LOS ANGELES, NOV. 22 -- Former President Ronald Reagan today paid tribute to the statesmanship of Margaret Thatcher, his staunch ally in the Anglo-American effort to forge an international conservative consensus in the '80s.
"I could always count on her wise counsel, her firm support and her loyal friendship," Reagan said in a statement issued here. He described her resignation as a typically "selfless and courageous decision in what she believes is the best interests of her country."
Across the globe, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, President Bush expressed similar sentiments, saying that the British prime minister was a "woman of principle" who stood for what she believed.
"I'll miss her because I value her counsel. I value the wisdom that comes from her long experience," Bush said.
Reagan never made any secret that he relied on Thatcher for advice more than on any other world leader. She made a strong impression on him when they first met in London in 1975, when Thatcher was a Conservative member of Parliament and Reagan was preparing to challenge President Gerald R. Ford.
For an hour, the two of them talked about the need for economic reform in their countries. When Reagan was asked that evening what he thought about Thatcher, he replied that she would make "a magnificent prime minister."
Thatcher, who became prime minister in 1979, visited Reagan in Washington a month after he became president in 1981. Her efforts to move Britain in a more conservative fiscal direction were not going well, and some of Reagan's advisers wanted him to keep his distance from "Thatcherism." He ignored them and said that he and Thatcher agreed that "people will stay free when enterprise remains free."
In later years, Reagan often said that Thatcher's conservatism had made his own conservative policies more palatable. "Her successful fight to unshackle the British economy from government intervention and to provide greater economic freedom has been a powerful example throughout the world," Reagan said in a toast to her at the final state dinner of his presidency.
But it was in the international arena where Reagan depended especially upon the British prime minister. He frequently sought her advice and support at the Economic Summit meetings of the industrialized Western democracies, where she treated him protectively and came to his defense against implicit criticism of U.S. policies. She also backed him when he denounced the Soviet Union, as he often did during the early years of his presidency.
In 1982, Reagan gave a particularly strong anticommunist speech in London that predicted the demise of the Soviet empire. Although the speech was much criticized in Europe for its militancy, Thatcher called it a "magnificent" and prescient address.
But Thatcher's greatest contribution to Reagan may have been not in reinforcing his anticommunism but in counseling him that it was possible for the West to "do business" with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Before his first summit at Geneva in 1985, Reagan talked with Thatcher, who told him that Gorbachev's outlook was vastly different from that of his predecessors. Reagan soon came to this view, and he credited Thatcher for her early realization that Gorbachev sought genuine reforms.
Reagan often spoke to aides of his admiration for Thatcher. The two of them were closer personally than any U.S. and British leaders since Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill during World War II. In their first meeting in 1981, Reagan pledged that on issues involving Western political security, it was "without question" that "Britain and America will stand side by side."
Usually, the two nations did stand together. Reagan supported Britain in the Falklands War against Argentina, and Thatcher permitted use of British bases when U.S. planes bombed Libya in 1986 in retaliation for a terrorist incident.
But although they were always friends, they did not always agree. Thatcher opposed the U.S. invasion of Grenada and had reservations about the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan's anti-missile program also known as "Star Wars."
Today, Reagan and Bush spoke in similar tones in praise of their longtime ally. "Margaret Thatcher is truly a world statesman," Reagan said.
And in Saudi Arabia, Bush concurred. "I think everybody in America will agree that Margaret Thatcher has been an outstanding ally for the United States," Bush said. "She has been an outstanding prime minister for the United Kingdom and an outstanding friend for the United States."
A marine who talked to Bush today about Thatcher's decision to step down said, "I thought she'd duke it out."
Bush replied, "So did I."