Thatcher Recalls Political Ally and Confidant Ronald Reagan

ByJake Tapper via logo
June 11, 2004, 4:35 PM

June 12, 2004 -- The relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was in many ways a love story — not romantic love, but the love of a close friend.

The British prime minister once called Reagan "the second most important man in my life."

And in the videotaped eulogy she gave at Reagan's funeral on Friday, shesaid: "We have lost a great president, a great American and a great man. And I have lost a dear friend."

In one of Reagan's last public appearances — at the dedication of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building in 1994 — he said of Thatcher: "She has been a staunch ally, my political soul mate, a great visionary and a dear dear friend."

The pair relied upon one another for emotional as well as political support.

"They were extremely close friends," says Nile Gardiner, a former Thatcher aide now with the Heritage Foundation. In addition to their shared ideologies, "they were also two people who got along very well. I think their characters were very similar."

Gardiner described his former boss — with whom he visited on Thursday — as "heartbroken" at Reagan's death.

V.P. Thatcher?

Thatcher saw Reagan as an American Winston Churchill — strong and resolute, wanting to transform the world for the better.

He saw her much the same way. In a letter he wrote one well-wisher on June 26, 1980 — after he secured the Republican presidential nomination but before he had picked his vice presidential nominee — Reagan wrote: "I have thought about the idea of a woman for vice president but have to tell you polls we've taken indicate … that the people aren't quite ready for that. I don't understand it because I'm a big fan of Margaret Thatcher."

Their friendship had begun in 1975. Denis Thatcher, the former prime minister's late husband, first noticed Reagan years earlier after a speech he had delivered; he told his wife about him and after her election to the head of the Conservative Party, she welcomed Reagan to London.

"We met a time before she became prime minister and I became president," Reagan once recalled. "From the moment we met, we discovered that we shared quite similar views of government and freedom." Her final words to him after that meeting were that they must "stand together."

Six years later, when the new president welcomed the new prime minister to the White House as his first foreign guest, she said the same thing. "The problems are many, the dangers real, the decisions difficult," she said on Feb. 26, 1981. "The message I brought across the Atlantic is that we in Britain stand with you."

And she did. She was at his side during his first economic summit in Ottawa in 1981, where — recovering from a gunshot wound — he was exhausted.

"He was the star and she was the script writer, if you will," said Lou Cannon, a Reagan biographer who interviewed Reagan during that summit. "It worked so perfectly, it meshed so perfectly, that they valued each other, they complemented each other."

Joint Challenge to Communism

After he gave a very strong anti-communism speech to the British Parliament a year later — declaring that "the march of freedom and democracy … will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history" — European leaders were angry. But Thatcher defended him.

"On occasion, she has borne the added burden of heavy criticism incurred on America's behalf," Reagan noted at a state dinner in her honor on Nov. 16, 1988.

Like Reagan, Thatcher was an ardent anti-communist, but after she met a rising Soviet politician named Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984 she told her friend this was a man with whom they could "do business." Reagan believed her, changing the world forever.

"I think the combination of Thatcher and Reagan gave the conservative movement an international reach that it would not have had had either of them been in office alone," says Cannon.

In November 1988 — the Soviet threat fading, the U.S. and British economies strengthened — Thatcher was Reagan's last official White House guest. In a brief Q&A session with reporters, Thatcher was asked if they would stay in touch. "Of course," she replied.

Would she visit the Reagans at their California ranch?

"I shall wait for an invitation," she said in her proper English accent, moving the room — and Reagan — to laughter.

They stayed in touch long after leaving public life; she came to his 83rd birthday party, in February 1994. Afterward he wrote her that her presence "was clearly my most treasured birthday gift."

"As you know well," he continued, "I don't often display my emotions publicly, but throughout your speech I had a lump in my throat the size of a golf ball. I was touched beyond words and your explanation of our unique friendship echoed my sentiments perfectly."

Reagan wrote her that "the Lord brought us together for a profound purpose," and that he had "been richly blessed for having known you."

Not long after that letter, Reagan told the world in a letter — and, subsequently, Thatcher, in a phone conversation — about his Alzheimer's. That was their last contact until she said goodbye this week. Thatcher then flew to California with Nancy Reagan to attend the burial as a guest of the family.