The Other Thatcher

While flogging her book in London last week, Hillary Clinton unexpectedly revealed her admiration for a great British political figure. Curiously, her kind words were not for Tony Blair, who is often compared to her husband, but rather for one of his illustrious conservative predecessors. Clinton has, it seems, been a fan of Margaret Thatcher’s for many years. Following the Iron Lady’s career from afar, Clinton particularly admired Thatcher’s ability to adapt herself to fit the job. “My goodness, she changed her hair, she changed a lot of things,” Clinton told a British interviewer, who gleefully described the junior senator from New York as a woman with an “iron simper.”

Pondering her remarks, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Clinton has gravely misunderstood a few things about image-making in British politics. Leaving aside the political issue — does Clinton realize she’s aligned herself with a woman whose best friend was Ronald Reagan? — she also misses an important point about the Thatcher era. Surely, from Clinton’s perspective, the real role model for all of those years as wife of the governor and wife of the president should not have been Margaret Thatcher, but rather her husband, Denis, whose funeral was held last weekend.

Hillary Clinton has often written of herself as a pioneer: The first first lady to have a proper career, the first professional woman to inhabit the White House. But in fact, Denis Thatcher was a far more courageous pioneer: He was not only the first professional spouse, but the first male spouse to inhabit 10 Downing Street — or indeed to inhabit the prime ministerial residence of any major Western capital. As such, he might easily have become the focus of much more damaging speculation than was Hillary Clinton. What if the press had decided that he was calling the shots, not his wife? What if the press had decided his business interests were shaping her policies?

Denis Thatcher’s solution to this potential problem was simple and elegant: no conversations with any journalists. Ever. No formal interviews, no informal interviews, no answers to verbal or written questions, or any questions — and no statements made through press spokesmen. He didn’t have a press spokesman. I once saw Thatcher at a reception marking the opening of a new hotel, where his wife was due to make a speech. Surrounded by curious hacks, he was parrying their advances. “Are you enjoying yourself, Sir Denis?” one of them asked. “I always enjoy myself,” he answered firmly — and then grinned broadly, leaving the assembled crowd to draw its own conclusions.

Studiously, he maintained this silence for more than 40 years, from the time Margaret Thatcher first served in government in 1961. He was caricatured, mercilessly, as a gin-drinking, golf-playing, henpecked husband, whose sole dream was to escape from his overbearing wife. Cartoonists rarely drew him without a drink in hand. Satirists wrote a play about him (“Anyone for Denis”). Instead of protesting, Thatcher played along. At Thatcher’s funeral, the chaplain reminisced about the time Thatcher had declared another chaplain to be a “bloody good chap” because his sermons never lasted longer than seven minutes.

As a result, by the time he died at age 88, no one had the slightest idea of whether Denis Thatcher had ever influenced his wife or not. One of his obituaries said no, he “rarely offered political advice.” Another said yes, “he was his wife’s principal adviser.” Given that he was a businessman, I would imagine that his views on economics, at the very least, must have been well known to his wife.

But to tell the truth, I have no idea. And that mystery helps explain why even Lady Thatcher’s political enemies sang her husband’s praises when he died. “Although by no means a Tory myself,” someone wrote in to a BBC Web site, “I always admired Denis standing aside to allow his wife to shine in public.” Wrote another, “I hated the politics of Margaret Thatcher, but I always had a soft spot for Denis.” He had, in other words, no “negatives”: Nobody hated him.

And although they made jokes about him, nobody thought he was unimportant or uninteresting, either. Obviously, his own career had been successful, and he was glad that his wife’s was too. In fact, it takes a great deal of self-confidence to stand aside, when a spouse is shining in public — and great determination to stay there. Cherie Booth, Tony Blair’s wife, began by staying well out of the limelight — refusing to give interviews, sticking to her legal career — but finally couldn’t resist chairing a few policy meetings in Downing Street, thereby bringing the wrath of the great British public down upon her head.

And Hillary Clinton? I hardly need to spell it out. Clearly, she made a big mistake many years ago, when she identified with the wrong Thatcher.

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