Just after Margaret Thatcher left office in 1990, a famous cartoon appeared in the U.S.
"Big Shoes To Fill," was the caption below a drawing of an enormous pair of ladies' pumps. Everyone knew that someone great was departing the political scene.
That was a far cry from how Margaret Thatcher was viewed in the U.S. during her first trip to this country in 1975, shortly after she was selected the Conservative Party's leader. A memo from the U.S. State Department dismissed her as "the quintessential suburban matron."
Talk about underestimating someone. Margaret Thatcher changed Britain, and together with Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II helped usher in the fall of Communism.
Gay Gaines of Palm Beach, Florida, got to know Margaret Thatcher intimately during the last quarter century of her life. She first met Thatcher in 1989 when she was prime minister and was immediately struck by her leadership qualities and decisiveness.
After Thatcher left office, Gaines and William F. Buckley convinced her to become honorary chairman of the National Review Institute. Thatcher attended one international meeting and one U.S. meeting of the group every year, meetings which Gay chaired. She recalls "She was always the last to go to bed and the first to get up. She was a dynamo who never stopped."
Her fondness and connection with Ronald Reagan was legendary - and completely genuine. Gaines recalls Thatcher visiting her for a week in 2000 and unpacking her own bag. At the bottom, was a carefully folded elegant black dress. "I carry this with me wherever I go," Thatcher explained with a catch in her voice. "I never know when Ronnie might pass." She always wanted to have suitable attire with her if she suddenly had to attend Reagan's funeral.
Gaines said that the portrayal of Thatcher as a prisoner of her demenita for much of the last decade in the Merryl Streep movie "The Iron Lady" were "ugly exaggerations.
"The makers of that film couldn't challenge what she did in office," she told me. "So they tired to diminish her by claiming she had lost it."
Gaines saw Thatcher frequently during her final years and spoke with her only four weeks ago. She reports that despite some aftereffects of strokes, she could conduct a perfectly reasonable conversation until about a year ago, and even more recently she could speak cogently with a bit of prompting - albeit more about events in the past than current affairs.
Gaines says the example Thatcher set is one other leaders would be wise to follow.
"She was a force for great good because she believed in her principles would work in practice," she told me. "She knew that her place in history was secure, and I think she left satisfied with what she had done."
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