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Bill Kristol Reflects On The Passing Of Margaret Thatcher

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

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HH: Joined now by Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Bill, I think you’re coming out to the Broadmoor down in the Springs, and maybe doing something with the Centennial Institute in early May, the Conservative Persuasion Boot Camp?

BK: Absolutely. Looking forward to it, and both the week from Saturday event and the Centennial event I think should be fun, and it will be great to be in Colorado.

HH: Well, I was going to originally talk to you today about what has happened in Colorado, given that you were going to be out here and I’m broadcasting from www.ccu.edu today. And by the way, the Centennial Institute is www.centennialccu.org. But Margaret Thatcher died, and so my thought immediately went to that, and I’ve got lots of audio. But when you heard that this morning, Bill Kristol, what was your first reaction?

BK: That it really was the end of a generation in the sense that I always associate Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II as kind of the giants of that decade from the very late 70s through the 80s who won the Cold War, and reinvigorated the West both economically, and in some sense, spiritually, too, and that obviously, Ronald Reagan and then Pope John Paul II died, and then Mrs. Thatcher was somewhat younger, but now she’s gone. And really, from that era, there are a lot of lessons to be learned from all three of them, I think, and that’s really what I thought about.

HH: Now Bill Kristol, a lot of people today are giving her her due, but some aren’t, and some are using the occasion to smear her legacy again. But at the time she arrived, I don’t think people quite recall how large the odds were against her, or indeed against Reagan when they arrived in office. I think that’s actually been obscured is how much she accomplished, not just what she accomplished, given where she began from.

BK: I totally agree, and also what’s obscured is what the odds were against either of them arriving in office.

HH: Yup.

BK: I mean, if you had predicted three or four years before Mrs. Thatcher became leader of the opposition, I mean, she’s the first woman to become first leader of the opposition and then British prime minister. She took over and defeated the establishment of the party that was behind Ted Heath. She totally changed first the doctrine of the Conservative Party, and then of course won in a nation that at the time looked like it was irrevocably committed to a kind of social democratic rather dismal future. And obviously, Reagan in a very similar way challenged the Republican establishment and turned the whole party around between ’76 and ’80, and then defeated an incumbent president. So in both cases, you know, once they win and once they succeed, everyone thinks oh yeah, of course, Reagan and Thatcher. Again, if you had been, if we had been talking in the mid-70s, even the late 70s, actually, before they each took over, one would have had very little sense of what was about to happen.

HH: Now Bill Kristol, a lot of people are despondent today about the size of government in the United States and the trajectory of spending and the trajectory of regulatory power. Do you think that Great Britain was further down that path in 1978 than the United States is today, because I think one of her legacies will be to remind people that great change is possible, even in states which are fairly committed to a socialist project.

BK: Yeah, absolutely, and I think just further on that point, though, what’s the one thing even she couldn’t really challenge and that has stayed in place, and that is really debilitating in Great Britain?

HH: Yeah.

BK: The National Health Service. And what does that tell us about the need to dismantle and repeal Obamacare?

HH: Yeah.

BK: I really think that is fundamental. I can see a path forward in a Thatcherite-Reaganite direction, if Republicans can delay and obstruct, frankly, and also get rid of parts of Obamacare, and then get rid of it after 2016. I think if that stays in place, we get to a bit of a situation that Mrs. Thatcher found herself in, where you could do a lot of good things, but there’s this massive sort of lump of the welfare state and the nanny state, and the incredibly intrusive government sitting right there that it’s very hard to work around.

HH: Now I want to play, Bill, a minute and a half clip from a BBC interview, because it’s so relevant today. She’s talking in this case about nuclear deterrence, if I can play cut number 4 for Bill Kristol and our audience.

MT: The ability of clearing the planet of nuclear weapons by the year 2000? Not in the end at all, because after all, two world wars have shown us that conventional weapons are not enough to deter war. And if we want a war-free Europe, then we must continue to have a nuclear deterrent. If you’re to deter war, if you’re to have an effective alliance, you don’t do it with obsolete weapons. Therefore, you have to modernize. That is not in doubt. They all believe it. Some of them are really rather shy in saying it as openly as we are.

Interviewer: It’s not in the declaration in quite the way that you’ve been putting it, though, Prime Minister. It does not use the word modernize, and it actually uses this phrase, keep up to day where necessary, which surely is open to all sorts of interpretation.

MT: Of course, it isn’t. But you’re splitting hairs. This is ridiculous. These weapons will continue to be kept up to date, because the policy of the alliance is a sure defense, deterrence sufficient to deter any aggressor.

Interviewer: Do you understand…

HH: Bill Kristol, I’ll break in here. I love that. You’re being ridiculous to a BBC reporter, and a full-throated defense of the use of nuclear deterrence.

BK: Fantastic, and really, speaking for a Briton, that I mean, this is the tragedy, really, over the last ten, twenty years, though, that now has allowed its entire defense budget and defense capability to erode to where they almost don’t count as a great power. And it’s a sad thing, and it does tell us that we have more of a burden that Ronald Reagan had 30 years ago, because we don’t have a Britain or other NATO allies that are capable of doing as much. And frankly, we don’t have a Margaret Thatcher in charge, either, of one of those countries. So it makes the cuts in our own Defense budget even more worrisome for the world we’re living in.

HH: And as you look at the Korean peninsula today, with all that they are doing, and we look at Iran’s thrust for nuclear weapons, a little Thatcherist candor with our press would be a very good thing, either by David Cameron or by our opposition in Washington, D.C. I think even the Republicans have become muted about this.

BK: I really agree with that. I mean, the pollsters tell them the public is war weary, and so instead of being leaders and saying look, public, of course we’re all war weary, but this is the world we live in. And if we let this weariness govern our actions, we will end up with much worse events, a much more terrifying world, and more wars. That’s what leaders have to say, and that’s what leaders have said. It’s what Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan said. I do wish, and obviously it would be nice if the President said that, but I at least do wish the Republican leaders would be a little less, you know, ignore a few of the focus groups and the polls that show that old people don’t really want you to talk about these things. At the end of the day, it is, you know, this is our responsibility, and the serious political party has to live up to it.

HH: So Bill Kristol, going back to Margaret Thatcher, I have not been following the news closely today because I’ve been at Colorado Christian in classes and other things. But I’m hoping that President Obama goes to this funeral. I haven’t seen an announcement, yet. I would be shocked if he didn’t. Has there been an announcement on that, yet?

BK: You know, I haven’t seen one, and I’ve been here, I’m here at the University of Chicago and also going into some classes and doing a few things, and I’m on a panel in a little bit. But he put out a nice statement, I’ve got to say. It had almost none of the kind of caveats that you might expect from a liberal Democrat discussing one of the great conservatives of the last 50 years, and it was an appropriate statement, I thought. So I do hope he goes, really both in terms of what she did, but also just as an ally of the U.S. I mean, it was an unusual moment, the Reagan-Thatcher years. It deserves to be commemorated by the American president.

HH: It will also be interesting to see how they commemorate it in Russia. Putin must know that in her passing is the last of the triumvirates that brought her down, that brought down the Soviet Union.

BK: No, that’s right, and really, if you think of the others who have played such a role. Havel is now gone, I guess Walesa is still alive. But they were, I mean, Kohl is I think still alive, Mitterand, but it really was an unusual generation of leaders. They remembered World War II, they remembered the price of weakness, they had countries that were welfare state countries and countries that didn’t want to bear the burdens of defense and didn’t want to risk war, that had recent experience. And in the case of the U.S. think of Korea and Vietnam and not just World War II, and yet they were willing to do what they had to do to defend the West.

HH: Bill Kristol, always a pleasure, thanks for joining me on this important day, Bill Kristol, of course, editor of the Weekly Standard.

End of interview.

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