John O’Sullivan on the 80’s and Reagan, John Paul II and Thatcher
HH: Special edition of the Hugh Hewitt Show today. The 80’s – have you forgotten them? The most crucial decade for freedom on the world is now alive again in the pages of a wonderful book, The President, The Pope, and The Prime Minister, the author of which, John O’Sullivan, is in studio with me. And we’re going to spend today talking about this book and those years, because they matter so much for the world in which we live today. John O’Sullivan, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
JO’S: Thanks for inviting me. It’s great to be here.
HH: Good to have you. I want to start by telling people The President, The Pope and The Prime Minister are obviously about Ronald Reagan, John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher. But in order to set this up, I want to talk a little bit about you to begin with.
HH: We’ve got the whole show to talk about the book, but you’ve had an extraordinary career. You are right now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, but you’ve been the editor of National Review and the National Interest. But how did this all come about? You’re born in England in 1942, correct?
JO’S: Yeah, that’s right, in Liverpool.
HH: Okay, and what happened…you grew up in wartime England.
JO’S: Yeah, great up in…well, my first memory is actually of the end of the War, because on the day, VE Day in Europe, we had a big party in the street, and I remember that the table right down in the middle of the street was groaning with food and cakes and jellies and so on, but of course, it couldn’t have been, because at that time, we had one egg a week, and you know, about a pound of butter a month. So obviously, I misremembered it. But yeah, I was born in those years. I actually kind of came to political maturity in the mid-50’s, and quickly became for some reason, I’m not sure why, because my parents were both Labour voters, I became a conservative.
HH: Oh, your parents were both Labour Party? Post-war Labour Party, Bevenites, I guess?
JO’S: Not Bevenites. No, they were moderate Labour supporters. They would have been supporting Mr. Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell and people like that. Most of them turned right, like a lot of other Labour supporters, in the years, in the 50’s and 60’s, with Tory prosperity and McMillan and so on and so forth. But yes, I was, grew up in a household…I was also, even though my mother’s English and my father was Irish, I grew up in an Irish Catholic atmosphere, so to speak. I was educated by the Christian brothers, and there was, therefore, a kind of pro-Labour bias there. But for some reason, it didn’t affect me, and I became, I tried to join the young conservatives when I was, I think, fourteen. You had to be fifteen. I tried to join over sewers. I wanted to support the sewers operation. So I was either completely misguided and mad, or prematurely wise. And they wouldn’t let me in. The guy said to me, look, son, what do you want to bother with politics for, he said. You’re not fifteen anyway, and secondly, even if you were, shouldn’t you be doing things like playing cricket?
HH: You’re off to the University of London then, as a conservative, though.
JO’S: That’s right.
HH: You’re already a conservative when you head off to university?
JO’S: That’s right. I did eventually, they eventually let me into the young conservatives, and then I went and joined the conservative association at London University. And, in fact, that led to my first job, because I went to a place called Swinton Conservative College. I don’t think you’ve got anything quite like it in the States. We don’t have it now in England. It was a weekend college, run by the Conservative Party, for serious political education. And they would send…you know, young conservatives would go up, they might be…I was there for six weeks on one occasion. In general, it was for a weekend or a week, and you’d have courses on the welfare state, international relations, and so on. And I thoroughly enjoyed that, and eventually, at the end of one of the courses, the principal came up to me and said I know you’re finishing your degree this year, why don’t you, there’s going to be a vacancy, why don’t you apply for it? And so I did, and my first four years, my first serious job was a junior chooser, and then, there were only two of us, a senior chooser in Swinton Conservative College, organizing lectures, weekend lectures, giving them sometimes, and very importantly, running a small magazine called the Swinton Journal, which publicized these lectures, and which when I became editor of it, I turned it into a lively political magazine, I think, and that was my path into journalism.
HH: Now John O’Sullivan, you stood for Parliament in 1970. I find that very interesting. Not a lot of political analysts and writers as distinguished as you have ever braved…I mean, William F. Buckley ran for Mayor of New York, and so you ran for…
JO’S: Yeah, yeah.
HH: But the election of 1970 was not a good time to be a conservative in London, was it?
JO’S: Well, I wasn’t in London. I was up in a worse place, a place called Gateshead West, which of course were where they weighed the Labour votes, they used to say, they didn’t count them. And I had no chance. I was the sacrificial victim. But I had a wonderful time, I discovered that some of the strongest conservatives are those in the least promising situations. Some of my supporters were real rock solid Tories, and I was grateful for them. And in fact, I did pretty well. In fact, for a long time, I could recite the electoral statistics, largest swing in the Northeast to the Conservatives, second largest swing in the UK, and had I remained in politics, I think I could have gotten into the House of Commons and so on. But as it turned out, I got a wonderful job writing the Parliamentary sketch for the Daily Telegraph, and that was kind of incompatible with being an active Parliamentary candidate.
HH: Can you chart for us your career in journalism, John O’Sullivan?
JO’S: Yeah, I was very lucky, A great friend of mine became seriously ill. His name was T.E. Utley, he was a blind man, and a brilliant conservative intellectual, and he wrote for the Daily Telegraph. And when he was seriously ill, they were looking for a replacement, and he suggested me. And I was a leader writer, an editorial writer for four months, and they liked me, so they told me, you know, you’ve go to go when Peter comes back, but you’ll be the first time. You know, when you’re in a job, you can always get a job. While I was doing that job, I got an offer from Irish Radio and Television to be their London correspondent, and a job I would have loved to have gone for, but just thought I would never get. I accepted it when they offered it. I went over there, and I got fantastic training from…
HH: Were your radio or television?
JO’S: Both. We were a shoestring operations, RTE, compared to, say, the Beeb, but we were feisty, energetic. This was the days when the Northern Ireland conflict was taking off again. I’m talking about ’70, ’71, ’72. So I was sent over there, I was sent up to the North, I interviewed Ian Paisley, I saw all of the…I covered some of the bombings and the riots and so on and so forth. But the real thing I got was a fantastic training from a first class group of journalists, and I’ve always been grateful to RTE for what they did to people like Mike Burns and Sean Diagden, who were my bosses, and did that for about two years, had the most exciting time of my life, jumping in and out of taxis in London with a tape recorder, and covering all the big events, and then the Telegraph rang me up one day and asked me would I be the Parliamentary Sketch writer, and I don’t…you don’t have the Parliamentary Sketch here.
HH: Well, we’ve got Dana Milbank in the Washington Post, which I think is kind of similar to it, as he does more biographical essays, and little sharp contrasts, etc.
JO’S: Well, the Sketch writer in England is, it’s like a kind of theatrical review of yesterday’s events in Parliament.
HH: No, we don’t have that.
JO’S: No, and so…
HH: It would kill someone to actually try and do that in the United States Congress, don’t you think?
JO’S: Well, it would, you’re absolutely right. It would be much, much harder, though we Sketch writers used to say that a really lively day in the House of Commons was actually harder to do than a dull day. You could actually get sometimes more humor. But the idea was to A) report what happened, B) to take up an attitude towards it, and C) where, if you could, be funny. And Frank Johnson, who died recently, and joined the paper the same day as I did, and we alternated doing this job, the two of us had the best time in the world. And actually, that was the making of me as a kind of journalist. I became well known, and Frank did, too, writing those Sketches, because they were the most popular part of the paper in some ways. You know, people didn’t want to read the long, dull Parliamentary accounts, but they turned to these sharp, acid-edged little essays on the front page or the back page. And we became really quite powerful figures.
HH: How long did you stay at the Telegraph doing that?
JO’S: I stayed there for seven years.
HH: Okay, so you’re up to the 80’s at this point.
JO’S: Well, ’79. Yeah, I was a strong partisan of Mrs. Thatcher, and as some left wing Tories complain, the moment she got elected, I went off to the United States.
HH: And tell us why.
JO’S: I was offered a position by Ed.Feulner at the Heritage Foundation, working, editing a magazine called Policy Review, which of course, is a well-established magazine now…
HH: With my good friend Adam Meyerson.
JO’S: That’s right. Well, Adam followed me as editor, as a matter of fact.
JO’S: And I did that for four years. It was, you know, I went to my boss, Bill Deeds, actually, who just died. There’s been a lot about his death in the English papers, because he was 95 years old, and he was writing his last column on his deathbed. I went to Bill and said look, Bill, you’ve been very good to me here, but I’ve been offered this job, and he said look, John, you’ve got to go to it. He said first of all, it’s your shop. You’ll run the show. Secondly, it’s a great chance to live in the United States. And thirdly, you can always come back here if you want to. So with those words ringing in my ears, I set off for the States. And I was with Heritage for four years, and edited the magazine, and had, again, had a wonderful time, because ’79, it was the beginning of the Reagan revolution, and I trace that through. I met Reagan on a number of occasions, and so I was in a sense well positioned to write the book, in some respects.
HH: We’ve got about a minute to the break, John O’Sullivan. After the Policy Review, wrap us up through your time at the National Review and the National Interest. I mean, these are prestigious American journals being run by a Brit.
JO’S: Well, of course, I’m not sure that Americans fully grasp the concept of a foreigner, so they never raised this with me. I mean, Bill and I did discuss it occasionally, but it was never a serious problem, and I don’t think the readers found it one. But after I was, came to Heritage, I went back to England, and was editor to the London Times. And I was with them for a year, then Mrs. Thatcher asked me to join her in Downing Street. I did that for two and a half years. I wrote the Tory manifesto for the ’87 election. I was her advisor on a number of policy questions. There were only six policy advisors in those days, so you saw a lot of her. And I was also a speechwriter, which meant I saw her even more. Then while I was doing that, I got a call from Bill offering me the job at National Review, which I accepted, and then came back and I was there for nine years, very happy, lively, great, fun years, and I’m of course still on the magazine writing regularly as their editor at large.
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HH: John O’Sullivan, I want to cover with you your relationship with President Reagan, John Paul II and Prime Minister Thatcher. But first, to put it into context, you are Roman Catholic?
JO’S: I am, yes.
HH: Practicing? Devout? How would you describe it?
JO’S: I would say practicing. I wouldn’t say devout. I mean, that’s the way practicing Catholics are described by the media, but we’re just practicing.
HH: All right. And tell us about your relationship with each of these three people. Obviously, you worked closely with Mrs. Thatcher. You must have spent hundreds of hours with her.
JO’S: Yes, I spent a lot of time with her, I worked with her when I worked for her in Downing Street. After I left, I continued to be on call to help her write major speeches. Nobody writes speeches for Mrs. Thatcher, by the way.
HH: That came through in the book.
JO’S: They write speeches with Mrs. Thatcher.
HH: For a great many hours at a time.
JO’S: Many hours, that’s right. We used to say sometimes, released the black pool four around the table.
JO’S: So I did that, and then when she came to write her memoirs, she asked me whether I’d join her on that. And I was one of a team of four people, a researcher, another writer, and a secretary who worked with her on the two volumes of memoirs. And we wrote, we had great fun doing those, apart from the fact that you tend to have a lot of fun around Mrs. Thatcher, contrary to what a lot of people think of her. The second reason was because the book was written in places like the Palace Hotel in Gstaad, and the smarter resorts in the Caribbean and so on and so forth. So it was a great experience, and I think, by the way, it produced two very, very solid volumes of memoirs. One critic said they were the best prime ministerial memoirs of the last century, apart from Churchill.
HH: Now you also, though, had first person contact with Ronald Reagan, because you’re in D.C. with Heritage during the 80’s. And so explain to people how often you got to see the Gipper.
JO’S: Well, I saw him on about seven occasions, of which three were about really serious occasions. I met him first, by the way, before I came to the States, because when he announced, when he was doing a pre-election tour around Europe in ’78, one of his people contacted me. I was then on the Telegraph, and we arranged a breakfast for him to meet senior members of the British press, and I did that, and so I saw him on that occasion. And then later that night, he invited me around for a drink to thank me for what I’d done. So that was my first connection. I subsequently saw him when I was at Heritage for a session in the White House, when he was describing what he was trying to do. On one amazing day, the day I left Mrs. Thatcher’s service in Downing Street, I had coffee with her in the morning, she gave me a signed photograph and thanked me, I took the Downing Street car to London Airport where I caught the Concord. I then landed over in Washington, and I went to a small, private dinner party with President Reagan that night. Now I think that has to be the highlight of my life.
HH: It’s a good day.
JO’S: It’s all downhill from there, really.
HH: It’s a good day. Now what about John Paul II? Did you have an occasion to meet the Pontiff in person?
JO’S: Well, the answer is not really. I was at an audience with him, but I couldn’t push it beyond that. I mean, there were other people there, and it was a large occasion. But I did have a contact with people, and many hours of discussions over the years with people who know him and knew him well. Of course, I know George Weigel, I know Richard Neuhaus, I know Michael Novak. All three are good friends, and Richard and Michael I’ve known for a very long time. So I cannot claim to have been on the same terms with the Pope as I was on the other two, but I have a pretty good insight into him, I think.
HH: Now let me tell you about my impression of this book, and then let’s go through it. It’s not so much biography, though there is a lot of biography in it. It is an appreciation of the 80’s. It’s an essay on what that decade was. And I lived in D.C. through most of it, having spent ’78, ’79, ’80 with Richard Nixon in San Clemente, and law school, and then in the Reagan years. And people forget now. Are you finding that the tumultuousness and the pivot nature of this decade is vanishing?
JO’S: Yes, I am finding that. Of course at the time, the true significance of the 80’s was fiercely denied by people on the left.
JO’S: I mean, they essentially wanted to describe it as a decade of greed, the familiar phrase, even though, by the way, as you probably know, charitable giving by ordinary Americans rose higher in those years than before. Also, they didn’t want to believe that Reagan was someone who could possibly do anything creative in foreign policy. We now know, of course, that he was probably, along with the Pope, the single most significant factor in winning the Cold War, and that what he did, in all sorts of ways, pacific as well as bellicose, so to speak, reaching out to Gorbachev, offering him favorable terms, as well as building up America’s armed forces. We know just how significant he was. But at the time, he was regarded as a numbskull, really. Well, the famous phrase was, as you know, Clark Clifford’s description of him as an amiable dunce.
HH: Amiable dunce, yeah.
JO’S: So everything we now know about Reagan, and every day, we know a little more, tells us just how false that war, and therefore, how much more interesting the 80’s were, because the 80’s were, in a sense, a deliberate policy by the West to win the Cold War in a peaceable way, and it came off.
HH: My ambition for this three hour broadcast is really to do what you did in this marvelous book, which is to intimate to an audience that they really ought to pause and reflect upon that period of time. It began for me, in essence, in the Harvard yard in 1978, Solzhenitsyn delivers my commencement address, the Decline of the West speech, and you begin with the 70’s. And people have forgotten how low the West had gone by the time Reagan, well, by the time Mrs. Thatcher was elected.
JO’S: Well, that’s right. I try to isolate a number of factors. For example, 1970 is the hijacking of planes, and they’re landing in Dawson’s Field in Jordan, and then for the first time, the West is held to ransom by a hijacking. And then they give in, fundamentally, on that. And throughout the 70’s, the hijacking gets worse. It’s particularly bad in Europe, because again and again, even when they catch the terrorists who were hijacking the planes, they keep them in jail only briefly, and then they release them. So this gives the terrorists great encouragement. So the growth of terrorism was one. I think the American defeat, or rather, as I call it, betrayal in Vietnam, was an equally large one, because that gave heart to all of America’s enemies, and disheartened all her friends around the world. And the Soviets, the third point, started to take advantage of this. And after a period of nervousness, you could see the Soviets saying to themselves well, obviously, there are a lot of open doors we can push on and walk through here. And so they begin to make their moves. Obviously, they’re allies of one in Vietnam. They helped the Cubans transport troops to no fewer than 17 African countries in order to…
HH: Isn’t that amazing?
JO’S: That is absolutely amazing they got away with it, too, absolutely. And they build a world class navy, which starts shadowing American ships in the Mediterranean. By the way, the Russian Navy’s back. You probably know that. They install SS-20 missiles, highly accurate in Eastern Europe, aimed at Western cities, and then finally, there is the Red Army itself, which at the time, Raymond Aron, the great French philosopher, described as the specter threatening Europe. So the Soviets move in to take advantage. And this is against a background of great economic difficulties, because in 1973, OPEC has quadrupled the price of oil in a day, they go on to do the same thing later in the decade, and this creates enormous problems which I can sum up as stagflation, the combination of inflation and stagnation in the economy.
HH: And we haven’t even got to the worst part yet. The name is Jimmy Carter.
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HH: John O’Sullivan, when we went to the break, I was saying, we’re covering the prologue to these three great individuals, and the prologue is really Jimmy Carter is there, not a bad man as you make clear, but an incompetent one who begins with a commencement at Notre Dame, declaring that the inordinate fear of Communism, which I think you superbly chart, as saying three things at once, that they’re not so bad, that we really are, and that we’re moving into a new era with them where they are superior, a brilliant analysis. And they it concludes with the malaise speech. They took us, the Carter administration took America to a place where a lot of people thought it could never come back from.
JO’S: I think that’s right, and this has to be speculation. One of the reasons I think behind this is that Carter is a Southerner, growing up after the Civil Rights movement. He is aware that the status quo in which he grew up was sinful. And he looks upon the past with shame. And one can see why.
HH: And rightly so.
JO’S: Yeah, and then, he applies the same kind of thinking to the structure of world power, in which America plays the part of the Southern whites, and the rest of the world plays the part of the Southern blacks. And he begins to think that we’ve got to make the same kind of recompense for our world crimes. He accepts the kind of left’s version of post-war history, so that we become the villains and the Soviets become kind of like semi-innocent bystanders. And he wants to reach out to them, and of course, the real victims are the third world. And so he has, you know, he’s completely willing, it seems to me, to make concessions which undercut American power, because he is guilty about American power.
HH: At the same time that Carter is leading America’s spiral into loss of confidence and into stagflation, the Brits have a prime minister who is feckless, and a Labour movement which is quite frankly communist, and the Vatican is mired in lassitude, really. I’m not quite, I’m not going to call them evil, but it was, as a cradle Catholic serving Mass, Vatican II was a little bit difficult to deal with after ’64, ’65 in the States.
JO’S: Well, I think that the problem with Vatican II is not so much what happened there, it’s the interpretation that the left put upon it later. It made it the basis for a kind of permanent revolution within the Church, which I think subsequently, two recent Popes have basically made plain, is not the correct interpretation. And I think that in politics, that had two effects. It meant sympathy for liberation theology in the third world, and liberation theology, when it comes down to it, is a reinterpretation of the Christian Gospel as Marxism. And therefore, it lands up, it means that the Catholic Church replace itself, had it followed this course, on the wrong side in a whole series of problems, particularly, and this is what did happen, in Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe, the Church felt, well, the Communist governments are here to stay, they’re a permanent part of life. We have to deal with them, so that we get the best deal we can for the Church. And that was the ostpolitik that Pope Paul carried out from the mid-60’s onwards. The problem was, of course, that the diagnosis was wrong. The communists weren’t there permanently, and they weren’t strong in those societies. They were a thin façade above a population that was hostile, and to some extent, rebellious. The people who were most rebellious were the Poles. And the Polish Church did not share the Vatican’s analysis. So when, of course, a Polish Pope was elected, that mere fact, before he’d even said a word, was itself a tremendous revolution.
HH: And what had happened in Great Britain that had so…you know, Heath is gone, and what had happened to Labour?
JO’S: Well, Labour moved sharply left, fundamentally in opposition. You described Jim Callahan before as feckless, the prime minister who preceded Margaret Thatcher. You know, I wouldn’t altogether share that view. I think Jim was a patriot. He was a decent, old-fashioned Labour man. But he found himself riding the Labour Party tiger, which had moved left, and he didn’t quite know how to handle it, that the labor unions who were under the control of people who were very left and pro-communist, they had enormous power in the society. It had been conceded to them by previous governments, and Jim had to deal with that fact. But you know, being a Labour guy, relying on these kind of people to support him, he couldn’t restrain them. And so as a result, the country went downhill, it suffered one great economic crisis after another. On one occasion, the IMF had to come in, which was a humiliating thing for a country like Britain.
JO’S: And then finally, you have this winter of discontent, in which the country grinds to a halt. One example, my own hometown, Liverpool, the grave diggers went on strike. And so the bodies had to be put in refrigerators until they could get back to work. And that paved the way for Mrs. Thatcher to come in.
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HH: John O’Sullivan, at the end of the book, you write on Page 334 that they all share, these three amazing people, the virtue of hope. They also share the sense that they came out of nowhere when they arrived at power. Now Reagan, of course, in ’68 and ’76, as you point out, had made bids that were unsuccessful. But if you looked 1976 and said what’s going to happen to the Cardinal of Krakow and what’s going to happen to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, you wouldn’t have predicted for them, any of those three, leadership of any great institution, would you?
JO’S: You wouldn’t have done, and you would have been, in a sense, sensible not to, because you would have looked at them, and said well, very strong personalities, even abrasive and acerbic at times, taking positions which are outside the mainstream, very conservative positions. I describe Reagan as too American, meaning too optimistic, Thatcher as too conservative, the Pope as too Catholic. Our discussion before about the Vatican and us politic. Such people weren’t going to make it. What you need to bring people like that to power, you need a really grave crisis. And what the 70’s provided was a succession of grave crises, culminating in the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, and the Tehran hostage crisis, which really made everybody sit up and think have we really sunk to this level, are things really this bad. And in those circumstances, people did turn to these three characters.
HH: You know, when I was reading the book, I kept thinking they also had arrayed against them some wonderful enemies, in that opposition of the very highest quality will bring out greatness in people, and I was thinking the Curia, and you mentioned ostpolitik before. You had the senior prelate of Poland not really favorable to John Paul, I want to come back to that. You’ve got Ted Kennedy and the mainstream media in the United States, you got Arthur Scargill, about whom I knew nothing until I read your book, and that is really quite revelatory. He’s a labor union leader and a communist. You’ve got the wets in the union, you’ve got the Soviets, and not just old, tired Brezhnev, but Andropov, who we thought was…and then Gorbachev, who’s a smart guy. You’ve got the American bishops undercutting the Pope, you’ve got Khomeini, and then what you call the ’68ers, and I thought that was a wonderful phrase. Explain who the ’68ers are.
JO’S: The ’68ers are the young people, they were students, or just recently postgraduate students in 1968. 1968 is the keynote revolutionary year. It’s the year in which demonstrations almost bring about the downfall of de Gaulle’s government in Paris. It’s the year in which the Czechs are invaded by the Soviet Union and communism is installed again. That leads some communists to leave the party as they did in ’56, and look for a more liberal libertarian form of communism. It’s the year in which the American universities explode with the student revolution. Wherever you look, it’s the year, by the way, little noticed this, in which some of the most important left wing union leaders get their positions in Britain. So this is a revolutionary year. These people, of course, are 25, 26, 21, 22, in ’68. But of course, twenty years later, they’re in positions in journalism, in academic life, in the law, and these were the people who were carrying the banner of revolutionary socialism. Sometimes not terribly revolutionary, but always pretty socialist. And they’re the people who were the, in a sense, the real long term enemy, particularly in Europe, where they were very anti-American, and where they were the foundation, they formed the central network that became the peace movement, and tried to prevent the installation of American missiles.
HH: I wrote this morning, it occurred to me reading your book, next year when we elect a president, it will be the 25th anniversary of Reagan and Thatcher’s deployment of the Cruise and Pershing II’s. It will stand as a sharp relief to the choice being made in November of ’08. Give us a few words about each of these enemies, the Curia, and the ostpolitik secretary of state for the Vatican.
JO’S: Well, I think we’re talking about people like Cardinal Casaroli, and Paul VI. I think these are well-intentioned, decent people who look at the situation in Eastern Europe and think it’s just something that has to be accommodated to. And so they reach out, and they say we will slightly weaken our anti-communist stance, we will distance ourselves from the West, we will be more favorable to, as they became, in our encyclicals to such matters as aid for the third world and so on. We’ll do all these things, and in order to establish a situation in which the East European regimes respect the Church, and allow it room to move. Not in itself a completely unreasonable position, but a misreading of history.
HH: What about Arthur Scargill? Explain to people who he is, and a fascinating episode of confrontation with Thatcher.
JO’S: Well, Arthur Scargill was a Marxist, and he became the leader of the unions, the National Union of Mineworkers. The Mineworkers Union was always thought of as the brigade of gods of the trade union movement. They were the union that could bring the country to a halt. And he had defeated Ted Heath. Scargill was the local leader, but he defeated Edward Heath twice in strikes during Heath’s period of conservative government. So all through the period of Mrs. Thatcher’s government, people are wondering what will happen when the union, the Miner’s Union, comes out against her, and launches, in effect, a general strike. Well, Scargill wanted to do this. He challenged Mrs. Thatcher, in 1981. She gave way. That dispirited a lot of people. But I have to say it didn’t dispirit me, because I knew that she’d given way because she couldn’t win at that point, and she doesn’t take on battles she can’t win. She then spent the next three years building up the coal stocks outside the mines in the power stations. When he challenged her again, that’s when she then stood up, and took on the National Union of Miners, and completely defeated them, and in effect, changed, restored fully constitutional government to Britain. I should say, by the way, that Scargill himself could not persuade the miners to vote for a strike. So what he did was he got the miners in the areas that favored a strike to form flying pickets, and go in and use force and violence against the miners who were still working in…
HH: She called it an insurrection, not a strike.
JO’S: She calls it Mr. Scargill’s insurrection in her memoirs, and I think she’s absolutely right, because it wasn’t simply an attempt to protect the wages and working conditions of miners. Everybody can see that there’s a reasonable thing for a union to do. But this was an attempt to alter the government of the country, to make sure that governments couldn’t do anything the unions objected to.
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HH: To set up hours two and three, where we talk about how they actually governed, Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II, tell us a little bit, John O’Sullivan, about their principal enemies, that is the overlords of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin.
JO’S: Absolutely. I think the Kremlin thought in the early 70’s that America was such a powerful force that they would have to accommodate to it. And détente, you know, there’s accommodation on both sides in détente. And they are more or less cautious. As early at ’73, though, British intelligence bugged a meeting of communist leaders in Prague, and they heard Brezhnev say in ten years time, the correlation of forces internationally is such that no decision will be taken anywhere in the world which does not have our agreement. Well, immediately after this, you have the crisis we talked about before. You have OPEC, you have the fall of South Vietnam, you have the Soviet Union push in every area, you have the invasion of Afghanistan, and you have Tehran. And all of these things lead the Soviets to think that history’s on their side, and it leads the rest of us to despair, somewhat. They’re very aggressive in this time. We know, for example, now from the Soviet archives, and I include some of this material in the book, that they were ferrying arms to the Sandanista guerrillas and the El Salvador guerrillas. We know that they were pushing…we know they were giving assistance to all…we know they assisted terrorist groups. We know they were behind a lot of that. We have very good reason to believe short of absolute certainty that they were later behind the assassination attempt on John Paul’s life. But at that time, they felt their dander was up. They felt they were winning. And they felt they were winning because of the weak decisions that we were making, and because of the series of retreats that Western policy had become, and by, well, certainly by 1979.
HH: And they threw their best, Andropov, a very smart fellow, idolized by a lot of mainstream media in the West, and then Gorbachev, the nice smile with the iron teeth, according to Gromeko. These were not slackers.
HH: These were…
JO’S: That’s right. Andropov and another member of the Politburo, Tikhonov, who was I think originally Finnish, they were very able men who brought together what they call a kind of a brains trust of really sharp, young apparatchiks, one of whom was Gorbachev. They were themselves, these two men, were idolized, because they were seen as the men who’d seen the weakness of the system, the fact that underneath its surface advanced…you know, I used to describe the Soviet Union as like a vampire. It was dead intellectual, but it was invincible. It just kept going on winning battles. They were behind that, but they knew that they had to reform, and that’s why they brought all these sharp young people on. Those young people admired Andropov and others. Somebody said about Andropov, and I quote this, it’s a very revealing Soviet remark, I never saw him maltreat anybody other than for good reason. I mean, you know…
HH: That’s very Soviet. The stage is now set. The pieces are on the chessboard. We’ll see how they move when we return with John O’Sullivan.
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HH: Last hour, we talked about the 70’s and what brought them forward. Now I want to talk about what made them who they were, and how this developed this extraordinary decade. And I want to start, John O’Sullivan, with the assassination attempts. Each is the target, relatively early. Now I don’t think many Americans know about the Brighton Hotel bombing, so I want to start there, even though it’s the third in the three. Mrs. Thatcher came within, well, six minutes and a bathroom break of dying.
JO’S: Exactly. She…the bomb that went off was placed in such a way…
HH: Could you give the year again?
JO’S: I’m sorry, the year was 1984, October, the Conservative Party conference. The bomb that went off in the hotel destroyed rooms up and down rather than sideways, because of the structure. She was in a room which was very, very badly damaged. Six minutes just before the bomb went off, it was the bathroom. She came out of the bathroom, and she was working on her papers with a senior civil servant, when they heard this explosion. And both realized, of course, Northern Ireland had been on everyone’s mind for a long time. At that point, both realized this was a bomb that had gone off, and they start off methodically to pack. Other people come into the room to see they’re all right, they get dressed, they pack, the secretaries say the most reassuring words they can think of, don’t worry, Prime Minister, tomorrow’s speech is okay. And they then go out. Now they don’t know it at this point, but four people have been killed, and many, many more have been injured. Some of them very close friends and allies.
HH: That I did not realize. One of her closest advisors, who’d been with her that evening.
JO’S: That is right, and of course, Norman Tebbit, who was one of the most important ministers, and one of her closest political allies, was very severely injured on that occasion, and it took them nine hours to dig him and his wife out, and his wife, Margaret, who’s a wonderful woman, became very seriously disabled that night, and cannot move below the waist at the moment, below the neck, rather. So there were great tragedies that night. But Mrs. Thatcher, at this point, doesn’t know any of this. She’s shepherded out, and she spends, she goes to the police station, they give her a room, and she kneels down and prays with one of her, with a woman called Mrs. Crawfey, Cynthia Crawfey, and they kneel down and pray. The following day, a number of interesting things happen. She gives her speech, but she goes into the hospital to see how one of her closest friends, whose legs have been completely crushed, is doing. She learns that there is in El Salvador a specialist who can deal with this. She spends the next two hours on the phone trying to track down this specialist and get him to come to England. She discovers he’s in that very hospital where she is.
HH: It’s remarkable. In fact, the reason I began with her is most Americans will know how Ronald Reagan reacted with great aplomb, with great courage, and it’s legend now. The anecdotes about Reagan being rushed from the Washington Hilton to George Washington and how he conducted…I hope you’re all Republicans, honey, I forgot to duck, it’s all recounted in your book. But Americans know that. John Paul II is so deeply wounded when he’s attacked, he doesn’t really have the opportunity for courage, although they’re both narrow escapes. What we learn about Thatcher here is in a moment of great crisis, she’s the same as Reagan. She does not flinch.
JO’S: She doesn’t flinch. She’s very calm. Her instinct right away is to say well, tomorrow morning’s meeting of the Conservative conference has go to go ahead, otherwise the terrorists will have gained a victory. So, as she rewrites her speech, and she goes the following morning after about two hours sleep, and gives the address. And I think that was extremely important politically. The other things I describe, going to see at the hospital, these were important from a moral standpoint. But the political importance of standing up the following day on your own two feet, making a speech, not being defeated, that was key. And I think it was a morale blow to the IRA.
HH: Now what was very interesting to me as well is that while John Paul II and Reagan both credited God with giving them extra time which they would use wisely, you cite Margaret Thatcher’s Methodist approach as being somewhat different in her approach to the providential nature of her escape.
JO’S: Exactly. I went to see her, and I had actually already drafted this chapter, but I had to be sure I was right. So I went to see her, and I said Lady Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and the Pope both believed that they were saved by the providential intervention of God, who spared their life for some great purpose. Do you believe that at Brighton, God spared your life for some great purpose? And she said no. And I then tracked her…asked her more questions about this. It turned out she felt that it would be vain glorious of her to think that God would specially intervene for her, and also that great friends of hers that day had died, and she didn’t like to think she was getting special treatment, so to speak from the Deity, and I think that she is in general not, she’s much more of an activist than she is an introspective person. She doesn’t, she likes to get about doing things, and I think that her Christianity, which is a Methodist, a young Methodist, originally she’s an Anglican, she married an Anglican, she switched to Anglicanism, but that’s not a big step in England, as you probably know. And her Methodist Christianity is one of going out and helping others, which she did immediately after the bombing, rather than concentrating on yourself.
HH: John O’Sullivan, I want to depart from my outline here, and we’ll get back to it. But I happen to have been lucky enough to have spent a lot of time with Richard Nixon, so I know Nixon in a way that very few people do, and you know Thatcher in the way that very few people…what is she like when the door is closed and you’re working? I mean, you’re talking about the memoirs like I was writing The Real War with Nixon. They’re very different people than when they’re…what is she like in that setting?
JO’S: By the way, I reviewed The Real War. I must get you a copy of that review.
JO’S: The…what she’s like is very businesslike, very pleasant, very thoughtful. For example, again, this is…in the British system, if it’s a political speech, and you’re in Downing Street, you can’t use Downing Street official facilities for food. You can’t get the kitchen to cook you a meal, because it’s a political and not a governmental occasion. So she would cook the meals herself. And so she, in the middle of writing the speech, would get off to the kitchen and you’d hear her frying eggs or something.
JO’S: She’s extremely thoughtful to the point of saying you’re not eating enough potatoes, John. Then she’d tell me about the scientific qualities of the potato, and why it’s an essential part of the diet. And I mean, she really is a pleasant, very domestic, motherly person on the one hand. On the other hand, she’s a towering world historical figure, and she can be all business. And she’s got a very sharp, clear mind, a slightly unusual mind. I mean, I think that men, the male and female brain is apparently different, and I’ve often wondered if this played a part, because we would sometimes not be able to work out exactly why she was taking the position she was when we were writing speeches, and it would take us some time to grasp her logic. But the fact was she had one of the sharpest brains. Can I give you one instance?
JO’S: On one occasion, I was sitting next to her when she was dealing with the top brass from the Defence Ministry, and they wanted to impress her, so they came in with these uniforms with scrambled egg all over their shoulders, and caps. We had prepared her, we’d had lots of time to go over the papers that they presented, and her other advisors prepared a series of questions. We had not noticed one key point, nor had the Defence Ministry which prepared all these papers, a weakness in their case, which was a very odd and obscure one. She was just looking at these papers for the first time, in the middle of a discussion, and she saw the point right away. She went to it. This produced what is the equivalent of an earthquake in the British civil service. The Minister turned to his civil servant and said what’s our reply to that? And the civil servant said I wonder if we could have time out for that, Minister, to prepare this for you. And of course, that is a huge defeat for the other side, so to speak, and that is the other side. And so she was very, very crisp, clear-minded, sharp and businesslike. But she was friendly, pleasant, domestic and motherly.
HH: You put one anecdote, I think it’s Haig that says she’s not a very good listener, and Ronald Reagan replies but she’s a marvelous talker. But did you find that to be the case in these private meetings?
JO’S: Well, Mrs. Thatcher has got very determined views, and sometimes she would simply tell you what she thought, and she wasn’t going to brook any disagreement. I mean, there was no doubt about that, and I think it’s part of her strength of character. But she’s also a great learner. She’s a great admirer, she was a great admirer of F.A. Hayek and of Milton Friedman. And she would literally sit at their feet. They would come in and sit down, and sometimes, she has this habit of kicking off her shoes, she gives herself a whiskey, and sits down. And on one occasion, one or two occasions, she sat down on the floor with her legs tucked under her, drinking the whiskey and looking up at Hayek. So you know, she’s not afraid to learn, she’s not afraid to…
JO’S: I would say she has a strong temper kept under strong control, and very, very, very rarely released.
HH: Were there any poker tells, as the saying goes, for when the fumes were about to come out of the ears with Margaret Thatcher?
JO’S: Oh, well, for example, she gave me a tremendous dressing down once because I was in a sense being, I mean, I wasn’t intending to be obstructive, but in a speechwriting session, she, and I wanted a particular point to be made, and she didn’t want to make it, and eventually, she just got fed up with me, and unloosed a tremendous barrage, a bit of a shaking experience for me, but you know, you take the rough with the smooth, and if you can’t do that, well, she wouldn’t want you around.
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John O’Sullivan, before we move back into the 80’s and the drama at that time, I asked you off-air, did Mrs. Thatcher use profanity? It’s one of those little issues about which leaders are different. And you said oh, you can ask me that on-air. So did she?
JO’S: She never did, and this is a very topical question, because the BBC has just been, is just about to produce a play in which the character playing Margaret Thatcher does, in fact, use the F-word. Now I don’t believe anyone, and possibly Dennis, but probably not even Dennis, has ever heard her use that word. She never used profanity in our presence. And on one occasion, when we were writing a speech, and we wanted to use the phrase, I wanted to use the phrase that bloody woman, which is what the Labour Party called her, there was a discussion about it, and this is a very mile profanity, and she didn’t want to use it, and didn’t use it. It all worked out for the best in the end, because the line we used was and then they find that that woman has beaten them to it again. They tell me that there’s something between that and woman, but no one will tell me what it is. That went down well.
HH: Now John O’Sullivan, let’s go to the heart. It struck me as I read through The President, The Pope And The Prime Minister that the 80’s turn on events in three very obscure places, Gdansk, the Falklands, and Reykjavik. These are three places that no one in the world in the 70’s would have imagined would be the epicenters of events. But let’s take them in order. Gdansk unleashes, because of the Polish Pope, and explain to people the significance of, as I suspect, many people have no idea of what Gdansk means to their life today.
JO’S: You’re absolutely right. Gdansk takes place, by the way, one year after the Pope has visited Poland, and completely electrified the country by revealing to the Poles themselves that there are no Polish communists. There’s a handful of them. The rest of Poland wants liberty, and wants God. A year after this…
HH: The year being?
JO’S: The year being, this takes place…he went in 1979. This takes place less than a year later in 1980. Lech Walesa climbs over the barrier of the Gdansk shipyard, and encourages the workers to go out on strike. And that strike develops. First of all, everybody comes out on strike. Secondly, the local Church supports it. Thirdly, the Pope supports it, very strongly, although the Polish hierarchy’s a bit nervous. Then, the communists are forced to negotiate and concede. Thereupon a series of strikes occurs in other parts of Poland. Within the next year, the solidarity goes from a handful of people in one shipyard to being what is fundamentally a new national movement for independence, and for religious liberty, supported by the Pope, supported by the Vatican, supported by the Polish hierarchy, and supported above all by the majority of, the great majority of the Polish people. And that’s happened because a few brave souls in Gdansk have learned the lessons of the Pope’s visit, and have declared and planted the flag of liberty, and religious liberty.
HH: And Margaret Thatcher is encouraging as well, Ronald Reagan not yet president, following it intensely, recognizing its significance.
JO’S: That’s right. Reagan saw this on television, and Dick Allen, who was sitting next to him, Dick Allen’s a devout Catholic, by the way, genuinely devout, not just practicing, and turned and looked at Reagan, and he saw tears coming down Reagan’s face. Reagan wrote not long afterwards to a friend, I have an instinct that religion is the Achilles heel of the Soviet Union. And so he approved. Also, I think this is interesting, a few years before that, Reagan had read some words of the great Soviet dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, in which he said everyone, there are 280 million political prisoners in the Soviet Union. And Reagan wrote a column saying I think he’s right, and I think that if so, it might be worth more than a couple of missile systems to cultivate those dissidents.
HH: I think you’ll find if you go back and see The Real War, you’ll find To Build A Castle: My Life As A Dissenter quoted there, because I am a great admirer of that book, and what was my…Bukovsky figures prominently through here. He’s obviously a friend of yours, I would assume.
JO’S: Yes, yes he is.
HH: A magnificent human being. The second place, miles and miles of buggerall is what you quote Dennis Thatcher calling the Falklands, but of course it becomes a huge moment in the revival of the West.
JO’S: It becomes a huge moment in the revival of Britain, and an important one in the revival of the West. I think I would have to slightly soften what you just said, the reason being that when Mrs. Thatcher is elected on a platform to revive Britain, now you can say lots of other things, but that’s the essence, she thought of that in fundament…primarily in economic terms. But history doesn’t always give you the opportunities you would like. And what they gave her here was an opportunity to revive Britain internationally. A British territory is invaded, it’s 8,000 miles from home, but only 200 miles from Argentina, she takes the decision with national backing, to send out the fleet, and in three months, the fleet not only, it succeeds, it gets the islands back, and it does so on almost the first television war, because we see an awful lot of what’s happening on television, and the British people are following it day by day, step by step, on the television boxes, so that by the way, if you’ve gone into a pub, and it would have been generally deserted, but if there’d been people in it, they would have told you to shut up while they watch the television news. It was that kind of thing.
HH: And you’re very evocative recounting of this period. Lots of people died in this. I don’t know that Americans generally understand that this was a tough row, and that battleships went down, and missiles brought out terrible casualties, and that lots of Argentinians died.
JO’S: Yes, well, 250 British soldiers died, roughly. I mean, slightly more, slightly less, but that’s about 250. Of course, the Argentinians died in larger numbers, and in particular, you will recall, the battleship Belgrano was sunk with a loss of about 350 lives. It was a very hard decision to take, and a lot of thought went into it. But the battleship was a real threat to the British fleet. We know now, we knew at the time, that the British fleet was very, very vulnerable. Had they got one of the aircraft carriers, it would have had to go back. They did get a major ship, the Atlantic Conveyer, which had helicopters and other things on board. That really put a big question mark of whether we could continue with the war. So we had no choice. We had to sink the Belgrano. But that was 350 human souls.
HH: And then the troops had to, as you put it, whomp across the islands?
HH: Yump, that was it.
JO’S: That’s right. They had to yump across the island, they walked across the island. They fought serious battles along the way. It’s not…the Argentinians didn’t roll over and play dead, you know, They…
HH: That’s what’s forgotten.
JO’S: Yeah, they fought, and they fought bravely, and they were defeated, but they were defeated honorably. And I think there is a moment I quote in the book in which an Argentinian force is surrounded and completely…and has fought bravely, and an officer goes in and says look, I’m a Catholic, you’re Catholics, we’re all Christians, there’s no dishonor in surrendering when there’s no…
JO’S: To overwhelming odds and saving human lives.
HH: Because time does not permit, I’m going to skip over Grenada, and the devastation of Beirut, but those were of the piece, 30 seconds, John O’Sullivan, in renewing confidence in the use of our power, post-Vietnam.
JO’S: Yes. First of all, America regained its confidence and willingness to use force effectively, the successful invasion of Grenada. And it wiped out the stain of the Beirut bombing.
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HH: When we went to break, I was foreshadowing a little bit that Reykjavik occurs in 1986, and what I found fascinating, and I was there, I just left the White House months before to go over to the agencies, is that I had no idea Gorbachev had planned it as a sneak attack, and he almost carried it off, John O’Sullivan, brilliantly displayed. But give a condensed version in these four or five minutes for the audience of what this moment in time meant.
JO’S: Gorbachev had to pull off a coup in order not to lose the Cold War at Reykjavik. He knew that. And so what he did was he took all his advisors for six weeks down to Crimea, and they planned an ambush. They invited Reagan for what seemed to Reagan to be a planning conference for the summit conference in Washington. He didn’t know it was going to be a big deal. They had spent six weeks preparing for it. They took advice on his personality from among others, Francois Mitterrand. And Mitterrand, who liked Reagan, by the way, and admired Reagan, said he’ll never give up Star Wars, which they ignored, but he’s not the figure you think he is. He’s not this tool of the military industrial complex. He’s a generous, spirited, large-hearted man. He wants disarmament. He wants to get away from the threat of nuclear war. He hates the balance of terror. And so they basically came down intending to appeal to his idealism, and they said to him, look, we’ll get rid of whole classes of nuclear missiles, and Reagan responded to this, and the excitement built on both sides. One guy would say let’s get rid of this sort of missile, and the other guy would say let’s get rid of this one as well. And this caught their advisors as well. People like George Schultz whom I suppose we were relying on to restrain Reagan’s generous instincts, they were even more enthusiastic than Reagan was, as, by the way, as he accepts. And then the last minute, this trap is sprung. All this is dependent upon your giving up SDI. And there’s a debate between the two men, Reagan and Gorbachev, and Gorbachev just says just give up SDI, just confine the research to the laboratory. That’s all we want. Reagan could have had the deal if he’d included the word laboratory. But he wouldn’t do it. And he wouldn’t do it for a very good reason. He knew that if he did that, fundamentally, the West would have come to, it would have been a draw in the Cold War, and an awful lot of effort would have been wasted. The Soviets would have come out more or less equal. And so what he did was he refused. He also believed in SDI, I think, rightly. So he storms out. Everyone thinks that this is a defeat, a failure, everyone is depressed, except for two men, Gorbachev, who says we know, each now knows, he said this to the Finnish president, he said this has been a success, not a failure. Both sides know that the other side does not want to destroy them. We know we want peace, and there’ll be a development of this. He was right. A year later, he accepted everything that Reagan wanted without Reagan having to give up Star Wars. And the other was Charles Wick, one of the old cronies from Hollywood, about Reagan, who said to him, when everyone else was gloomy, Ronnie, he said, you just won the Cold War. They’ve admitted they can’t compete, and that was exactly right. And so fundamentally, Reykjavik was the moment in which the Cold War was won in the minds of the competents. It had also been won with the successful installation of the missiles, in a way. That was a very important moment. But Reykjavik is the icing on the cake. The Soviets give up, they realize that if they’re going to recover, restore their economy, revive their system, they’re going to have to come to terms with an American-dominated world.
HH: You know, when you mentioned the deployment of the Pershing II’s and the Cruise missiles in Germany and throughout Europe, I’m going to come back to that, because that’s…we’re assured of a tie. We’re assured of overtime at that point in the Cold War. But Reykjavik is so amazing because what they dangled in front of Reagan, most American politicians of both parties would have great difficulty turning down, which is a huge political success. And you chart or depict Gorbachev coming out the steps chasing Reagan…
HH: …trying to get him to think in historical terms, and to put his own legacy, and the Gipper says no. That’s an incredible moment in time.
JO’S: Well, that’s right, and that’s a most interesting moment, because as I hinted a moment ago, when Reagan went to Reykjavik, and also to Geneva, people were worried that he’d give away the store out of a kind of generosity, or because he was dim, or whatever. And they were relying upon the Richard Perles and the George Schultzs to stop him doing so. But it was the Schultzs who were swept away, and who would have done the deal, I think. It was Reagan who was cold enough, ultimately, cool enough to say no, this is not a good deal. And one of the reasons he said that was very far sighted. He said you know, he said Mikhail, we can get rid of our weapons, but supposing…
HH: We’ve got nine seconds.
JO’S: So supposing someone comes along and invents something. What then?
HH: What then?
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HH: If you’re just joining us, Mr. O’Sullivan has had one of the most distinguished careers in journalism in the last thirty years on both sides of the Atlantic, at newspapers and magazines, he’s been a senior advisor to Mrs. Thatcher, he has worked at the Heritage Foundation, he knows of which he writes, and he’s written a marvelous book which, as I wrote on the blog this morning, I wish would be required reading in every AP American history class in America, and every introductory survey of politics in history in college as a way of grounding them in what really happened in the 80’s, a story that’s sometimes not told by our left wing academe, because I came away, John O’Sullivan, they were so frightfully wrong so often. You quote Arthur Schlesinger, you quote Ted Kennedy, you quote many of the dominant intelligencia through the period, and they were not just wrong, they were so wrong it’s embarrassing.
JO’S: That’s right. I think one of the funniest cases is Strobe Talbott. Now Strobe Talbott’s a very able man, but he was one of several people who said look, give up this idea of attempting to compete the Soviet Union into the ground, because they have enormous reserves of technology, of military power, and of social stability, and it’s not going to be possible to do it. Now, Strobe says, that he forecast that there wouldn’t be a violent end to the Cold War, which of course he did, but he forecast that because we couldn’t win, whereas of course, the real reality was that they couldn’t win. It was their system that was crumbling. It was they who were suffering from an imperial overstretch.
HH: And the peace movement, which we’ll talk about a little bit later, was convicted of not just moral equivalence, but that we were provoking confrontation with the Soviet Union, when in fact, they were being molded, if not outright manipulated by a new approach to Western fifth columnists, that you chart very, very carefully.
JO’S: Well, I think that the peace movement in Europe was a genuine threat to peace, because by 1982, say, the Soviets had realized that they were losing everywhere. I quote one of the diarists in the Kremlin saying if we’re not careful, we’re going to find that in ten years time, ’92, we’re going to have, we’re going to face a Russian Poland, namely a crumbling communist power in Moscow, the way it was crumbling that point in Poland. And the answer was, of course, he was one year out. It happened in nine years. But they were very worried. But they knew there was one area where they had made enormous diplomatic ground, and that was Western Europe, where all the left wing parties, and a strong partisan, a strong non-partisan peace movement, with a lot of Christian Churches in it, was really attempting to prevent the installation of American missiles. Had that happened, had that succeeded, had the missiles not gone in, this would have been an enormous victory for the Soviet Union, and it would have compensated for all their defeats that were taking place in the rest of the world.
HH: It’s also amazing, and you made me remember it, that when SDI came out, not only was it ridiculed, it was opposed on moral grounds by the American bishops. It was opposed by people who ought to have been in favor of defense, and by technocrats who said it couldn’t work. Here we are, 2007, when we originally taped this interview, not only does it work, it may be the only thing that will deter Tehran, and maybe force Tehran into the same sort of competition that humbled the Soviet Union. Thank God he started it. I mean, it took a long time, but it’s a good thing to have.
JO’S: Well, that’s right, and by the way, not only rogue states, not only is there a danger of missiles being fired by rogue states, there’s also the danger of accidental launches.
JO’S: And there is no defense against those, it seems to me, other than something like SDI. Now Reagan, and missile defense, he saw this. As I was saying at the very end a moment ago, Reagan said to Gorbachev, look, we can get rid of these weapons, but supposing somebody comes to power in some third country, and secretly develops nuclear missiles again, and we have lost all our weapons and can’t deter it, if we don’t have missile defense, what will we do? And of course, he didn’t know it, but that was exactly what was happening in Pakistan with AQ Khan and his network of people to whom he was supplying nuclear information. And the more one looks at Reagan on that issue, the more far sighted he seems.
HH: Now I want to turn back to John Paul II. I don’t want to give him short shrift. While Thatcher and Reagan in tandem are waging political war on the Soviet Union, this great intellectual is waging cultural and spiritual war on the Soviet Union, with martyrs. You retell Father Popieluszko, am I pronouncing that correctly?
JO’S: I think so, but I’m not a Pole.
HH: …is beaten to death and dumped in a river, and John Paul II comes and refuses to treat, on any of his visits to Poland, with the communists, and undermines the entire Soviet empire by simple misdirection, really.
JO’S: Yes, I should just add there that Mrs. Thatcher instructed the junior foreign minister on a visit to Poland to when he got off the plane to go directly to the grave of Father Popieluszko and lay a wreath on it. And he was the first Western diplomat to do that. And from that point on, whenever a Western visitor, diplomatic visitor went to Poland, they went to the grave and laid a wreath before they did anything else. That was a very important factor in Poland’s subsequent revival. You’re quite right. What the Pope did in relation to Poland in particular, but throughout the Soviet bloc as a whole, was to spread faith and hope in an eventual liberation. He did so first of all by being himself, by being a Polish Pope, secondly by his words. Within moments of his being, within a few days, I should say, of his becoming Pope, he made a speech saying the church of silence is no longer silent, because it speaks with my voice. And then, of course, the attempted assassination of John Paul II, which everybody saw, even though they couldn’t, at that time, share the evidence for it, probably came from the Kremlin originally, was ordered by them. That was a third factor. Now if this one man is, by his being so very much a threat to the Soviet Union, then really, their system must be much weaker than they say it is.
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HH: And it includes a very candid conversation about arming the Mujahedeen, and the upside and the downside. I did not know that the British gave them anti-aircraft missiles before we gave them Stingers?
JO’S: The Blowpipe. That’s right, we did. Now the Blowpipe was not nearly as good a missile as the Stinger, not so advanced. But the fact was it did bring down some helicopters. And the impact of that was so strong that it pushed the Americans into doing so. I’m not saying, by the way, a lot of Americans didn’t want to do it, but a lot of them did, including Reagan, but getting these things through the bureaucratic corridors is very, very difficult.
HH: Well, let’s go back to John Paul II. He goes to the heart of liberation theology, and twice confronts Sandanista theatrics when they send forward a priest whose not quit when they attempt to capture his Mass, and because he was willing to be courageous and think on his feet, he captured moments and routed them from the field.
JO’S: You’re absolutely right. You know, we tend to think that communists, whatever else they are, are absolute masters and adepts of political tactics. But again and again, the Sandanistas, when they were gaining ground in the United States, because they had a strong lobby here, again and again, they would take actions in Nicaragua which the American people would see on television and say hey, these guys are really dreadful characters. They’re really communists. And one of these occasions was when they tried to drown out Pope John Paul from saying Mass. And when he came down the steps of the stage and waived his crozier at them and shouted silence, that was at a time when many of the American bishops, and many, many priests and orders, were urging American Catholics to stop Reagan’s policy of assisting the Contras. And that, you know, the American Catholics were listening, but then all of a sudden, they see this scene, and it gives them second thoughts.
HH: You know what strikes me, and we’ll come back to this, is that these are not staff-driven moments. Reykjavik, the Pope on the stage with the Sandanistas, Mrs. Thatcher after the bombing of the hotel, these are not, they’re not consensus-driven sort of Bill Clintonesque moments where everyone gets together and they calibrate and triangulate. These are instinctive responses by people of enormous character to very bad people.
JO’S: That’s right, and a good example, a further good example is Reagan’s decision to use the phrase, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall, because he had to put that phrase in the speech again and again. State would take it out, NSC would argue against it. And eventually, I think he took, it was Marlin Fitzwater, I think, for a walk in the garden, and he asked him Marlin, I’m the President of the United States, aren’t I? And he said yes, you are, sir. And he said, these are the kinds of decisions I get to make, aren’t they? And he said yes, you do. And he said well, in that case, I’m going to say it.
HH: I think it’s Peter Robinson. Peter’s been on the show many, many times.
JO’S: Peter wrote that phrase, all right. That’s right.
HH: But the walk in the woods, or the walk in the garden might have been Marlin Fitzwater?
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HH: Let’s begin, John O’Sullivan, this hour by talking about the three relationships here, Reagan-Thatcher, Thatcher-John Paul, Reagan-John Paul. The Reagan-Thatcher relationship, much deeper and more nuanced than I ever knew until I read the book. Explain to people how it developed, and what its quality was.
JO’S: Yes, it’s a very important relationship for both of them, and it’s important personally as well as politically. They first meet in 1975, shortly after she’s elected leader of the party, leader of the Conservative Party, not yet prime minister. She had already wanted to meet him, because Dennis had heard him as Governor of California speak in London about 1967, and come home raving about this fantastic chap. Anyway, she meets him, they see eye to eye, they agree to keep in touch, and Reagan thereafter sends her all his columns and articles. They see each other again…they don’t see each other again until she’s prime minister. When he rings to congratulate her on her election, he’s not put through by the Downing Street…
HH: I love that anecdote.
JO’S: (laughing) That’s right, by the Downing Street telephone switchboard, which, by the way, is a fantastically efficient switchboard. So it’s a very unusual flaw there. But she makes sure that he gets through next time. And then, of course, from that point on, they know…they like each other, they know they share the same views, they are determined to work together, and they are also determined to give each other public support, even when they don’t altogether see eye to eye privately. And they don’t always see eye to eye privately.
HH: That comes through in the book. On Poland, on SDI, on a number of different issues, which was well cloaked during those periods…Grenada.
JO’S: Yes, now on SDI, they are fundamentally on the same side, but she is suspicious of giving up nuclear missiles, which she thinks are necessary in order to defend Western Europe without spending too much on conventional weapons. That’s a big difference, but not a fundamental one. The real differences, the real difference, I think, was on Grenada. And that was avoidable. But Reagan and the White House were so determined to keep wraps on this operation, to have no leaks, they told nobody, and they didn’t realize how upset she would be. I think they…I mean, someone who was involved said to me we thought she’d be delighted, and that was a mistake, because this was sort of semi-British territory, the Queen is the queen of Grenada, and she was humiliated, in a sense, made to look foolish in public, here was her great ally not telling her. And so that was the big problem for them. But frankly, within a short time, they were back on good terms again, and one of the reasons was I think she came to see that Reagan was right about Grenada, and another was that the Americans asked for her help in attacking Libya, she gave it, and that, in a sense, solved everything.
HH: And she talked him around on a couple of things. The sanctions on the gas pipeline, which was hurting British companies, American attempt at extra-territorial application of law, and you chart how that happened. But I thought the very shrewd one was when the Pentagon and others in the Reagan administration thought about selling, resuming arms sales to Argentina, and she left it for the very last moment, and said now you’re not going to do that, are you? She’s very smart. And she also ambushed him once.
JO’S: She ambushed him on Star Wars, didn’t she? She turned up with a list of points that Star Wars would have to meet, and that was because, as I say, she wanted to make sure that Western Europe didn’t suddenly find itself without missiles to defend itself against this huge, Soviet conventional preponderance. But the story you just told is even more amusing when you realize that because she had ambushed him once, that all his aides said well, she’s not going to ambush him a second time, so they had him absolutely prepared and psyched up, and as you say, she waited until the very last minute, and almost as an afterthought, said oh, arms for Argentina, you won’t, will you? And he said no.
HH: And he said no. Now you also, it’s a very warm relationship, it’s a Ron and Margaret relationship…
HH: And I remember when the President was lying in state in the Rotunda, and she came in and she knelt down. And some people said theater, but it is clear from your book it was not theater.
JO’S: I think that is absolutely right. It is not theater. She always liked him, and her opinion of him has risen consistently. I now think that her opinion of Reagan is higher than it was when they were partners together, because she has come to realize that as we all have, that the political skills that he employed and the wisdom he demonstrated, were greater than at the time we realized. And you know, she’s one of these clever scholarship girls. She’s always done her homework. She’s word perfect on the test. So if she comes in and meets a guy who can’t remember quite what the next point is, and sort of bumbles slightly and is very charming, she gets a bit impatient. But when she goes back and looks at the record, and sees that all those performances produced the results that they produced, then she realizes, as I quote her in the book as saying, that you know, he was greatly underestimated by much lesser men.
HH: You do not mention this in the book, but John Major’s a fine fellow, but did she ever say to you in retirement how could they have picked John Major over me?
JO’S: Well, of course, they didn’t pick John over her.
HH: No, they…
JO’S: They picked him in succession, but I think she would obviously have felt that what you just said, had that been the choice. No, I mean, I think that Mrs. Thatcher, her disagreements with her successors were really disagreements on policy, and in particular, on the question of Britain’s future relationship with Europe. I happen to think she’s right and far sighted on that. Most political observers in Britain would tend to take the other side. But I think that these were important questions, and she doesn’t, she didn’t want to make life difficult for her successors, but she felt on one or two key questions, and that was the main one, she couldn’t keep silent.
HH: Mrs. Thatcher and John Paul II, the relationship there?
JO’S: Very little personal relationship. She greatly admired him, and was particularly grateful for his outspokenness against terrorism. You may remember at their request, he spoke out in Armagh Cathedral, saying, I think, I go down on my knees to plead that the terrorists…
HH: We were very afraid when John Paul came to Ireland that he would somehow countenance IRA terrorism.
JO’S: Not deliberately. They were afraid that he might mistakenly say the wrong things. But yes, but he was perfect from their standpoint. A friend of the Pope tells me that the Pope admired Mrs. Thatcher, but didn’t particularly warm to her personality, and I can quite see that, that he, the barrier of language would be a slight one there, too. The real relationship, Reagan is the pivotal figure. He has a very close relationship with Thatcher, and he has a very close relationship with the Pope.
HH: You know, you write in your book, one of the most surprising lines in your book, on Page 176, “Reagan, raised a Protestant, but was culturally a Catholic.” You didn’t unpack that very much. What did you mean by that?
JO’S: Well, if you look at the Catholic Church in the period, let’s say, of 1920 to 1960, which formed the period in which his personality was formed, Catholics are kind of tough, Irish guys. Sometimes they’re manual workers, sometimes they’re football coaches, sometimes they’re businessmen of a kind of solid type. And Reagan was in a sense that kind of guy. He liked, many leading Catholic figures got on well with personally, including Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia. He, what they call the Catholic moment in American life, the Bing Crosby Going My Way period, if you look at that moment and those people, and you look at Reagan, they blend into one another. They merge into one another.
HH: And how did he and the Pope get along?
JO’S: Oh, they got along very well. The first significant meeting takes place after Reagan has fallen asleep in public alongside him, and of course, Reagan never minded those kind of errors. He just forgot about them and moved on. There’s a meeting between the two of them…they’re the only two people present, the two men. At the end of the meeting, the Pope comes out and he says to Cardinal Silvestrini and to Cardinal Casaroli, Reagan is a good man. He’s a disarmer. He wants to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Now I think that’s a very, very significant moment, because effectively, Reagan has told the Pope, before anyone else much realizes it, that he’s not a Cold Warrior. What he is is he’s a nuclear disarmer. He’s both, actually. And he wishes to move towards getting rid of nuclear weapons. He tells the rest of us that one year later in his speech launching the Strategic Defense Initiative. But at that time, most people, particularly in Europe, think of Reagan as a warmonger, and a trigger-happy cowboy. What he has done here is he has told the Pope that his intentions are good. And as someone who knows a little bit about Catholic doctrine, as you know, it’s the job of the Church to lay down the correct moral principles. It’s the job of the responsible authorities to ensure how, to work out how those principles should be carried out in policy. So the Pope was essentially saying to the Cardinals, he’s got the right principles, he’s actuated by the right motives, now it’s up to him to carry out the policy.
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HH: I want to pause for fairness’ sake, if nothing else, to talk about some of the things that did not go so well, John O’Sullivan. The Lancaster House agreement turns Rhodesia over to Mugabe, who is really one of the great criminals of our time, a murderous, evil man. The Hong Kong agreement turns over a free and prospering colony to a dictatorship that remains a dictatorship. Any regrets on the part of Mrs. Thatcher when you saw her in retirement working on her memoirs for these two, that have to be laid as her, they’re her decisions.
JO’S: I think she regrets particularly what’s happened in Rhodesia. I would say, let me distinguish. Rhodesia was first of all something that was almost a done deal when she becomes prime minister. The key decision there was whether or not the West would support the internal agreement between Ian Smith and the moderate bishop, Abel Muzorewa. Now they didn’t. And that laid the groundwork for continued conflict, and for the Lancaster house meeting, at which everyone’s purpose was to get an agreement that will be acceptable, to quote the international community. Now you may say the international community is a myth and they shouldn’t have bothered with it, but they felt that no settlement that didn’t enjoy that support could succeed. And as I say, when she came in, she followed that existing line of argument, and she handed over power, ultimately after her election, to Mugabe. And Mugabe has turned out to be a bloodthirsty tyrant, and also an incompetent. So there’s no doubt about it, it’s a bad business, it shouldn’t have happened, it did happen, she bears a share of responsibility, but fundamentally, she was carrying out a policy that was already established, and which it was hard to see how she could reverse. I would be rather stronger in her defense in relation to Hong Kong for two reasons. One is overwhelming force on the ground was with the Chinese. There was no way the British could have stopped a Chinese takeover, had they wanted to do so, without a nuclear war, which no one was going to do. Secondly, the Chinese had legal right on their side, because the colony would have reverted to them in 1997 anyway. And this agreement was designed to kind of affect the changeover. And thirdly, whatever else you think of the Chinese government, the fact is that they have largely respected the independence, not the independence exactly, but the different political system in Hong Kong, which remains fundamentally a free economy, and nearly a free society, with far more outspokenness and a freer media than exists elsewhere. So it hasn’t worked out as a complete failure, it’s not been what I would have ideally liked, but it reflected the facts on the ground.
HH: And to your position on Iran-Contra. I thought it was an interesting perspective. Reagan screwed up because he dealt with terrorists. He was held accountable by the Democratic Congress because he was trying to beat the Sandanistas. If they’d gone after him for dealing with the terrorists and the mullahs, they might have wounded him fatally, as you point out. But it was still a botched business from start to finish.
JO’S: It was a botched business from start to finish, it reflects a number of things. First of all, it reflects Reagan’s fundamental good-heartedness. He couldn’t bear the thought of the American hostages being tortured, as we know, of course, William Buckley, the CIA man, was horribly tortured, and he wanted something done about it. Secondly, I think he was persuaded, mistakenly, almost certainly, that there were moderates at the time in Tehran whom he could deal with, and in a sense, stop the tilt to Saddam Hussein, which had been American policy until then, and again, that was a mistake. We were taken to the cleaners by the so-called moderates. But the main point, the first point you made is of course absolutely right, namely that if the Democrats had focused not on Iran-Contra, not on the Contra side of things, but on the Iranian side of things, they might have made more ground. But even then, you must remember, that they’d been saying for the previous ten years that Reagan was asleep at the switch, barely conscious, barely sentient, an amiable dunce. They couldn’t suddenly switch around and say no, this man has got his finger on the pulse of everything that happens in the government. And Reagan was able, in a sense, to skate, not terribly gracefully, away from the whole thing.
HH: Let’s talk a little bit about John Paul’s great failing. It might not be a great failing in the context of the international Church, but as a back and forth Catholic, his management by non-management of the American Church left behind a legacy of people like Roger Cardinal Mahoney in Los Angeles. They just did not manage the American Church with the result of the scandals that we’ve had, the lassitude in theology, its weakening, generally. Did he not have time? Did he not care?
JO’S: I am, I have to say I am not an expert in Church government, and perhaps you can inform me here, but it’s my understanding that the Vatican doesn’t involve itself in the day to day running of the American Church.
HH: All they do is pick bishops.
JO’S: Yes, that’s right, and the bishop Church. And he did pick some very good bishops, John Jay O’Connor in New York, for example, but I mean, I’m rather inclined to agree in the case of Cardinal Mahoney, he didn’t always pick right. And the same is true in England, by the way, where the hierarchy has been noticeably cool towards the present Pope, and so I have a lot of sympathy with the idea they should have been more active. But the Church, you know, doesn’t run that way. And we may one day have good cause to be pleased about this.
HH: What about the schism that developed between Marcel Lefebvre and…did he manage that well enough? Did he not rescue the Latin Mass as his successor has now done?
JO’S: Well, the answer is that of course, at the end of the day, the schism wasn’t healed. But I don’t think we can put the responsibility for that on the Pope. After all, the schismatics, including Archbishop Lefebvre, must bear their share of the blame for that, and probably the lion’s share of the blame. I’m inclined to think myself that it’s an absurd position to take, that to break with the Catholic Church because you think that the Pope is not exercising his authority strongly enough, and I’m inclined to share that point of view, but not to the point of breaking with the Church.
HH: Now let’s turn to economics, and then we’ll come back to the legacies. They’re both monetarists, Thatcher and Reagan, but they didn’t really, Thatcher had a much difficult time, you say a Hayek moment, a shock treatment, as opposed to the Volker gradual monetarism, meaning that they both got where they needed to go, but it was a tougher road for Thatcher.
JO’S: It was a tougher road for Thatcher, but there’s a paradox here. She gets into power, and she’s following the monetarists gradually reducing the amount of money in the economy to restrain inflation. And they do this. But in fact, they don’t know it, but because the monetary figures are not telling them the truth, they’re imposing a much more severe attack, severe, what’s the word I want? Contraction on the economy than they intend, the shock tactics to which you referred. The shock tactics that had been advocated by Hayek, but not actually ever intended to be pursued by Thatcher. But she does so inadvertently, and as a result, the British economy goes through eighteen months of sheer hell. But at the end of the day, over-manning has been cut, workplace, what they call restrictive practices have been abolished, inefficient companies have been gone, but new efficient companies have emerged, and the companies that have survived are leaner, fitter, and more aggressive. And the British economy takes off in November, 1981, and has not stopped rising ever since.
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HH: I want to talk a little bit about legacy. In the economic world, John O’Sullivan, the reduction of taxation in both countries, the unleashing of the entrepreneurial excellence continues to astound, and it really goes back to these two and their tax policies, and really to Thatcher’s deregulation policy, more than really Reagan’s deregulation policy.
JO’S: I think that both deregulated, and Thatcher privatized, which Reagan couldn’t do, because he didn’t have much to privatize. And Reagan cut taxes. Thatcher did as well, but later on in the cycle. Those things together changed everything. Let me say that Mrs. Thatcher took an economy that was an international basket case in 1979, and turned it around to become the fourth largest economy in the world, a situation in which I still think is the case, although the Chinese are catching up. Now the privatization, it seems to me in deregulation, they’re the big things, because the privatization policy, that becomes a worldwide revolution. All of a sudden, it’s not just Britain, it’s not just the first world, it’s not just the third world, but even the communist world is privatizing. And as they do, of course, they unleash these entrepreneurial spirits which you talked about. And we’ve been living in a different kind of economy since then, a different economy in all sorts of ways, but the most important way is the old industrial capitalism has been replaced by new information capitalism. That means that the capitalism of a few owners has been replaced by capitalism of many owners. Capitalism of established companies has bee replaced by the upsurge of insurgent companies in every area. I may mention this point. When I left college in 1964, I didn’t know a single person in my graduating year who was going to start their own business. And twenty years later, they all were.
HH: Cover of Face Book, Newsweek, a 24 year old entrepreneur. Now John O’Sullivan, also, they reinvented politics in both countries, I think. I’m not much of an expert on British politics, but the idea of a strong personality-driven leader who really stands for humility of person, but great, great confidence in ideology, correct me if I’m wrong, we really had not had ideological leaders to that point in either country. They were victory leaders in FDR and Churchill, but strong, strong conservatives, the idea that they could win, they were both novel in that regard.
JO’S: Well, what’s novel about Mrs. Thatcher is the idea that she can come in and implement conservative principles. Now I wouldn’t say an ideology necessarily here, because what’s she got is a set of general ideas which are called for at the time. The country is in a mess, the labor unions are too powerful, inflation is raging, she looks around, well, there is a set of ideas called, actually, liberal economics, but we think of it as conservative these days, which is designed to answer these questions. She applies them. Before Mrs. Thatcher in England, conservatives are often elected, but they tended to think that there wasn’t much they could do about conservatism. They were there to administer the kind of social democratic state more efficiently than the Labour Party could do, a very, very timid ambition. She swept that all aside, and she transformed the society.
HH: I guess that goes to the big, the big goals. Reagan wanted disarmament and rollback, and captive nations released, and Thatcher wanted privatization which no one really thought about. Now tell me about John Paul II. The theology of the body is well known to Catholics, it’s an extraordinary theological legacy, but he also has these three letters on the economy, which I still think are as Luther said of the Epistle of St. James, write straw in parts, they’re not really grand economic documents.
JO’S: Well, I think the last one, Centesimus Annus does for Catholic economics, and Catholic social doctrine, is for the first time, it really acknowledges the value of an independent economic sector. For the first time, the Catholic Church previously had been critical of socialism, but it had also been critical of capitalism as well. In some respects, excessively so, because it associated capitalism, thought of it as the economic doctrine of a kind of godless, semi-atheistic liberalism of a political and dogmatic kind. He comes along and he says no. Society has got three independent sectors, which all deserve respect. There is the government, the administration of the government, there is the free economy, which deserves respect because it is the area where people display their imagination and creativity. And then there is a third sector, the charitable sector, the sector of culture and law, and that sector is important because the first two sectors should act in accordance with its values.
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HH: Why spend this much time? Because I think it’s vitally important to understand where we are now, and what kind of leadership we need. They brought down the Soviet Union. John O’Sullivan, it drives the left crazy, but let’s just cover it. Without these three, would the Soviet Union still be there today?
JO’S: It would probably be there today. It might not have much longer to go, but I think we can say pretty clearly two things. One is the Soviet Union ended two, three or four decades earlier than it might have done because they were there. And secondly, that without their kind of leadership, that empire may well have crashed in blood and chaos, as most empires usually do. Instead, it ended peacefully. And that was because they were willing to extend the hand of friendship to the Russian people, and even to some of their
Soviet leaders like Gorbachev who were prepared to end their rule peacefully.
HH: You know, some very close run things in the captive Baltic States, and how East Germany fell down, wonderful anecdotes, wonderfully recounted. But let’s talk about the downside. We armed the Islamists, the Mujahedeen, than we left them. And they have metastasized. Ought they to have seen this?
JO’S: Well, let me put it this way. In 1941, Hitler invaded Russia. Churchill immediately declared war on…Churchill immediately declared he was Russia’s ally. When America came into the War, America joined Britain in helping the Soviet Union. As a result, the Soviet Union ended up in half of Central Europe. Ought we to have foreseen that? Well, the answer is of course. However much you may foresee what might happen, you have to deal with the immediate evils in front of you. You try to take precautions to prevent worse evils arising, but in each of those cases, worse evils did not arise. Lesser evils arose. And it’s just simply unreasonable to object to the assistance that we gave to the Afghan people to free themselves from a Soviet invasion on the grounds that subsequently, twenty years later, some of the weapons are wielded by people who mean us no good.
HH: What about the argument from the left that the Soviet Union was dead anyway, they had bankrupted themselves, they were spending themselves into oblivion, and Reagan really was irrelevant, as was Thatcher and John Paul II?
JO’S: I think that’s an absurdity for this reason. The Soviet Union had been going bankrupt since 1917. We had continually bailed it out. And for the first time, you have leaders who not only will not bail it out, but who actually, in the case of Reagan and Thatcher, have a very clear plan for bringing it down by competition, peacefully, by example, but not giving it the weapons of war, and the weapons of peace to remain in power over its subject peoples indefinitely.
HH: Now let’s ask the question that brings us up to date. To what extent do you think that Bush, Blair and Benedict are the heirs and assigns of Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II?
JO’S: I don’t think that that’s a question that really can be answered, because simply that the problems are different, the people are different, and there are certain one or two characteristics they may share, in the case of the President, for example, there’s no doubt of his boldness. His absolutely clear, bold leadership is very admirable. Now in the case of Blair, well, Blair, unfortunately, has left the Anglo-American alliance in a worse state than he found it, whereas Mrs. Thatcher left it in a better state, and for this reason. That whereas Mrs. Thatcher was seen by the British people as a loyal ally of the United States, but an even more loyal defender of British interests. Mr. Blair has given the British people the impression that you know, British interests don’t come terribly highly on his list of priorities. That may not be fair, but it’s the clear impression they have, and it’s damaged the special relationship between the two countries. The strongest comparison, I think, is between the Pope, John Paul II and the present Pope, in relation to Islamist radicalism. The late Pope, toward the end of his life, I think was sad that his overtures to Islam had not been reciprocated. What I think the new Pope has done particularly in his speech at Regensberg, is to say to the Islamic world, look, we have both, we have to go beyond the platitudes in saying we like each other, we have to get from you an assurance that you do not believe that your faith can be spread by violence, something which Christian have now accepted for at least a hundred years, and probably longer, but which many otherwise pious Muslims have some difficulty in accepting, and which gives that widespread nervousness among ordinary Muslims, including their leaders, gives the radicals too much room.
HH: You know, you tell about, we all remember Reagan’s funeral, and how touching it was, and of course, John Paul II’s great suffering at the end. You tell the story of the Jew from Chicago who has to go to Rome to salute this fellow. So when Mrs. Thatcher goes to her reward, how will that play out in Great Britain and the world, do you think, John O’Sullivan?
JO’S: I think that Mrs. Thatcher will find, well, she won’t find, because she won’t be around, but when she dies, I think much of the animus towards her in Britain will vanish. Of course, she is greatly admired in Britain. 50-60% of the population regards her as the greatest Briton except for Churchill in the next century.
HH: Oh, I didn’t know that.
JO’S: But there is this difference. If you want to compare Mrs. Thatcher to an American politician, I think the one to compare her to is FDR, because they’re both politicians who in their early stages of power had fought ferocious battles. And those battles created such bitterness that even though many of their old opponents now admit that they were right, the legacy of bitterness is sufficient to make them unpopular.
HH: I thought that was a very compelling part of the book as well, that she assembled all of these discreet groups, and played very, very hardball politics, and accumulated the capital that she needed to win, the comparison with FDR. When we come back, America, we’re going to talk a little bit about the qualities of greatness about them. But I’ll just ask, if you had to sum them up in one word, John O’Sullivan, what’s the great quality of Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II?
JO’S: I would say that in their different ways, they each offered hope for the future. Not pie in the sky, but practical hope for a better world if you made the effort to achieve it.
HH: And did they sell that with the assistance of media, or over and around their medias, respective?
JO’S: Well, both, really. On all three, were masters of the media. Reagan and the Pope, naturally, Mrs. Thatcher by effort, and they used the media effectively. But of course, they had to deal with the fact that much of the media was deeply hostile to what they stood for.
HH: As was academia, as was…
JO’S: As was the legal profession, and an awful lot of other people.
HH: All of the elites.
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HH: John O’Sullivan, thank you for spending this much time to discuss your book, The President, The Pope, And The Prime Minister. You write that John Paul’s legacy, his bequest, is a large, growing fast, considerably more orthodox Roman Catholic Church, and a great theology. What are the legacies of Reagan and Thatcher?
JO’S: The legacy of Mrs. Thatcher is a country which was fundamentally broken down, but is now the fourth largest economy in the world, and which has regained an enormous amount of self-confidence. I think since she left office, it’s also suffered considerable social and moral deterioration, and it’s lost a sense of itself in patriotic terms. But that will come back, I believe. Reagan? I think he restored America’s self-confidence, he restored its economy, he restored its military, and restored its preeminent place in the world. So his is a remarkable achievement. And I think all three, taken together, are people who took on a broken world, and didn’t mend it completely, because it can never be mended completely. But they mended it to the point where millions of people are able to lead freer, and I think happier, lives.
HH: Let’s conclude by talking about the Iron Lady with whom you’ve been…obviously, she let you interview her for this book.
HH: As she looks out at the world in 2006 and 2007, is she an optimist? Is she a pessimist now? Her health is not so great, but what is she…is she brooding now about what’s happened?
JO’S: No, I mean, I think Mrs. Thatcher is by nature not an optimist, because I think that’s just simply a disposition. She is a hopeful person. It’s a deliberate hope, though. I mean, in other words, she’s a well-brought up Methodist girl. She believes it’s her job to get up in the morning and put in a proper day’s worth of effort. And she does that in terms of hope, as much as she does in terms of work. So when she looks at the world, I think she thinks there’s a lot wrong with this place, but if some sensible men and women could just sort of get up off their bottoms and set about making it better, it would all come right.
HH: Are there more biographies worth writing about these two people for a period of time? There’s a lot more records that are still locked up, but have we got enough now that it can rest for ten or twenty years?
JO’S: I think we’ve certainly got enough on Ronald Reagan, and that’s simply because there’s an enormous amount of Reagan’s scholarship to absorb. We’ve now got the full diaries will be published soon. Of course we’ve had his letters and his columns and his articles, and we’ve had some really imaginative biographies. I think Richard Reeve’s, which is written from the left, but is nonetheless a fascinating biography, I do look forward to the second volume of Steven Hayward’s book, because I think that will, in a sense, accept a lot of what Reeve said, but correct some as well, and I think that will be interesting. Mrs. Thatcher, her official biography will be produced soon by Charles Moore, no one better to do it.
HH: John O’Sullivan, just great enormous fun. I look forward…what’s the next book from you?
JO’S: Well, I’m not sure about that. I’m talking to my publishers at the moment.
HH: All right. John O’Sullivan, when it comes out, come back and see us. Thank you so much for being here.
End of interview.