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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Everyone recalls, too, the attempted shootings of Reagan and the Pope just a few weeks apart, but O'Sullivan reminds us that Thatcher also survived an assassination attempt, the IRA's bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984. "There is an almost cinematic neatness about this series of crimes," O'Sullivan writes. "In The Omen or The Exorcist they would be readily explained as the forces of Satan seeking to destroy the apostles of hope before they could do too much good."

Along the way, O'Sullivan briskly recalls many familiar scenes, such as Reagan's dramatic summits with Gorbachev, the iterations of the Polish crisis, and the contentiousness over arms control and Central American policy, in most cases including the role and influence of the pope that is missing from most other narratives. O'Sullivan also discusses possible alternative interpretations of some aspects of these familiar moments in the 1980s. Most important is his intuition that John Paul discerned Reagan's sincerity about wanting to abolish nuclear weapons, as well as a regard for Reagan's view that both a military buildup and the Strategic Defense Initiative were morally and politically prudent--a view at odds with most American Catholic bishops.

Most unconventional is O'Sullivan's assessment of the relative legacy of all three figures. Reagan's might seem the most substantial. Until the recent election it seemed plausible (and, perhaps, still does) to see Reagan as the agent of the realignment that made conservatives and the Republican party the governing majority in America. Although Thatcher compelled her Labour opposition to moderate its views (unlike the Democratic party here, with the brief and partial exception of Bill Clinton), her Tory party has been lost in the wilderness ever since she departed the scene. (O'Sullivan refers to the Tory party's "continuing nervous breakdown.")

In the grand scheme of things, these matters are political ephemera. O'Sullivan revels in politics, but keeps his eyes fixed on what Abraham Lincoln called "the only greater institution" against which "the gate of hell shall not prevail." O'Sullivan notes at the end that "the late pope bequeathed to Pope Benedict XVI a Catholic Church that was large, growing fast, becoming more orthodox and possessing an advantage over the other rapidly growing Christian churches in the southern parts of the world . . . That may one day come to look like a greater achievement than his role in the defeat of Communism--and not only in the eyes of God."

The scope of O'Sullivan's narrative does not, of course, allow for an extrapolation to the present circumstances of the West's clash with terrorism and radical Islam. But the central movement of the three figures in view, who went rapidly from being "too sharp, clear, and definite in an age of increasingly fluid identities and sophisticated doubts" to being "just what the doctor ordered to cure malaise," should encourage us that their qualities may reassert themselves at the very moment when hopes for such virtues seem forlorn.

Steven F. Hayward is the F.K. Weyerhaeuser fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Greatness: Reagan, Churchill and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders.