WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It was ideological love at first sight for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who made the most unlikely but dominant international pairing of the late 20th century, triumphing side-by-side in the Cold War.
Thatcher, who died on Monday in London, defied illness to attend Reagan’s funeral in Washington in 2004.
For her inscription in a book of condolences, she chose: “Well done thou good and faithful servant,” a biblical quotation that reflected the Christian faith they shared but also the tough capitalist principles they embraced at a time when both believed the war against Soviet communism was one that could be lost.
The words are from a parable in St. Matthew’s Gospel, and are used to praise a servant who has been given money by his master that he doubles through investment, in contrast to a “slothful” servant who buries his gift and makes no profit.
“Unto every one that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance, but from him who hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath,” the rest of the passage reads. “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness.”
Both leaders became not just national, but world icons, representatives of a resolute conservatism that polarized their own countries, committed to unambiguous economic theories that countered what they saw as the fuzzy principles of socialism.
For both, the watchwords were tax cutting, smaller government, trickle-down economics and a rising tide lifting all boats. Thatcher sneered at Britain’s welfare system, calling it the “nanny state.”
Despite some economic improvements during their tenure in the 1980s, critics complained of a growing gap between rich and poor, parodying their right-wing theory as “a rising tide which lifts all yachts.”
It was not always smooth sailing between Thatcher and Reagan, whose countries traditionally enjoyed what has been dubbed a “special relationship.”
Washington was initially reluctant to help Thatcher’s 1982 military excursion to eject Argentina’s forces from the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, and Britain was angered by Reagan’s decision to invade the Commonwealth island of Grenada after a military coup a year later.
But their personal bond was genuine and enduring. Thatcher wrote in her memoir, “The Downing Street Years,” that in their first meeting “I knew that I was talking to someone who instinctively felt and thought as I did.” This was not just a matter of politics, but “about a philosophy of government, a view of human nature,” she said.
Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for Reagan, told Reuters of a story the president told about the first Group of Seven summit Reagan attended. At a dinner, “He laid out what he was going to do on his economic recovery package for America. Several of the participants derided him on tax cuts and spending reductions,” Duberstein recalled.
“The only person who came to his defense was Maggie Thatcher. As they left the dinner that evening, the president in his own words caught up to Maggie Thatcher and said, ‘Thanks so much. It was unnecessary but most appreciated.’ And as Reagan used to tell the story, ‘She tapped me on the elbow and said, ”Oh Ronnie, it’s just boys being boys.“'”
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They had very different beginnings. Thatcher’s father was a stolid small-town grocer. She grew up in the apartment over his corner store. She was smart enough to study at Oxford University and moved quickly into Conservative Party politics.
Reagan’s father was an itinerant salesman and a heavy drinker who struggled to make a living as he moved the family from one small town to another. Reagan grew up to become a well-known Hollywood actor before going into politics.
Thatcher, a driven, unrelenting character who needed little sleep, had no time for small talk and cowed her rivals. Reagan was breezy and charming, a broad-brush thinker who kept a tight limit on his work hours even in the White House.
“It may be that one reason President Reagan and I made such a good team was that although we shared the same analysis of the way the world worked, we were very different people. He had an accurate grasp of the strategic picture but left the tactical detail to others,” Thatcher wrote in her memoir.
Colin Powell, who knew Thatcher when he served in senior posts under Reagan and later President George H.W. Bush, said that while leaders including Thatcher and Canada’s Brian Mulroney accepted that Reagan might not grasp all the finer points of arms policy they valued his other strengths.
“Even though they would say Mr. Reagan didn’t quite understand this aspect of missile defense or that aspect of intercontinental missiles, what they all did was understand Ronald Reagan and how he represented the American people,” Powell told the program “CBS This Morning” on Monday.
“And not one of these great leaders such as Margaret Thatcher ever looked down at Ronald Reagan because ... they knew with Ronald Reagan they were seeing the American spirit and the American people.”
Thatcher and Reagan each depended on fiercely devoted spouses. Denis Thatcher, who died in 2003, was a wealthy businessman who in public trailed several feet behind his wife like a footman. Nancy, Reagan’s second wife, was a constant source of strength during his presidency and cared for him in his twilight years when he suffered the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
(This story corrects date of Denis Thatcher’s death in last paragraph)
Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham