as the Israeli writer Ephraim Kishon then wrote, the world seemed fated to slide under the proven incompetence and barbarism of Soviet communism: The great nations of the West appeared incapable of defending themselves even in the last extremity, let alone deterring communist aggression around the world. Yet within four short years, communism was on the terminal decline everywhere, including in the Soviet Union itself.

The interaction of the three global leaders who were the masterminds behind this extraordinary reversal of fortune has been noted on often before, but never so well as by British journalist John O’Sullivan in his new book. In the interests of full disclosure I acknowledge here that Mr. O’Sullivan is an old boss of mine at United Press International and remains a cherished friend.

That having been said, this is the book Mr. O’Sullivan was born to write. He was a senior policy advisor to Mrs. Thatcher during her epochal 11 years in Number 10, Downing Street. For the past quarter century, he has been a leading intellectual figure in the “big tent” of American conservatism. For more than a decade he edited National Review with distinction. And he is also a traditional Catholic with excellent political contacts in Rome.

All that experience and expertise is evident in this remarkable work. For this is far more than any hagiography or even skilled but traditional history of the three leaders. Mr. O’Sullivan instead does for the three greatest modern leaders of the free world what Richard Ovary has done so well with Hitler and Stalin, the two darkest figures of modern history: He compares their careers and brings out remarkable themes, parallels and contrasts in their careers that have previously been undiscovered or just overlooked.

Mr. O’Sullivan is especially strong on understanding the process of government, and explaining how the great pope, president and prime minister learned those skills, and how important implementing them was to their achievements.

At the beginning of the 1970s, he noted, all three leaders were “talented middle managers” in their systems that were “quietly anxious about the weakness of their respective institutions in a drifting world that seemed likely to weaken them further.” Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. O’Sullivan acknowledges, served without distinction as education minister in the “wet,” defeatist Conservative government of British Prime Minister Edward Heath.

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as the Cardinal-Archbishop of Cracow, Poland’s second city, served “in a Church that was still dominated by an Italian Pope and Italian clerical bureaucrats.” In the United States Ronald Reagan seemed even further out of the loop as the aging, second-term governor of California, far out of step with the prevailing neo-New Deal orthodoxies espoused by the likes of President Richard Nixon and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller that then dominated the Republican Party.

However, as Mr. O’Sullivan cannily notes, it was the very familiarity of Mrs. Thatcher and Wojtyla with the internal workings of the British government and the Roman Catholic Church, especially at their oft-neglected middle management levels, that proved crucial to their later extraordinary success. In contrast to so many of their predecessors, both of them knew how to press the levers of power and work the bureaucracies of their respective institutions in order to get things done.

It also was a skill learned outside the bureaucratic warrens of the U.S. federal government by the ever-underestimated Reagan during his eight years as governor of California. Non-Californians almost invariably fail to grasp the vast scale of that state, its immense state government resources or the overwhelming complexity of its institutional structures.

The demanding nature of the California state system gives its governors exceptional leeway to run the system with outstanding distinction — as Reagan and now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have shown, or with exceptional ineptitude, as Mr. Schwarzenegger’s predecessor Gray Davis displayed.

Mr. O’Sullivan also brings his lifelong engagement with the great political and moral issues of our time to this work. It is fine-textured in its discussion of the controversies, great and small, legendary and forgotten, with which Reagan, Mrs. Thatcher and the pope had to contend.

The heroic parallels between the three leaders were remarkable and many: None of them was ever expected to come to the top; each of them was shamefully underestimated for years as a reactionary joke, or fool, or both; each of them used that underestimation to vast advantage. Each of them was a grandmaster on the global chess board; each of them excelled at taking bold, unprecedented initiatives that caught their opponents completely by surprise.

The Soviets never recovered from Reagan’s drive to develop strategic missile defense, his close partnership with Saudi Arabia to keep global energy prices low (and, incidentally, bankrupt the energy-export-dependent Soviet economy) or U.S. support for the anti-Communist guerrillas in Afghanistan.

Mrs. Thatcher’s opponents never expected her to hang tough against the Irish Republican Army guerrillas in Northern Ireland, smash the coal miners union when it tried to topple her government through an extended strike to run out Britain’s electrical energy generating reserves, or go to war with Argentina to reclaim the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.

She defeated them all. The pope’s support of the Solidarity workers’ movement in Poland took the Soviet leaders so much by surprise that they never came up with any effective answer to it while their legitimacy was being irrevocably eroded from within throughout Central Europe.

At a time when Western leaders are once again stumbling in either resolve or creativity in coming up with effective responses to the latest generation of deadly enemies to the civilization and values of the West, Mr. O’Sullivan’s work is more valuable and timely than ever. This is a great book, for lovers of freedom to read, reread and cherish. It cheers the spirit and nourishes the soul. It also boosts the street-smarts — for none of the three leaders Mr. O’Sullivan recounts was anyone’s fool.

Again and again, Mr. O’Sullivan records their exceptional shrewdness at avoiding pitfalls and maximizing opportunities. Whenever things went wrong, as sometimes they invariably will, they were all also adept at turning things to their advantage: They could turn lemons into lemonade. Pope John Paul, Mrs. Thatcher and President Reagan were leaders for the ages. In Mr. O’Sullivan, they have found a chronicler for the ages.

Martin Sieff is national security correspondent for United Press International.

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