Margaret Thatcher had no small talk. At a private lunch which I can’t quite date — her husband, Denis, was there, drinking whiskey out of a large tumbler, so it must have been well over a decade ago — I was seated across from her, and at one point I became the object of a tirade about the Russian president. “What are we going to do about Mr. Yeltsin?” she demanded, as if either she or I could do anything at all. She’d been out of power for several years at that point and was already forgetting thoughts in the middle of sentences. But whatever else she was losing, the desire to stick to the big issues and the larger subjects was still with her.
This is what she was best at: the big issues, the politics of symbolism, the crafting of rhetoric. She was less good at nuance. Inside Britain she was the woman who sparked riots and ignored the advice of colleagues. But outside Britain — in the United States, in Eastern Europe, even in the Soviet Union — she made herself into an icon, a symbol of anti-communism and the transatlantic alliance at a time when neither was fashionable. She stood by Ronald Reagan in his battle against the Evil Empire. She used the same language as he did — free markets, free people — and entered into a unique and probably unrepeatable public partnership with him. It was useful to them both: If Reagan wanted to pull away from domestic scandals, he could appear with Thatcher on a podium. If Thatcher wanted to enhance her status, she could pay a visit to Reagan at the White House.
But their partnership was also useful to others, as Thatcher herself understood. When she arrived in Poland in the autumn of 1988, dressed in cossack boots, a full-length fur coat and a fur hat, she decided to visit a farmers’ market, one of the few examples of “the free market” then available in Warsaw. She swept through the fruit stalls, swarmed by journalists and startled shoppers while the British ambassador scurried behind her, paying for her purchases and jars of pickles broken in the fray. Her entourage then proceeded to Gdansk, where she met Lech Walesa. By all accounts, the two conducted an awkward and mutually incomprehensible conversation.
Nevertheless she appeared with him in front of cheering crowds at the Gdansk shipyard and declared, “We shall not be found wanting when Poland makes the progress toward freedom and democracy its people clearly seek.” And that gesture, that moment, really mattered: It gave the Poles and others the courage to think they really could someday join the rest of Europe. Someone wanted them there. Not accidentally, the most successful of the former Communist nations — Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia — have all been led at various times by politicians who called themselves “Thatcherites.” Whatever path they took to reform, all of them had a clear sense of direction. Where do we want to go to? The West. How do we want to get there? Fast.
Thatcher, who died Monday at age 87, made plenty of mistakes. She was irritating, tactless and divisive. But she understood why and how the values of “the West” might appeal to the rest of the world, and she sought to find ways to explain and to intelligently promote them. That’s worth remembering, because she may be one of the last politicians who will.