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Margaret Thatcher's First Visit to Washington of the Reagan Presidency

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Extract from Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, By Charles Moore.

Adapted for The Huffington Post

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The day after his inauguration, on 20 January 1981, President Reagan took a call from Mrs Thatcher. She told him that she was 'thrilled' by his inauguration speech, and by the release of the American hostages, timed by Iran to deliver maximum humiliation to poor Jimmy Carter. She went on, 'The newspapers are saying mostly that President Reagan must avoid Mrs Thatcher's mistakes [about economic policy] so I must brief you on the mistakes.' Reagan replied genially, 'I don't think I have to worry about that,' and commiserated with her on the 'uphill battle' she was fighting in her own country:

MRS THATCHER: Well you know it makes it worth it because you are fighting for the things we are fighting for . . .

REAGAN: We'll lend strength to each other.

MRS THATCHER: We will.

A little over a month later, Mrs Thatcher arrived in Washington, DC for her first visit of the Reagan Presidency. The aim, as Secretary of State Al Haig put it in a memo to Reagan was to 'Demonstrate publicly and privately that Thatcher is the major Western leader most attuned to your views on East-West and security issues. The Prime Minister wants, above all, to build upon her relationship with you and to have her visit perceived as a very strong reaffirmation of the "Special Relationship".' The challenge, in the words of the National Security Advisor Richard Allen, would be to 'dramatize' the 'meeting of minds' between the two leaders.

But in reality the situation was more difficult for Mrs Thatcher than these warm words made it sound. Many Americans, even among those who supported Reagan, were coming to the view that Thatcherism was going wrong and had begun to distance themselves from the British approach. Earlier in January, Charles Anson, press officer at No. 10, had written to Mrs Thatcher's private office noting that 'There has been a good deal of editorial writing lately in American papers about "the failure of the Thatcher economic experiment" and advising Ronald Reagan not to follow down the same road.'

'I'm not sure she was as committed as Ronald Reagan was to the idea that if you get taxes low enough you are going to generate increased tax revenues by virtue of increased economic growth,' recalled James Baker, then Reagan's Chief of Staff. Bernard Ingham [Mrs Thatcher's Press Secretary] remembered a fundamental difference with Reagan about economic matters, almost one of temperament:

I think she probably felt that Reagan was never more wayward than over economic management. She used to worry intensely about the huge propensity for spending and refusal to tax. She felt this was altogether too lax. She said that he believed that it would all come right in the end. That was the sunny disposition, the optimistic outlook on life to which she was not entitled, being a British politician who'd seen 35 years of post-war mismanagement. She was constantly worried about the budget deficit.

When it came to economics, the State Department's briefing for Mrs Thatcher's visit was ambivalent at best: 'so far she has failed to implement effectively her tactical policy goals of reducing the budget deficit, government consumption and the growth in the money supply, but it is too early to say whether or not she will eventually succeed.' A core objective for the visit, the briefing continued, would be to 'Exchange views with Thatcher on her experience, in part to learn from British mistakes.'

It was the new President himself who ignored all these difficulties. He liked Mrs Thatcher, and he knew that he and she were essentially on the same side. 'You know what I want to do in the United States is what Margaret Thatcher has started to do in the United Kingdom,' Reagan had told one of Mrs Thatcher's associates during his election campaign, 'to get the government off the backs of the people.' He was not interested in second-order or technical disagreements. To the question, 'Where did the President stand in the debate over how to implement economic policy?' Paul Volcker answered, 'I think the President stood nowhere in all this. He had a few basic convictions. Fortunately one of these convictions was that inflation was a bad thing.' This worked to Mrs Thatcher's advantage.

The woman Prime Minister who flew into what The Times called a 'lavish, colourful ceremony of the kind not seen in the American capital for the past four years' had a packed schedule, but was also careful to make the right impression. Her office set aside forty minutes each day for hairdressing (with rollers), and submitted her personal details in preparation for receiving an honorary degree at Georgetown University: 'Height 5'4"; Weight 10.5 stone; Coat 14 English; Hat size 7'. In the White House, Reagan welcomed her, declaring, 'we share laws and literature, blood, and moral fibre', and she responded, 'The message I have brought across the Atlantic is that we, in Britain, stand with you. America's successes will be our successes. Your problems will be our problems, and when you look for friends we will be there.' The private reception was equally warm, which encouraged Mrs Thatcher to be frank. In his diary, Reagan recorded: 'We had a private meeting in Oval office. she [sic] is as firm as ever re the Soviets and for reduction of govt. Expressed regret that she tried to reduce govt. spending a step at a time & was defeated in each attempt. Said she should have done it our way -- an entire package -- all or nothing.'

More important, for both sides, was the need for éclat, for the dramatization of the 'meeting of minds' of which Dick Allen had written. The state dinner for Mrs Thatcher at the White House gave Reagan's people the chance to show the difference their President made. As Jim Rentschler, an NSC staffer, recalled:

The Reaganauts were determined to throw off the grungy, downtrodden look of the Carter Administration . . . Some of the Carter people used to walk about the White House in bare feet. As soon as Reagan came in, out went the memos banning jeans, banning sandals and requiring everyone to wear a suit. 'Glamour' was a word often used, and 'class' too. The Reagan people thus planned the Thatcher dinner as a white tie affair. It was going to be infused with Hollywood glamour and would show the world how classy the Reagan people were.

Mrs Thatcher, however, asked the White House if the dinner could be black tie, since 'some of her people would not have the requisite clothing'. She had another concern too: 'she was the grocer's daughter. She didn't want to come over here dressed up like that. It was an impoverished time in Britain after all.' Black tie was agreed, but the dinner was still grand enough in all conscience.

Then there was the return match. Taking advantage of the Reagan team's inexperience the British Ambassador, Nicko Henderson, had got Dick Allen to promise that the President would come to the customary reciprocal dinner at the British Embassy the following night. This was in violation of the existing convention that only the Vice-President attended these return dinners, but the Reagan team did not know this. By the time they had realized their mistake and tried to get out of it, Henderson had sent out the invitations. Reagan came with a good grace.

In her speech that night, Mrs Thatcher added her own passage to Henderson's draft, words about the 'two o'clock in the morning courage' which leaders have to have when faced with lonely decisions. This greatly pleased Reagan, who replied that she herself had already shown such courage 'on too many occasions to name'. 'Truly a warm & beautiful occasion,' Reagan wrote in his diary. The only disappointment for Mrs Thatcher was that the Reagans left without dancing to the band. After they had departed, Henderson invited her on to the floor: 'Mrs T accepted my offer without complication or inhibition, and, once we were well launched on the floor, confessed to me that that was what she had been wanting to do all evening. She loved dancing, something, so I found out, she did extremely well.' She was most reluctant to go to bed, threatening a different sort of 'two o'clock courage' by going off to see the floodlit Washington monuments, 'but Denis put his foot down, crying, "bed" '

Both sides rejoiced at the visit. 'We needed a crowbar to pull them apart,' remarked Reagan's press secretary, Jim Brady. 'I believe a real friendship exists between the P.M. her family & us,' Reagan commented. The essence of this friendship was simple and effective. They believed the same things, and they both wanted to work actively to bring them about. 'I have full confidence in the President,' Mrs Thatcher scribbled at the bottom of a thank-you note to Henderson. 'I believe he will do things he wants to do -- and he won't give up.' They also had compatible, though utterly different, temperaments -- he the relaxed, almost lazy generalist who charmed everyone with his easygoing ways, she the hyperactive, zealous, intensely knowledgeable leader, who injected energy into all her doings but also displayed what Reagan considered to be the elegance of a typical, gracious English lady. They shared a moral outlook on the world and also, in their emphasis on formality, dressing smartly and being what Americans call classy. The personal chemistry was undeniable. 'He treated her in a very courteous and sort of slightly flirtatious way, to which she responded,' recalled Robin Butler [one of Mrs Thatcher's aides]. It turned out that they would often disagree about tactics, and that his more optimistic and her less sunny view of the possibilities of a non-nuclear future would lead to problems, but their basic personal trust and sense of common purpose never failed.

Yet, for all her enthusiasm and affection for the leader of the free world, Mrs Thatcher was not blind to his limitations. Lord Carrington, then Mrs Thatcher's Foreign Secretary, recalled their meeting on the first day:

After the arrival ceremony we went into the Oval Office and I remember Reagan saying: 'Well of course, the South Africans are whites and they fought for us during the war. The blacks are black and are Communists.' I think even Margaret thought this was rather a simplification . . . She came out and she turned to me and, pointing at her head, she said, 'Peter, there's nothing there.' That wasn't exactly true, because there was something there and she no doubt didn't really mean that.

Mrs Thatcher came to realize that Reagan's strengths and mental abilities were very different from her own, but she never lost her underlying admiration for him. To the typed letter of thanks she sent him, she added, in her own hand: 'We shall never have a happier visit.' She felt she had a powerful friend. She knew that he would help in the economic and political struggles ahead. Her pleasure and gratitude were genuine.

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Charles Moore is the author of Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, From Grantham to the Falklands.