From the December 23, 2008 Wall Street Journal
December 23, 2008
by John O'Sullivan
Being listed in fourth place for Time magazine's "Person of the Year," as Sarah Palin was for 2008, sounds a little like being awarded the Order of Purity (Fourth Class). But it testifies to something important.
Though regularly pronounced sick, dying, dead, cremated and scattered at sea, Mrs. Palin is still amazingly around. She has survived more media assassination attempts than Fidel Castro has survived real ones (Cuban official figure: 638). In her case, one particular method of assassination is especially popular -- namely, the desperate assertion that, in addition to her other handicaps, she is "no Margaret Thatcher."
Very few express this view in a calm or considered manner. Some employ profanity. Most claim to be conservative admirers of Mrs. Thatcher. Others admit they had always disliked the former British prime minister until someone compared her to "Sarracuda" -- at which point they suddenly realized Mrs. Thatcher must have been absolutely brilliant (at least by comparison).
Inevitably, Lloyd Bentsen's famous put-down of Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate is resurrected, such as by Paul Waugh (in the London Evening Standard) and Marie Cocco (in the Washington Post): "Newsflash! Governor, You're No Maggie Thatcher," sneered Mr. Waugh. Added Ms. Coco, "now we know Sarah Palin is no Margaret Thatcher -- and no Dan Quayle either!"
Jolly, rib-tickling stuff. But, as it happens, I know Margaret Thatcher. Margaret Thatcher is a friend of mine. And as a matter of fact, Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Palin have a great deal in common
They are far from identical; they rose in different political systems requiring different skills. As a parliamentarian, Mrs. Thatcher needed forensic and debating skills which her training in Oxford politics and as a tax lawyer gave her. Mrs. Palin is a good speaker, but she needs to hone her debating tactics if she is to match those of the Iron Lady.
On the other hand, Mrs. Palin rose in state politics to jobs requiring executive ability. Her successful conduct of the negotiations with Canada, Canadian provinces and American states over the Alaska pipeline was a larger executive task than anything handled by Mrs. Thatcher until she entered the Cabinet and, arguably, until she became prime minister.
Mrs. Thatcher's most senior position until then had been education secretary in the government of Edward Heath where, as she conceded in her memoirs, she lacked real executive power. Her political influence within that government was so small that it took 17 months for her to get an interview with him. Even then, a considerate civil servant assured Heath that others would be present to make the meeting less "boring." Her main political legacy from that job was the vitriolic slogan, "Margaret Thatcher, Milk-Snatcher," thrown at her by the left because of a budgetary decision she had opposed to charge some children for school meals and milk. It was the single most famous thing about her when she defeated Heath for the Tory leadership in 1975.
At this point she became almost as "controversial" as Sarah Palin. Heath, for example, made it plain privately that he would not serve under her. And Sir Ian Gilmour, an intellectual leader of the Tory "wets," privately dismissed her as a "Daily Telegraph woman." There is no precise equivalent in American English, but "narrow, repressed suburbanite" catches the sense.
Mrs. Thatcher attracted such abuse for two reasons. First, she was seen by the chattering classes as representing a blend of provincial conservative values and market economics -- Middle England as it has come to be called -- against their own metropolitan liberalism. They thought this blend was an economic dead-end in a modern complex society and a political retreat into futile nostalgia. Of course, they failed to notice that their modern complex society was splintering under their statist burdens even as they denounced her extremism.
Second, Margaret Thatcher was not yet Margaret Thatcher. She had not won the 1979 election, recovered the Falklands, reformed trade union law, defeated the miners, and helped destroy Soviet communism peacefully.
Things like that change your mind about a girl. But they also take time, during which she had to turn her instinctive beliefs into intellectually coherent policies against opposition inside and outside her own party. Like Mrs. Palin this year, Mrs. Thatcher knew there were serious gaps in her knowledge, especially of foreign affairs. She recruited experts who shared her general outlook (such as Robert Conquest and Hugh Thomas) to tutor her on these things. Even so she often seemed very alone in the Tory high command.
As a parliamentary sketch writer for the Daily Telegraph (and a not very repressed suburbanite), I watched Mrs. Thatcher's progress as opposition leader. She had been a good performer in less exalted positions. But initially she faltered. Against the smooth, condescending Prime Minister James Callaghan in particular she had a hard time. In contrast to his chuckling baritone she sounded shrill when she attacked. But she lowered her tone (vocally not morally), took lessons in presentation from (among others) Laurence Olivier, and prepared diligently for every debate and Question Time.
I can still recall her breakthrough performance in a July 1977 debate on the Labour government's collapsing economy. She dominated the House of Commons so wittily that the next day the Daily Mail's acerbic correspondent, Andrew Alexander, began his report: "If Mrs. Thatcher were a racehorse, she would have been tested for drugs yesterday." She was now on the way to becoming the world-historical figure who today is the gold standard of conservative statesmanship.
But she has plenty of time, probably eight years, to analyze America's problems, recruit her own expert advice, and develop conservative solutions to them. She has obvious intelligence, drive, serious moral character, and a Reaganesque likability. Her likely Republican rivals such as Bobby Jindal and Mitt Romney, not to mention Barack Obama, have most of these same qualities too. But she shares with Mrs. Thatcher a very rare charisma. As Ronnie Millar, the latter's speechwriter and a successful playwright, used to say in theatrical tones: She may be depressed, ill-dressed and having a bad hair day, but when the curtain rises, out onto the stage she steps looking like a billion dollars. That's the mark of a star, dear boy. They rise to the big occasions.
Mrs. Palin had four big occasions in the late, doomed Republican campaign: her introduction by John McCain in Ohio, her speech at the GOP convention, her vice-presidential debate with Sen. Joe Biden, and her appearance on Saturday Night Live. With minimal preparation, she rose to all four of them. That's the mark of a star.
If conservative intellectuals, Republican operatives and McCain "handlers" can't see it, then so much the worse for them.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.
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