The Magazine

Happy Warriors

The three who unmade a revolution.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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The President, the Pope,

and the Prime Minister

Three Who Changed the World

by John O'Sullivan

Regnery, 448 pp., $27.95

There was an arresting tableau at Ronald Reagan's memorial service at the National Cathedral in 2004 that passed largely without comment. Seated together in the same pew were Lady Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev, the man with whom, Thatch er famously told the world, "we can do business."

If, the day after Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, you had offered the prediction that not only would Reagan set us down the road to ending the Cold War, but the final leader of our dangerous foe would pay tribute to Reagan at his passing, your listeners would have looked nervously for men in white coats to intervene. The scene of Gorbachev and Thatcher together saluting Reagan almost demands speculation about Providence, if not divine intervention; only the absence of Pope John Paul II--protocol and ill health prevented his attendance--kept the thought from becoming obvious.

The story of the end of the Cold War, surely one of the most momentous and consequential in all human history, continues to grow as more details emerge from the archives, and we have yet to grasp it from certain angles. There are shelves of books about the "Big Three" of World War II--Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin--but so far very little has been written directly about the triad of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II, partly because the pope's indirect political role does not fit easily into the conventions of political biography. Here, for the first time, John O'Sullivan pulls together the important threads from all three figures.

He is the ideal person to tell this story, having lived in Washington for much of Reagan's first term in office, serving as an aide and speechwriter to Thatcher, and all the while worshiping in the Roman Catholic Church. It is this last fact--O'Sullivan's own faith--that is decisive in the genius of this book, as he appreciates both the political and theological subtleties of John Paul that are lost on most political writers, as well as the role of faith for both Reagan and Thatcher.

When, in the first 10 pages, O'Sullivan fixes his gaze on then-Cardinal Wojtyla's deft responses to Vatican II and the erosion of Church orthodoxy in the 1960s and '70s (especially on matters of sexual morality), it seems, at first, like a peculiar digression from the main story line of the 1980s. By degrees, though, O'Sullivan makes us appreciate anew John Paul's shrewdness and prudence, qualities that enabled him to conduct himself in Poland in a manner O'Sullivan describes as a "technique of resistance disguised as accommodation." (This acute perception also enables O'Sullivan to swerve away from embracing uncritically the cloak-and-dagger stories beloved of some conservatives, such as that the pope actively collaborated with the CIA to bring down the Polish government.) Beyond this, O'Sullivan believes that "In all three cases--Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul--it is a spiritual dimension that best explains them and their achievements."

And although Americans know instinctively that Reagan and Thatcher were on the same ideological wavelength, most Americans are not aware of details of the Reagan-Thatcher collaboration (and occasional spats) beyond the Cold War dimension. They complemented each other not merely on ideological grounds, but because "each brought to the partnership qualities the other person lacked that made it work better." Everyone knows of "The Speech," Reagan's famous nationwide address for Barry Goldwater in 1964 that launched Reagan's political career. Few know that Thatcher had her own analogue, a 1968 address to a Conservative party conference entitled "What's Wrong with Politics?" With its attacks on consensus government policy, it was a sharp break from Tory doctrine as it existed at the time.

It signaled Thatcher's arrival as a serious political force in her party. And like Reagan's speech, it proved a lodestar to the future: "Anyone who treated the lecture as a guide to future decisions by a Thatcher government would have been right nine times out of ten." O'Sullivan also chronicles Thatcher's domestic policy achievements, which parallel Reagan's very closely, in large part because they were based on the same principles of free markets, lower taxes, deregulation, and privatization.

It was the closeness of their political principles that enabled Thatcher, paradoxically, to speak bluntly and sometimes roughly to Reagan. "Reagan didn't mind," O'Sullivan explains, "and was even amused by her occasional outbursts. One time, when she was thundering disagreement down the phone line from London, he held up the telephone so that the rest of the room could hear her and said, 'Isn't she wonderful?'"