An Intimate Portrait Of a Woman in Power

By Chris Ogden

Simon and Schuster. 384 pp. $22.95

CHRIS OGDEN believes Margaret Thatcher is an historic figure. Many people believe Margaret Thatcher is an historic figure. They fall roughly into two camps: those, like Ogden, who see Britain's first female prime minister as the most profoundly influential force in British society since the Reform Act; and those who see her as the most profoundly influential force in British society since the Black Death.

Ogden, a Time magazine correspondent, plausibly paints England before Thatcher as a nation ripe for redemption, a bloated social welfare state paralyzed by timid leadership and union rapacity. Onto this ill-lit stage strides Margaret Roberts Thatcher, part technocrat, part avenging angel. She rolls up her sleeves and slaps the country back into shape, streamlining the bureaucracy, reinvigorating the business community, igniting an entrepreneurial explosion and raising Great Britain's stature in the world.

No one's perfect. Ogden acknowledges that Thatcher has also kneecapped Britain's once-proud educational system; that she's a philistine who sees no need for art and little need for scholarship; that she's done her damnedest to dismantle the National Health System; that she's turned Britain into the pariah state for the European Community with her isolationist rhetoric, and inspired the first taxpayers' revolt since the 14th century with her much-loathed replacement of local property taxes by a flat per capita "poll tax."

Indeed, less charitable observers of the island kingdom might say that Margaret Thatcher has tinkered with its plumbing, and carved out its soul.

In Maggie: An Intimate Portrait of a Woman in Power, the first Thatcher biography aimed at an American readership, Ogden struggles manfully to capture the person behind the grimly smiling public face.

There is Margaret Thatcher the woman, laughing dutifully at Ronald Reagan's tired jokes, flirting with her latest protege, dressing to please Mikhail Gorbachev. There is Thatcher the political animal, shrieking triumphantly over her defeated prey, beak and talons dipped in gore. There is Thatcher at work: rising before dawn, trotting briskly through a schedule rigorous enough for two prime ministers, whipping up omelettes for her shattered aides at midnight, before, like as not, sitting down to another round of paperwork. There is Thatcher at play -- well, no, play doesn't seem to figure in the life of the woman, any more than it fitted into the agenda of the determined schoolgirl.

Indeed, for a biography that purports to be "An Intimate Portrait of a Woman in Power," it is striking just how few truly intimate moments there are.

Ogden does obeisance at all the familiar roadside shrines: the impoverished childhood above the family grocery store; the adored, humorless father who drummed into his avid daughter the virtues of thrift, unceasing work and unshackled trade; the dogged climb from local to national politics; the move to Downing Street, and the methodical implementation of her monetarist vision.

One searches in vain through that implacable progression from triumph to triumph for a moment of introspection, of self-doubt, of silliness even. Thatcher is not without eloquence, or a sense of the moment. She has had words of courage and of comfort for the nation in times of tragedy. She has written personal letters of condolence to families of servicemen killed in the Falklands War and in IRA attacks. At the same time, she seems never to have had a moment's doubt about the policies that put those men on the road to death. Is it unfair to demand that a female leader possess an interior life, when so few of her male counterparts seem to? IT IS HARD to say how history will judge Margaret Thatcher. Plainly, it was going to take strong medicine to cure the Britain she inherited. There are critics in the center and on the left who charge she has irreparably damaged the social fabric of the country. It's hard to find critics to the right of Thatcher, but there are those who charge she hasn't done enough to blunt the social bureaucracy's appetite for cash. Attempts to count the beneficiaries of Thatcher's policies are easily derailed by the howls of her despairing victims. Perhaps history will be more hardheaded. But then, history, as they say, is written by the victors.

Maggie is well-written, well-organized and well-paced. If Ogden has teased no new insights out of his subject, it is most probably because there are no new insights to be had. With Margaret Roberts Thatcher, what you see is very much what you get.

Vicki Barker is a London correspondent for the NBC-Mutual Radio Networks.