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?'"
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.