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The Iron Lady, Reagan and Bush

Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan at Camp David

Margaret Thatcher with Ronald Reagan at Camp David, 22 December 1984. White House Photo, PD.

This morning former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died from a stroke at the age of 87. Serving as the first female Prime Minister in the U.K., Thatcher won three general elections for the Conservative Party and shaped British politics for a generation. We culled through the archives of the Miller Center Oral History Projects and present in this post key excerpts from the interviews in which former administration officials recollect the relationships between Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and “The Iron Lady.”

Former Reagan White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker, Jr. during a Miller Center Reagan Oral History Interview:

He had a great respect for Mrs. [Margaret] Thatcher…I’ve often thought—I believe Maggie Thatcher was the only person who could intimidate Ronald Reagan, but I believe she could.

Caspar Weinberger, former Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, during a Miller center Reagan Oral History Interview: 

Well, she is a remarkable lady in every way and also was very much the same as President Reagan in being willing to challenge—and challenge very successfully and very effectively—the conventional wisdom. She and President Reagan, I think, had more to do with changing the political agenda than anyone else. They supported things that people didn’t even talk about because they were so far off the conventional screen: small government, cutting taxes, privatizing services, decreasing the power of the government to increase the power of people, and so forth. All of the standard things that we now take for granted and debate very vigorously.

It’s hard to realize or recall, but in the years they were coming to power, these things weren’t talked about. These were not issues at all. This was several years ago. It was not a question of whether you wanted big government, it was just how big a government and how would they do it? You turned to government to solve any particularly difficult problems. The fact that they cost both dollars and narrowing of individual liberty as you expanded governmental power, were not issues until both Mrs. Thatcher and the President raised them and raised them very effectively.

She was an extremely eloquent speaker and very persuasive. There had not been any major distinction, really between the previous conservative governments and the labor governments. It was very hard to tell who was in. They got into a tremendously difficult labor situation, in which most of the services were shut down, and she appealed to enough people who wanted to change that so that she was able to make a major difference there. She always worked very closely with President Reagan and supported him, admired him, and together they made really major changes in the whole political agenda and the whole political debate.

Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger during a Miller Center Roundtable on the Falklands War:

The Reagan-Thatcher relationship has to be seen as one of the key alliances of the Cold War, (including, Mrs. Thatcher's endorsement of Mikhail Gorbachev as a man "you can do business with," which helped pave the way for the Reagan-Gorbachev summits).

Personal Assistant to Ronald Reagan James Kuhn:

Yes, he [Reagan] thought the world of her, was very close to her and vice versa. They were together many, many times. Camp David twice, the White House, I don’t know, several times, over there I think at least a couple of times. But they were also together in other parts of the world, for the G7 economic summits. So they were quite close. It was almost at one point to the point where Reagan was too nice, and I can give you an example.

We were meeting at Camp David. She was there in December of ’84 and then came back a couple of years later. It was a Saturday plenary session. Shultz was there, National Security Advisor, was it Regan or was it Baker, I can’t remember, and then their counterparts on the other side of the table. It was supposed to be a two-hour session or something. Reagan had his points that he needed to make in terms of the relationship, defense, economic trade, political, cultural, Soviet Union. But he thought so much of her, was so fond of her – I mean, she could talk. She could really go for a long time. She dominated the first half of that plenary session and he virtually got none of his points in. We had a break and I pulled him aside, went in the room and said, “Mr. President, we’re running out of time here. You’ve got a lot of material to cover and you haven’t done it yet. You’re going to have to take the ball here and really move. We’re going to run out of time.”

He said, “Well Jim, you know how fond I am of Maggie. She’s a woman and she had a lot she wanted to say, and I just thought I would let her do that.” I said, “That’s fine, but Mr. President, you’ve got to jimp in there.” He said, “No, no, no,” he said, “I will.” I said, “c’mon Ron, you’ve got to get in the game.” But’s that how fond he was of her, and just let her go.

Frederick J. Ryan, Jr., Chief of Staff of the Office of Ronald Reagan from 1989 to 1995, during a Reagan Oral History Interview:

Regarding a trip to Europe…

He [Reagan] saw Margaret Thatcher, of course. She had a dinner for him in his honor at Downing Street. He gave the address and the Queen gave him the knighthood, the Order of the Bath. He was the first American President ever to get it, and it is the highest honor that can be given to a non-Brit.

Regarding their special relationship…

Yes. With him it was always we. It was never, I did this. And I know he would talk a lot to Margaret Thatcher and they would share their enthusiasm for what was happening. But he was not looking for a pat on the back.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz, during a Reagan Oral History interview, on how President Reagan taught Thatcher to use a teleprompter:

Had a fascinating time at a little luncheon when he instructed Margaret Thatcher on how to use a TelePrompTer. I think she was getting ready to address a joint session and she was going to use a TelePrompTer, which she hadn’t used before. I guess in Britain they’re shaped like this, whereas here they’re shaped like that. He explained to her why our way was better and she should shift. Then he said, Now you want to be sure that the numbers of the pages are on the TelePrompTer and you turn the page, no one even notices you’re turning the page, but you always want your text in front of you because you never can know when something will go wrong with the TelePrompTer and then you want to be able to pick right up. I actually saw that happen to him in Strasbourg, and he picked it up almost as though nothing had happened.

Then he said, Be sure to have a few good quotation marks in your speech and when you come to one of those, pick the piece of paper up so people see it and you read it and then you put it down. That makes the rest of it look less read. And don’t feel you have to read everything, you know what you’re saying, and don’t be like this, and then like this and like this. Speak yourself and the text is there, but you don’t have to read it exactly the way it’s there. You say it. He went through a whole bunch of little things, only by way of saying that he thought about it a lot, how do you do this. And I think that’s one of the benefits of being an actor. That’s what you’re doing, there’s a role here and how am I going to make this role seem legitimate and valid?

People have the idea if it’s an actor, it’s phony. It isn’t. But it’s one thing that you have to do in public life, or for that matter—I mean, what is a professor in a classroom? A good teacher is somebody who really thinks about how I’m going to get across this material. So that’s a good thing. Okay?

Henry Catto, former Ambassador to the U.K. and a long-time Texas friend of George H. W. Bush, during an interview with the Miller Center’s George H.W. Bush Oral History Project:

Regarding joining a meeting with Thatcher, Lawrence Eagleburger and Bob Gates:

…It was wonderful to watch Thatcher, every hair in place. She had on so much hair spray she could repel small arms fire. She would sit there like this and say, Now, Larry, tell me precisely what it is you want to say. And then she’d pop in the cassette that she would run through her head and start telling, I know what you’re going to say, and I don’t like it, and here are the reasons why.

Regarding how he was clued into conversations between Bush and Thatcher:

Well, that’s interesting, because the British had a system whereby whenever Maggie would call George, or vice versa, they would brief their Ambassador in Washington what went on. We did not have such a system. But I came to know a fellow at the National Security Council named Philip Zelikow, oddly enough, who would fill me in on those things, for which I was very grateful. When I came back to Washington, I’d go by and see Philip and find out what was happening.

Regarding what was frustrating about the relationship between Bush and Thatcher:

Catto: As I do point out in the book, it was frustrating to know, not from anything other than body language and knowing George Bush, that when Maggie would slip the cassette in and talk at 300 words per minute with gusts to 500, he really didn’t like that. He wanted dialogue, not monologue. Eventually, as I believe I mentioned in the book, I sat down with Powell at lunch one day and told him that if I were he, I would suggest that she be more receptive to letting him have a word edgewise and not be quite so forward. Ronnie was happy to have her do and say whatever she wanted, but Bush wasn’t Ronnie. It was just a different thing, and she had to readjust her thinking, which she did.

Masoud: By the way, how do you know that Reagan was comfortable with the monologue?

Catto: Because I was there and saw it. At a dinner party at 10 Downing Street for ex-President Reagan, sitting next to him and listening to her—she was on his other side—tell him what to do and how to do it and when to begin and when to stop, all the while with Nancy benignly smiling on this, knowing that Ronnie was in the very best of hands.

James Baker III, former Secretary of State and Chief of Staff during the George H.W. Bush administration:

Regarding differences in the way President Bush dealt with Thatcher:

It showed that we were deliberate, that we were thoughtful, that we were not just going to jump in here and say everything is going to go exactly the way—a new President has to carve out his own identity. We saw the same thing happening in terms of his leadership with the alliance, and we had the initial tensions, if you remember, with Margaret Thatcher, who was a wonderful friend and a terrific Prime Minister of the UK [United Kingdom]. But Reagan was so strong, so powerful, and so secure in his own skin he’d let her speak for the United States. Well, we couldn’t do that. The United States has to be the leader of the alliance.

Former Bush administration Chief of Staff John Sununu regarding how President Bush communicated with Thatcher and other heads of state, during a George H.W. Bush Oral History interview:

But what George Bush did is make good use of the telephone. But these were not spontaneous phone calls. He would have a phone conversation with Margaret Thatcher once a week, or once every three days, but it was orchestrated. Brent and Baker would come in and say, You’ve got to talk to Margaret and we’ve got to deal with these two issues and we want it to go this way, she wants it to go that way, and move it, Mr. President. And he’d get on the phone.

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