Remembering the Iron Lady

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By Nick DAngelo

When I debated on the national circuit in high school, younger students would sometimes ask me for advice on presentation.

The problems plaguing most young orators are the lack of authority in their speaking, little pinpointed alacrity and only the inkling of confident conviction.

A starting point, I’d tell any who asked, was to watch how some of the best rhetoricians spoke. For gentlemen, I recommended watching some of the famous speeches of Edward M. Kennedy,  and for ladies, those of Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher’s passing last week marks the end of an era that was already dwindling into twilight. The Wall Street Journal eulogized her as “the last outlier in the ideological wars against Marxism,” and it was that rigid adherence to ideology that has placed Thatcher, along with her close friend Ronald Reagan, among the most recognized leaders of the 20th century.

Devoted to her conservative convictions to the point of alienating her own Cabinet, Thatcher regularly defended her policies against tough criticism, always with trademark charm and intellect.

It was this open debate that Thatcher loved. She was a staunch opponent of consensus politics, dubbing it the process of “abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies … something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.” And while this mantra often evoked polarization, Thatcher herself taught that the intense combativeness should always remain focused on the political issues.

Personal attacks, she believed, meant you had nothing of substance left to contribute. During a particularly lively debate in the House of Commons, Thatcher traded jabs and jokes with her Labour colleagues, inspiring one backbencher to yell out, “You could wipe the floor with them.”

Her style of following her convictions is what molded Thatcher into a larger-than-life personality. The daughter of a Grantham grocer, Thatcher was the youngest candidate for Parliament in 1950, and lost. She lost again the following year. After working as a chemist, raising a family and earning her law degree, Thatcher finally arrived in London in 1959. She first gained national recognition as the Secretary of State for Health and Education when she made the controversial decision in 1974 to abolish free milk for school children. In her first of many bouts with negative protest, she was smeared with chants of “Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.”

In 1973, before becoming her party’s leader, she admitted in a local television interview that she doubted she would see a female prime minister in her lifetime. Six years later, she made history by winning the general election. As she entered 10 Downing Street in traditional Thatcher form, she quoted the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

Although many disagree with her convictions, it’s clear that she rarely strayed from the St. Francis philosophy in promoting them. Her unyielding strength in the face of opposition during labor strikes, the Falklands War and showdowns with the Soviet Union lived up to the reputation of the “Iron Lady,” a Russian insult Thatcher wore with honor.

Towards the end of her premiership, as George H.W. Bush was torn on invading Kuwait, Thatcher told the newly minted president, “This is no time to go wobbly, George.” Her steely determination was among her most admirable attributes.

That stone-cold aptitude was most clearly seen on Oct. 12, 1984, during the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton. Thatcher refused to sleep, spending most of the night reworking her remarks for the following day. At 2:54 a.m. a bomb detonated in the hotel, killing five of the Prime Minister’s close advisors. Thatcher changed her clothes, left the hotel at 4:00 a.m., and began the conference as scheduled several hours later. “All attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail,” Thatcher told a fearful public.

Thatcher biographer John Campbell refers to this episode as another “Churchillian moment,” which gave the British public strength in defying terrorism and truly defined her stoic leadership. And that will be Thatcher’s lasting legacy.

She lives on in the philosophy she unapologetically guarded, and the style with which she promoted it. Her example is one to be followed by generations of political leaders, from all ideologies, because of the remarkable power of true grit and honest conviction. “When you fight,” Thatcher once remarked, “fight to win.”

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