Maggie vs. Gorby: the scene that ‘The Iron Lady’ forgot

The scripted and unscripted confrontations between Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev were of such epic consequence they could not be condensed into film. Yet we do Britain’s first female prime minister a great disservice in omitting them.

Oscar nominee Meryl Streep portrays British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a scene from the film 'The Iron Lady.' Columnist Walter Rodgers chides the film for leaving out 'Thatcher’s greatest tour de force': her duels with Mikhail Gorbachev, which he credits as 'beginning of the end of the cold war.'

When I saw Oscar nominee Meryl Streep star as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the film “The Iron Lady,” she was so convincing, I was no longer sure whom I was watching, Maggie or Meryl. 

I admit my prejudice. As an ABC News correspondent in London, I covered Mrs. Thatcher during the 1982 Falklands War and later during her several duels with Mikhail Gorbachev, dubbed Gorby. 

Regrettably, however, the film does not include Thatcher’s greatest tour de force. I suspect screenwriter Abi Morgan probably just could not fit the Iron Lady’s finest hour into the 105-minute celluloid canvas.

Thatcher, more so than Ronald Reagan, was the Western intellectual engine that pushed against the Soviet Union until the Communist Party leadership imploded in 1991.

President Reagan’s loathing of Soviet communism was visceral. He twisted the bear paw through America’s muscular defense spending. He was also the actor, waving the flag of freedom on a world stage.

By contrast, Thatcher was an unchallengeable cerebral force. She understood that the cold war confrontation between communism and the West was less about freedom and more about justice. Intuitively she knew the genius of American statesman Adlai Stevenson’s words that “communism is the corruption of a dream of justice.”

The face-to-face meetings between Thatcher and Mr. Gorbachev were the real beginning of the end of the cold war, though this was not appreciated at the time.

The scripted and unscripted confrontations between these two leaders were of such epic consequence they could not be condensed into film. Yet we do Britain’s first female prime minister a great disservice in omitting them.

On Dec. 16, 1984, before Reagan ever met Gorbachev, it was Thatcher who pioneered the East-West dialogue that ultimately led to the thaw in relations between Washington and Moscow. It was she who, after her first meeting with Gorbachev at the prime minister’s country house of Chequers, pronounced, “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business with him.” 

Gorbachev was not yet general secretary of the Communist Party, although he was widely rumored as a possible heir apparent. Senior Soviet Politburo members had sent their young, bright, and shining star off to Britain to test his mettle. He did not lack for confidence. The first Thatcher-Gorbachev meeting was a draw. The second, in Moscow, would not be.

What was perhaps Thatcher’s greatest performance was never seen publicly nor captured by TV cameras or later moviemakers. I remember well sitting in the ABC News Moscow bureau, late in the afternoon of March 30, 1987. The British embassy had just delivered a copy of the speech Thatcher was going to give at an official Kremlin dinner. I could not believe what I read. Was she really going to say this? 

She was off to beard the Kremlin lions in their den. To their faces she told Soviet leaders that their claptrap about struggling for the triumph of socialism all over the world was an impediment to peace with the West. 

Eyeball to eyeball, she challenged Soviet sincerity on arms control, citing Moscow’s 9-to-1 advantage in short-range nuclear missiles and lecturing then-Soviet leader Gorbachev about his hypocrisy in preaching disarmament while the Soviets amassed massive superiority in chemical weapons stocks.

But what probably most infuriated the Russians was Thatcher’s pointed reminder that when Britain was alone fighting Hitler from 1939 to 1941, the Soviet Union cozied up to Hitler, selling him raw materials and signing a nonaggression pact. Her truth-telling shattered the Soviet Union’s greatest myth, its claim that it held the moral high ground in the fight against Nazi Germany

That night in Moscow she said things to the Soviets that it is unlikely any man could have gotten away with, diplomatically. Reagan infuriated the Russians long-distance with taunts about their “evil empire.” But it was Thatcher who roasted them at dinner. Thereafter, the Soviets were publicly on the defensive until the candles went out on their stage. 

Reflecting on Thatcher now, it is not hard to imagine a better world if we had more smart, tough women leaders; more fearless Thatchers, not so polite she wouldn’t tell you what she thought. 

In the post-Thatcher world, a German woman, Angela Merkel, is Europe’s dominant political figure. Across the Atlantic, it was Hillary Rodham Clinton who pushed the United States toward a Libyan no-fly zone.

Imagine the possibilities if a tough woman prime minister or president again engaged in public truth-telling with adversaries like Iran or Pakistan or with friends like Israel. Today’s risks are not nearly what they were when Thatcher went head-to-head with the Soviets, and ultimately, her blunt truth-telling helped create a much less dangerous world. 

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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