By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - It was largely for lack of any other news that I launched Margaret Thatcher’s favorite soubriquet “The Iron Lady” on the world one quiet but miserably slushy Moscow winter Saturday in January 1976.
I could hardly suspect I was playing a perhaps not insignificant role in her rise to prime minister three years later.
Leafing through the text-heavy and highly lookalike newspapers of the day, I came across a catchy headline - and there weren’t many of those in the Soviet media - in the army mouthpiece Red Star, or Krasnaya Zvezda in Russian.
“Zheleznaya Dama Ugrozhayet,” it declared - “The Iron Lady Wields Threats”. The story below, by reporter Yuri Gavrilov, berated the woman who was then leader of Britain’s Conservative opposition for a speech warning of the danger posed by Soviet weaponry.
“She is known by her compatriots as the Iron Lady,” Gavrilov asserted.
As an exile Briton running Reuters’ Moscow bureau, I had never heard the term applied to her and decided - in the absence of other news - that it was worth a story of my own.
“British Tory leader Margaret Thatcher was today dubbed ‘the Iron Lady’ by the Soviet Defense Ministry newspaper Red Star,” my piece read. It won wide play in the British media - without credit as is so often the fate of news agency reports.
Within a week, Thatcher - clad in scarlet - was herself demurely playing it up, clearly delighted at the term.
“I stand before you tonight in my Red Star evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world,” she told a guffawing but adoring audience at a dinner of her constituency party association.
“Yes, I am an Iron Lady. After all, it wasn’t a bad thing to be an Iron Duke,” she said in a reference to one of her heroes, the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.
She didn’t mind the inadvertent Soviet comparison with the great English general “if that’s how they wish to interpret my defense of values and freedoms fundamental to our way of life”, she added, to rapturous applause.
The future British prime minister, or her advisers, had not been so appreciative just a few months earlier when I had written a similar story on a prominently displayed propaganda poster in Moscow denouncing her as “Mrs Thatcher, Trouble Hatcher” and portraying her as a hook-nosed “Cold War Witch”.
That soubriquet was not taken up back in London, although she did make clear later she liked being called a “Cold War warrior” by the Soviet Union and its communist allies.
It boosted her image at a time when she was belaboring a faltering left-wing Labour government as “soft on the Russians” in the run-up to the election which swept her to power in 1979.
By the time she came to Moscow in 1987, a new Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev, seeking better relations with the West, had dropped such language, and Gorbachev himself had made clear that he admired her feisty style.
But at a reception at the British embassy facing the Kremlin, she won some titters for a passing reference to her “iron nature”.
As she was led down the reception line, it occurred to me she might just acknowledge my role in forging her image - however unintended it was on the part of a journalist whose personal political sympathies lay elsewhere.
She swept imperiously past, silent, with only a brief, steely nod of the head.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald