Margaret Thatcher and the 'special relationship' - 10 June 1983
Thinking about the British election this week which, for reasons we will go into, a lot of influential Americans were doing, I had a sharp memory of the first press conference, John F Kennedy held, when he was only president elect.
In other words he’d been elected in the November of 1960 and would not take office till the end of January. It’s always if not a carefree time a happy, confident time, the new man takes a holiday around Christmas time, and basks in the glory of his new eminence. No president can ever really take a holiday, but Kennedy took off for Palm Beach where his father had a spacious house, and for a couple of weeks or so, it was the winter White House.
Well, Kennedy had not been there many days before he called a press conference. Wherever he travels the corps – that’s the reporters assigned by their papers to the White House – travel with him, and there were this time about 20 of them, including one foreign correspondent, me.
We were all taken, under secret service escort, to old Joe Kennedy’s house and Kennedy settled in to talk for an hour about the domestic policies he was going to propose and then, after a break, about foreign policy.
In the second hour he said, I remember, that one of the first things he wanted to do was to call on Mr Khrushchev. He had the refreshing attitude that it didn’t matter whether Mr Khrushchev came to Washington, or he went to Moscow, the great thing was to try and halt or regulate the nuclear arms race. This was almost 23 years ago. As it was, they met in Vienna. He also thought, he must have a meeting in Paris with President de Gaulle, and as a Catholic, a fact of his life he’d been careful to insist during the campaign was secondary to his duty as President of the United States, as a Catholic you like to call on the pope, and he had an urge to visit his great grandfather's village in Ireland.
Now in those days at presidential press conferences, the foreign press did not put questions – a convention that I notice, now dwindling. So I waited till it was over and back at our hotel I buttonholed one of his two or three closest advisors, an old Boston buddy, of the several that then carried the affectionate title of the Irish mafia.
I said to him how about London isn’t he going to London? The man looked at me with almost paternal tenderness, London he said, well he might go to Berlin and course, Moscow he said and Paris, but knows that Britain doesn’t really count any more. Sure, he may pay a courtesy call on old Macmillan, which he did, but the so-called special relationship has simply ceased to exist.
It was something that Briton took a long, reluctant time to realise. I suppose it's acceptable to everybody, today, or should I say, yesterday. Because today, during the past couple of weeks, many of the most powerful of Americans pundits, I mean newspaper columnists and television commentators, have transferred their base of operations from Washington to London, and been telling us what to think about the British election.
There have been more of them than usual, because, I believe, that whatever else Mrs Thatcher has, or has not done, she has committed herself so strongly to the United States as Europe’s defence shield, and become such an uncompromising ally and friend, of President Reagan – the dogged economic policies they share, have a lot to do with it – that she has, for better for worse, revived the special relationship.
Britain is today thought of in Washington, and of course, in particular in the White House, as America’s most dependable ally. Which means, among other things, that the people who fear or oppose the reinforcing of American medium-range missiles in Europe are, in both countries, the identical types, who get out and parade and protest.
Most other people – the many millions who are not – are happy about planting more and more missiles against the Soviet Unions, planting of more and more missiles excepted. However there is another point, I don’t think that there is any question that the episode of the Falklands, though it's nothing like as green and vivid a memory as it is in Britain, was a surprising reminder that a head of government can set a course, a dangerous one, and fight it out.
Among all the Americans I talk to, Mrs Thatcher’s policies are either dimly understood or not talked about at all. They think of her as a leader, and the western world seems to pine for leaders.
Now, this maybe a good or a bad thing. Leadership in a democracy in peacetime has to be, by the very nature of our system, a compromise with the strongest elements in two or three parties; it's not very dramatic.
Lyndon Johnson I think it will be seen in time was a remarkable democratic leader. He had the cunning to guess what was the most he could get, he had the blarney to cajole and seduce his opponents. When he took over from the gallant figure of John Kennedy there were about 90 of Kennedy’s proposed bills languishing or dying in one or other or both houses of Congress.
Within three months of Johnson’s presidency, more than two-thirds of those bills had been acted on, and passed. It’s not an exploit that has earned Johnson much of a name as a famous leader. But mention Mrs Thatcher and people think of the spunk required to fight the Argentines, they don’t think of the cost, then, or the appalling cost that's going to have to be paid to maintain 1800 people on an island 8,000 miles from home.
Well all this, and much more, about Mrs Thatcher’s character has been stressed these past weeks. The American commentators dispatched to London confessed themselves bewildered. They don’t understand how a country with the heaviest unemployment since the great Depression, of people paying more taxes than they did four years ago, with industrial productivity down 10%, can somehow seem not to let these things count when it comes to picking the next prime minister.
They have reported carefully and well about the appeal of the Liberal/Social Democratic alliance, and about the fatal contradictions and squabbles in the Labour Party. But also, more than at any other time, they have all gone out on a limb and not merely predicted a whopping victory for Mrs Thatcher but assumed it.
Mr James Reston, the old Scot whose 60 years in America have not scraped the Calvinism from the marrow of his bones – he is about as canny a reporter as you can find – he has followed American and British politics for well over 40 years, and he does not tip his hand till all the cards are on the table and the game is called.
But a week before the election he sent back a piece to the New York Times, with the title "How Maggie did it". His piece began, "The British election has been the best play in London this season, it should be called Maggie, or how Upstairs tamed Downstairs, and made them like it".
He put her success down to toughness, and to luck, especially to her being lucky in her political opponents. He saw Mr Foot as a man who forgot that the age of his kind of socialism, like the age of chivalry, was over. In his only mention of issues Reston remarked, what will Maggie do now that she has got it? Nobody here knows except that she has probably kept the British from getting out of the Common Market in Europe and breaking with the United States on the defence of the western alliance.
For this there is general but uneasy approval and yes, admiration for Maggie. He ended with this moral of the fable, "Never underestimate the power or luck of a woman".
It may be, since you are hearing this after the event, that you won’t think Mr Reston took any risk at all. He has never called an American election before the returns were in, but I ought to tell you that I am recording this talk deliberately 24 hours before the election.
Commentaries that are wise after the event are ten a penny and do nothing but contribute to the self-esteem of the commentator. Some time ago, I went through some yellowing files of two famous British weeklies which, as profits and recorders of events, were at the top of the heap, in the anxious years of the 1930s.
One was not what we then called "right wing", it was decently, prudently, thoughtfully conservative. The other was, frankly, left wing. Both fearless, much like the American magazine, New Republic, every week sounding frightening and very impressive warnings about where Europe was headed.
Look at their editorials and their predictions today, and they were both, well, not dead wrong, only about 90%. Life, hearing itself so noisily described and advised, simply tiptoed out of hearing and went its different way.
It reminds me of the truthful remark of the old Baltimore newspaper man H L Mencken who once said, after sitting in on the editorial conferences of my paper for over 30 years, "I reeled out into the daylight wondering how God had got along all these years without the New Republic and the Manchester Guardian".
So, for me, even at the eleventh hour, I am doing no predicting. I am the man, who, on the first Tuesday in November 1948, the very morning of a presidential election, had a piece in the Guardian, a big piece on the leader page, it was called, "Harry S Truman, portrait of a failure", 24 hours later, the failure went roaring back into the White House.
And, as for British elections, in June 1970 I telephoned a friend in England and said, put £10 for me on the Conservatives. "My dear friend", he replied, "you don’t know what you are doing, it's going to be a Labour landslide. The odds are about seven to one." "Put ten pounds on Heath", I said. Of course, I was an ignoramus, taking a flyer.
Next day, I called him, crowing down the line, £70, I believe? "Dear Alistair," he said, "what am I to say? I simply didn’t want you to throw your money away, I didn’t place the bet..."
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