Moviegoers viewing the new film "The Iron Lady" may wonder if the intimate portrait of Lady Margaret Thatcher, played superbly by Meryl Streep, is a truthful rendering of her personality or just a screen image.
Thatcher was the first and only female prime minister of the United Kingdom. She served three terms in a row, and was one of the most famous and influential women of the 20th century..
But who was she, as a person?
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in conversation with Frank Shatz
Some people who were associated with the College of William & Mary at a time she served as chancellor of the college, 1993-2000, are well placed to pass judgment.
In 1992, eight months before the 300th anniversary of the founding of William & Mary, Timothy Sullivan was sworn in as president of the college. He immediately went to work to reignite William & Mary's old ties with Great Britain. This resulted in the presence of Prince Charles at the Charter Day observations and subsequently the recruitment of Lady Margaret Thatcher as chancellor of the college.
When the chancellorship became vacant, after the tenure of former Chief Justice Warren Burger ended, Sullivan aspiration was to have the post filled by Lady Thatcher. The problem was that after her resignation from the post of Prime Minister in 1990, she declined to entertain any offer of a job. But Sullivan didn't give up. Using the good offices of his old friend, Sir Walter Ian Percival, once Solicitor General in the Thatcher cabinet, he managed to persuade Thatcher to accept.
"I have learned it very quickly that any commitment Lady Thatcher makes, she is going to keep," Sullivan said in a 2009 interview. "And she will do it at a level you didn't even guess."
Reflecting on Thatcher's reputation as the "Iron Lady," Sullivan continued. "First of all, let me say this. During my 13 years as president of William & Mary I have met many famous and important individuals. But I have never met anyone who was more courteous or considerate that she was. We know that she had strong views on major policy issues, but she had an amazingly emphatic feel for people. Lady Thatcher cared about doing a wonderful job for the college. This made our relationship easy and it is fair to say that over the years we became close friends."
Lady Thatcher's strong views were often in evidence. I recall one particular episode. During a conversation at the Reves Center for International Studies, we talked about the forthcoming conference sponsored by the Norfolk-based NATO Atlantic Command. The conference was scheduled for the following day, at the Campus Center.
I asked Lady Thatcher whether she would participate. Regretfully not, she said. She had an engagement at Monticello. I mentioned that one of the speakers at the conference is scheduled to be former Secretary of State Larry Egleburger.
"He intends to oppose the admission of Eastern European countries into the ranks of NATO," I said. "He thinks that it would needlessly antagonize Russia."
Thatcher was indignant.
Next morning, shortly after the opening of the conference, I saw her taking a seat in the front row. She listened to introductory remarks than asked to be heard.
Singling out Secretary Egleburger, and former presidential adviser David Gergen, she rebuked and scolded them for advocating "surrender" and "ambivalence." There was silence in the hall.
In the movie "The Iron Lady," there is a scene where Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister, presides over a cabinet meeting. She is shown as a strong- willed imperious leader, lecturing and scolding her ministers. There is silence in the room.
Previously, she called some members of her Cabinet "wet."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.