- - Tuesday, December 31, 2019


By Charles Moore

Alfred A. Knopf, $40, 1006 pages

Nearly every family has had an iron lady, a strong, determined woman — usually a mother, grandmother or aunt — who comes to the fore in hard times and saves the family farm, the family business or even the family itself.

Margaret Thatcher did it on a national scale. I happened to be in London on May 3, 1979, when she won her first national election. Once the early returns made it clear that Britain was about to have its first female prime minister, I left the Reform Club, where the results were being posted by hand on a rickety blackboard, and headed for a victory party.

A crisp, cold breeze swept down Pall Mall as I walked along it that evening. The “winds of change” had finally made it to London. For the next 11 1/2 years, Margaret Thatcher would preside over a turbulent, sometimes bitter national reawakening that would achieve an economic revival at home and increased stature abroad after a steady decline in both following World War II.

And with the election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980, a rejuvenated “Special Relationship” between the two great English-speaking powers would begin the long, hard work that ended the Cold War and brought down the Iron Curtain.

In the early 1980s, on another London visit, the head of a leading conservative think tank hosted a small reception for me. At one point, I found myself talking to Sir Keith Joseph, a very earnest, innovative conservative intellectual who was then secretary of state for education and science. We were soon joined by a garrulous, dapper old gent who reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster, only with a fully-functioning brain.

I later learned that he was Denis Thatcher, first mate on the H.M.S. Iron Lady. He and Sir Keith couldn’t have been more different in style and personality, but they were equally devoted to “Maggie,” evidence of how she was capable of recognizing and bringing out the best in very different kinds of people.

Unfortunately, as the years dragged on and the political scar tissue built up, Margaret Thatcher, like many a lesser politician before her, became more isolated and more remote. Hence, the subtitle of the third and final volume of Charles Moore’s masterful biography of arguably the most influential — and positive — female leader of modern times.

Mr. Moore, a distinguished journalist, has proven himself an exemplary historian as well. Just as importantly, he portrays his central character with keen analysis and a sympathetic imagination that brings Margaret Thatcher to life in his pages.

She was, he concludes, “high-minded and highly educated, yet had a common touch. She was fierce, but kind; rude, and courteous; calculating, yet principled; matter-of-fact, yet romantic; frank, yet secretive; astute, yet innocent; rational, yet capricious; puritanical, yet flirtatious. She had an icy stare and a warm heart.”

Margaret Thatcher came from lower-middle-class Methodist stock, an industrious, God-fearing group that believed there was a moral dimension to commerce and governance, a sort of civic piety one should embrace even while pursuing wealth or power.

One of her senior policy advisers, Brian Griffiths, would recall, “I talked to Mrs. Thatcher about the extent that Christianity underpinned socialism. She felt that Conservatism which centered on economic success was viewed as heartless. She wasn’t heartless; she was Victorian. She thought what she was doing in helping put families on their feet was moral.”

If this sounds old fashioned, perhaps we should remember that it was old fashioned survivors of the Victorian age who saved Europe from its “modern” excesses: Winston Churchill as wartime leader of a beleaguered Britain, Charles de Gaulle as the restorer of France’s tarnished honor, and Konrad Adenauer, who built a prosperous, tolerant democracy out of the ruins of Nazi Germany.

Like Ronald Reagan in America, Margaret Thatcher was in some ways a throwback to a highly idealized past. But both of them were also forward-looking, and they left their countries — and the world — better than they found them. That thought occurred to me as I sat in the National Cathedral during the Reagan funeral service in June 2004. Margaret Thatcher, frail and already suffering from the beginnings of dementia, had taken the precaution of videotaping her eulogy in advance.

I will never forget her opening words, simple, true and spoken from the heart: “We have lost a great president, a great American and a great man, and I have lost a dear friend.” You knew she meant every word of it, and it made you doubly thankful for all the good that had come out of that friendship.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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