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The Iron Lady

Apr 10, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

A giant 20th century figure, she relished her time on the world's stage

Margaret Thatcher, one of the late 20th century's most-famous people, died this week, more than 20 years removed from her striking tenure as Britain's first, and still only, female prime minister.

She is most closely associated in this country with her powerful alliance and apparent personal bond with former President Ronald Reagan, although she took office in London when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and left it when George H.W. Bush was president.

But it was Reagan to whom she was linked figuratively most often. Today, political descendants in both countries refer frequently to the legacies of the two leaders. Many are eager to proclaim themselves cut from the same cloth as Reagan or Thatcher.

But what might the Iron Lady think of the ugly partisan tone that has engulfed much of the political debate in this country and to a significant extent in the UK?

Both Thatcher and Reagan were skilled politicians and proudly partisan, to be sure. Somehow, though, they seemed to practice the trade with a degree of good will that has gone missing these days. Certainly there was no tougher customer in British politics than Margaret Thatcher, but the discourse seemed less poisonous somehow.

American television viewers may have happened across the weekly question-and-answer session in the British Parliament carried occasionally on C-SPAN. The prime minister is called to task by members of the opposition party through a series of questions, then answers back. It can be greatly entertaining if the prime minister has a worthy opponent or opponents on the other side of the room.

Thatcher excelled in these sessions and truly seemed to enjoy them. If you can, try to find some video and audio of Thatcher during a Q&A. The barbs were sharp, no questions about it. But the exchanges were witty and incisive, often accompanied by laughter.

She slugged it out with the best of them, but the effect never seemed to be one of personal slander, rather always one of political and philosophical debate.

As for the politics and philosophy, a decade of Tony Blair and 12 years and counting of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have loosed the revisionists on Thatcher's legacy. Her infirmity in recent years allowed much of the criticism to go unanswered by the subject.

That's the nature of politics. Disagreements are mandatory, even desirable. Thatcher certainly sparked them. But she understood the game better, perhaps, than many who have followed.

Regardless of anyone's agreement or disagreement with her politics, Thatcher was a woman of both great strength and toughness, of resolve and endurance, a figure who relished her stint on the world stage and never shrank from the leading role assigned to her. She remains a tower of her time.

"I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding," she said, "because I think, well, if they have to attack one personally it means they have not a single political argument left."

Would that fly nowadays? Today it appears the discussion usually begins with the personal attack rather than resorts to it.

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