The Iron Lady I Knew Was Bendable

Flowers placed by well-wishers surround a portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher outside her home in Bel
Flowers placed by well-wishers surround a portrait of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher outside her home in Belgravia, London, Monday, April 8, 2013. Margaret Thatcher, the combative "Iron Lady" who infuriated European allies, found a fellow believer in Ronald Reagan and transformed her country by a ruthless dedication to free markets in 11 bruising years as prime minister, died Monday. She was 87 years old. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

One evening during the end of Lady Thatcher's long run as Prime Minister, my wife Karen and I had dinner with her and Dennis at the mountain condo of mutual friends in Vail, Colorado. It was an intimate dinner, three couples in all, when just before dinner was called we gathered before the large picture window to marvel as a beautiful rainbow formed in the soft evening mist, and arched upwards toward the peak of the western mountains.

To me, that rainbow called back my feeling when Lady T first came to visit President Reagan at the White House, hardly a month after his inauguration. To the public, they said communism was even then being swept into the dustbin of history, an old and dead idea that had failed.

Such a hopeful era was dawning that first February, an era of immense change (predicted also by Pope John Paul II a year earlier, and now joined by Thatcher and Reagan). These three were practically alone among public figures in saying so; their voices seemed almost gauze-like and unreal, and public criticism in the press was mocking. And yet that rainbow had formed, and was arching upwards already then, as now before our eyes.

Those of us who were witnesses to those years must remind those born decades afterwards (my university students before me now) of the shocking rapidity of world change during that creative, transformative decade. Out of a period of bleak malaise it had arisen, unpredicted and as if by an unexpected gift. (Let us hope the same thing happens again -- and yet again -- in our Anglo-American world).

Some years later, probably in about 2001, Karen and I were guests with Lady Thatcher at the Florida home of the same mutual friend. Lady T was out of office then, and our time was relaxed and flowing with conversation. I enjoyed recounting for her the funniest and happiest stories I had heard her tell. It seemed to please her, and to relax her, so I tentatively jumped in.

When she attended the G7 meeting in 1982, President Mitterrand was in the chair and forgot for a while to introduce Prime Minister Thatcher, as protocol demanded. At last he remembered his manners and begged the Prime Minister's pardon, covering his embarrassment by asserting, after all, in the garden God had created Adam, and then Eve to be his helpmate, and he was certain that Madame Prime Minister would be welcome helpmate to the G7. A black cloud appeared above Margaret's head.

When it was finally her turn, the Madame Prime Minister coolly thanked President Mitterrand for his (hesitation) courtesy, and said: "We on the other side of the Channel must read a different Bible than here. In our Bible it says that God created Adam, and then, having learned from his mistake, created Eve."

That Lady Thatcher bore no brief for the French treatment of Britain became even clearer when, to an American audience, she congratulated us on having the oldest constitutional democracy in the world. "Why," she said, "a friend of mine in Oxfordshire walked down to the library in the town and requested a copy of the latest French Constitution. The librarian looked up at him cautiously over her glasses, and gently replied: 'My dear, we don't carry periodicals.'"

On another occasion, when I was departing from London in a taxi on my way to the airport, the radio was playing the last of her appearances before a questioning Parliament, and the Prime Minister was even more than usual giving better than she got. Finally my driver pulled the car over to the side, laughing as though his sides ached. "You'll have to forgive me, sir," he said. "Ah never voted once for that woman, never once. But I am sure gonna miss that woman. That Lady can fight, that one. She has one British wit."

On that first night in Colorado, Karen and I paid special attention to Dennis, so as to keep him in the conversation. After all, some friends of ours in Washington had formed "the Dennis Thatcher" society, for men who had wives in far more public posts than they. We knew what it was like. Dennis didn't seem to need such a society himself. He seemed content and supportive.

Lady Thatcher sent us an inscribed copy of each volume of her memoir as it came out, and spoke kindly of my work in each. She had wanted to prove to me in person that she meant it, by inviting me (twice) to visit her on Downing Street, where she could show me her personal copy of The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, all underlined and annotated just as she had said.

She was supposed to be an Iron Lady, and she was in the sense that when she asked you a question she expected a quick, accurate, and useful answer -- one felt a little like being in a university oral exam. She was, indeed, a serious woman. But I know that what my wife enjoyed most about her (and I, too) was her warmth and simplicity at breakfast and at lunch in our friends' home, when we sat at table alone. Each meal those few days was a bit elegant (as was our hostess), but conversation flowed like that of a family. We shared lots of laughter and, if it is not too un-British to say, not a little love.