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Remembering Margaret Thatcher: Partner to the U.S., Pioneering Female Politician

In 1981 Jim Lehrer and Robin MacNeil interviewed Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, about the civil war in El Salvador. Plus Judy Woodruff talks to George Shultz and James Baker, two former secretaries of state who worked closely with Thatcher. Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only female prime minister, also weighs in.

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    We return to Margaret Thatcher and delve into our program's archive.

    When she sat down with the NewsHour's founders, Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, they got a taste of the steely resolve of the Iron Lady when they asked her repeatedly about the news of that day, the civil war in El Salvador. The U.S. and Britain backed the military government in its fight against left-wing guerrilla groups.

    Here are excerpts from that 1981 interview.


    Good evening from Washington.

    British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher finished two days of talks today with President Reagan and U.S. officials impressed, she said, with the striking similarity between our aims and policies. Mrs. Thatcher is the first major allied leader to visit the new president.

    Earlier this afternoon, Jim Lehrer and I discussed some of these issues with Mrs. Thatcher at Blair House.


    A short while ago, it was announced that you are delaying your departure from Washington in the morning to have a special unscheduled second session with President Reagan.

    Has something urgent arisen, or something special, or what?


    No, I think it's a lovely idea, my husband and me to go around to the White House to say goodbye and to say how very much we have enjoyed the trip.


    We were afraid that maybe something had come up on El Salvador or something like that. But that's not the case, right?


    I don't think we would be so ham-handed as to do that way if it had.


    In your conversations with the president, Secretary Haig and others, with those full — were the full range of options that could be employed to stop this outside interference, were they gone over with you?



    Actually, the proportion of questions I have had on El Salvador from interviewers far exceeds the proportion of time we spent on discussing this particular matter.


    Now, why didn't you spend more time talking about El Salvador?


    Because there were a lot of other things to talk about as well.


    It's not that important then in the total scheme of things?


    No, I think you're trying to grope for something, which, if I might respectfully say so, some meaning that isn't there.


    Well, we don't want to devote a fantastic amount of time to it, but I would like to grope …

    I would like to grope a little further.


    Well, grope away.

    I assure you I'm very good, you know, at giving you the answer I want to give.


    I'm sure you are.


    Well, for more on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, I'm joined by two former secretaries of state who worked extensively with the British prime minister.

    George Shultz served under President Ronald Reagan. James Baker served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush.

    We welcome you both to the NewsHour.

    And, Secretary Shultz, let me begin with you.

    You were in that position for seven years under Ronald Reagan. So you worked with her as much as, if not more than, anyone else in government at that time. What was she like?


    She was very clear, very well-informed.

    She was — loved to have a good discussion. She didn't like it if you toadied to her. She liked it when you stood up and argued. And so that's what I did. Your interview clip with MacNeil and Lehrer reminded me of a time when she had been in Camp David. And I flew down with her to Andrews Air Force Base to see her off.

    And, at the base, there was a news interview. And she stood there. And reporters would ask these questions, and she would say, now, that's not a very good question. If you had formed it like this, then that would be something of a question worth answering. And here's the answer to the question you should have asked.

    She did that a few times. And then there weren't any more questions.


    Well, Secretary Baker, you, of course, not only interacted with her in the first Bush administration as secretary of state. You, of course, were also White House chief of staff, treasury secretary under President Reagan. So you interacted with her in several different capacities.

    What do you remember about her?


    Well, I remember how strong and determined a leader she was.

    I remember what a great friend of the United States she was. I remember how she in effect led a conservative revolution in a number of countries by being elected in 1979 in the United Kingdom, just before Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 in America, and you had the election of conservative leaders in Germany with Helmut Kohl, and Canada with Brian Mulroney shortly thereafter or contemporaneously therewith.

    And so it was quite a — quite a conservative revolution in governments around the world. I agree with what George said. She really didn't mind it at all if you argued with her, if you engaged or jousted with her on policy. And we did — we had to do that as well from time to time.

    I never will forget an instance in the Oval Office when we were trying to convince her that we should go to the United Nations to get a resolution of force authorizing the ejection of Iraq from Kuwait. We didn't have the support of the Congress. We had a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate. And it was our view that if we got the rest of the world behind this effort, we could then get the American Congress, which proved to be the case.

    But she didn't want to go to the U.N. because she was afraid that we might go for the resolution and not get it. Of course, our plan was never to bring it up unless we knew we had the votes to get it. But I never will forget her sitting there. After 45 minutes of discussing this issue, she turned to President Bush and she said, oh, George. She said, let's just go do it.

    Well, I can understand that.

    Her view was that Article 51 of the U.N. Charter gave us the authority. And it probably did. But we needed the political support. And we wanted to have and were able to ultimately to achieve that unprecedented international coalition to kick Iraq out of Kuwait.


    Secretary Shultz, what was she like in those situations? What was she like as a partner, as someone who I assume the administration agreed with much of the time, but maybe not all the time?


    Well, she was a person with whom you could really discuss a subject in depth, because she had done her homework. She had thought about the things that we were interested in.

    And so you always could learn something from talking with her. And you could see that her mind was open to learning whatever you had to say. Every time I went to the Soviet Union, I shared with her directly what impressions I had. And whenever she had any contacts, she let us know right away what her observations were.

    So she was really an excellent partner. But she could also give you what-for. I remember when the big Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in Reykjavik took place, at that meeting we talked about the possibility of a world free of nuclear weapons. And I had hardly gotten back to Washington when I was summoned to the British ambassador's residence, practically summoned, to meet with Margaret.

    And you remember she used to carry a little handbag. Well, I learned that there's a verb in the British language called to be handbagged.

    She said, George, how could you sit there and allow the president to talk about a world free of nuclear weapons?

    I said, but, Margaret, he's the president. Yes, but you're supposed to be the one with his feet on the ground. But, Margaret, I agreed with him.

    Oh, boy, did I get it.

    But she had very clear views and she made them known to you.


    Secretary Baker, what was her influence on President Reagan and on President — the first President Bush? To what extent did she make it easier, especially for President Reagan, to deal with the Soviets, to open the end of the Cold War?


    Well, she made it — I think she made it much easier with both President — for both President Reagan and President Bush to do so by early on commenting, you know, that after she met with Gorbachev, she said, you know, this is somebody that I think we can do business with.

    Well, that made it a lot easier for a Republican president to engage with the Soviet Union, something that the very conservative base of the Republican Party wasn't enthusiastic about. But if you had the Iron Lady saying this is someone we can do business with, it made it a lot easier for both of those presidents to engage.

    But, you know, we have mentioned a couple of instances where there were minor disagreements. For the most part, everything was pretty much seamless between Prime Minister Thatcher and both of those presidents, Reagan and Bush.

    I do remember one occasion — George will remember this — when we were about to invade Grenada, first time the United States had used force since the Vietnam War, military force. And we, therefore, were holding it pretty close. We called the prime minister the night before the operation was to go down. And I was on the phone taking notes while President Reagan talked to her.

    He told her that, tomorrow morning, we're going to invade Grenada. Well, that was a commonwealth country. And she thought we should have called her while we were developing the plans, not after they were in train, in effect. And she said, Ronnie, this is — this is notification, not consultation.


    She wasn't a happy camper. But that just shows you, I think, that she was — she felt free to speak her mind.

    But, for the most part and in most instances, she was 100 percent with the United States on practically every issue.


    Secretary Shultz, how much did it matter that she was a woman?


    Well, she was a very attractive woman.

    So you were certainly aware of that. But it — you didn't sort of feel, I'm dealing with a woman and there's something special about it. She was just a straightforward person.

    But I would like to make a comment on the attitude toward the Soviets. She and Ronald Reagan shared something that wasn't widely shared, but made a big difference. They were both very tough-minded. But they both thought that if you kept the pressure on long enough, change would come to the Soviet Union.

    That's the underlying significance of the remark Jim quoted on Gorbachev is somebody we can do business with, that you didn't just sit there and assume nothing could ever change. You sat there and you had a hard line, but at the same time, when we saw the opportunity to develop change, we seized it.

    And, as Jim indicated, that wasn't the view of a lot of conservative people. But the view that change could come turned out to be right. And she and Ronald Reagan shared that view.


    And so, Secretary Baker, how much of that was her legacy, the legacy — what is the legacy that she leaves?


    Well, I think she — I really think it's not a stretch to say that she changed the arc of history.

    She certainly did as far as the U.K. is concerned. And I think working with President Reagan and working with President Bush 41, she changed the arc of history as far as the world is concerned. I mean, you think about the developments that took place during that, I guess, 10-year period. She came in, in '79. She left in '90, 11 years.

    Look at the change that took place. It was fundamental change in many, many — with respect to many things around the world. And so I don't think it's a stretch to say that she changed the arc of history. I had the privilege of dealing with her not only in diplomatic and political matters, international political matters, but also economic matters, because I was treasury secretary for almost four years while she was prime minister. And I dealt with her in that capacity.

    And, of course, she left a legacy there as well, particularly in the U.K., where she emphasized the private sector and got rid of the oppressive influence of the trade unions.


    And, Secretary Shultz, that was a controversial part of her legacy. How much did that affect how you were able to deal with her? How did that affect her, the criticism she was facing at home?


    She didn't seem to be bothered by it.

    And, of course, the ultimate test is, she got reelected. So, if you win, maybe people are criticizing you, but you have the majority with you. And I agree with Jim wholeheartedly that she changed the arc — she, with Ronald Reagan together, changed the arc of history.

    And I would put it in one word: freedom. That was her tagline, freedom, freedom at home for markets to work, freedom abroad for countries to find their way and to have respectable, responsible elected governments.


    Well, we are so pleased to have both of you join us this evening, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Jim Baker.

    Thank you.


    Thank you, Judy.


    And, as we have said, of course, Thatcher was the first woman to head a major Western power.

    One woman who watched her closely and later became Canada's first and only female prime minister is Kim Campbell. She took office two-and-a-half years after Thatcher resigned.

    Welcome to the program.


    Thank you.


    Prime Minister Campbell, we heard Secretary George Shultz say that the fact that Margaret Thatcher was a woman didn't really have a great deal, if anything, to do with how she was seen by him and by others who dealt with her. How did you see her, as someone who came along in politics shortly thereafter?


    Well, it's interesting.

    The summer of '93, when I was traveling Canada as a newly minted prime minister, little old men come up to me, ooh, you're going to be our Maggie Thatcher. And it was very clear that she had created a constituency for female leaders in some very interesting places.

    And I think that every woman who wants to lead, every woman who is leading today owes her a debt because she just drop-kicked all of the stereotypes about women as leaders, you know, out of the ballpark. She was tough. She was able to see things through. She was also remarkably feminine, a very lovely looking woman.

    And watching the old clips of her, it's kind of touching to be reminded of what a lovely woman she was. And she also was a modern politician. She took steps to lower the tambour of her voice. And when Saatchi & Saatchi offered to remake her image, she did, because when she was a young member of Parliament, she was accused of being too much of a clotheshorse.

    So, she allowed herself to become sort of dowdy. And then when she became prime minister, she always looked great. But she really just I think opened up a space for women in other countries to be credible as leaders. There were things you didn't have to compromise anymore, that this notion that you could not be tough and still be feminine, that there would be somehow some way that you weren't really a woman if you wanted to lead a country or if you were prepared to send people into battle, it just wasn't the case.

    And she just established that once and for all.


    Saatchi & Saatchi, you refer to, of course is the advertising public relations firm she consulted when she was running for prime minister.

    Are you saying, though, that women in politics around the world look to Margaret Thatcher?


    Well, whether they look to her themselves or not — and she's controversial and people have different views. I was a graduate student in London in the early '70s when the power used to go off for six hours a day because of the miners' strike.

    And, actually, how she dealt with that was brilliant. She didn't take them on when there weren't stocks of coal. She waited to build up stocks of coal, so she could take them on and not have the disruptions in power, which were — it was outrageous.

    So, some people didn't like that toughness. Some people may be more left-wing than she or have different policy choices. But I think the credibility of a woman leading, particularly when you have to make difficult decisions on security issues, Margaret Thatcher prepared that way.

    And so I think we all owe her a debt, whether we would have done as she did or not. And, you know, she had no role models. Who did Margaret Thatcher have to model herself upon? There wasn't anybody. And she kind of made her own way. And a lot of the criticism of her in Britain was also class criticism.

    She had an upper-class education, but she was a lower-middle class girl. And she led a party that had a lot of people from privilege. In fact, the current Conservative prime minister is often accused of being too upper-class and has to be kind of a regular guy to dispel that.


    So …


    But she broke through so many social barriers in Britain, not just the gender one.


    So, what do you see ultimately as her legacy?


    Well, I think there's no question that she changed the power structure in Britain.

    You know, it amuses me in the United States when people talk about, you know, President Obama is a socialist, and I want to buy them a dictionary, because you don't have any socialists in this country. But the class war in Britain and the power of unaccountable people, you know, Scargill, the leader of the miners' union, was bent on destroying the government.

    And she kind of shifted that, so that the Labor Party is a very different party now from what it was then. She really helped to remake the political configuration in Britain to make it a much more, I think, centrist, constructive, but with ideological choice.

    And I think that, as the decades go on and people look back, they will see that it was a salutary re-jigging of the political debate in Great Britain. But also she was a great meritocrat. She have didn't get anything that she didn't work for. She didn't get her position by privilege or family connections. And she opened up the meritocracy.

    She had Jews in her Cabinet. She brought around her people who were successful, self-made people. And she made it acceptable to be successful in Britain, which was very difficult in that kind of class-ridden society that looked down on people in trade and et cetera.

    So I think her effect on British society is still being felt. And I think it was a healthy one.


    Still being felt and still being discussed.

    Former Prime Minister of Canada Kim Campbell, thank you.


    My pleasure.


    And, online, see the world's reaction to the passing of the British leader. And you can watch her 1981 conversation with the MacNeil and Lehrer. That's on our home page.

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