Most Americans are surprised that Margaret Thatcher’s death and funeral proved so divisive in Great Britain. In the United States, the eulogies hailing the “Iron Lady” for resurrecting British spirit, saving England’s economy and helping to defeat the Soviet Union, paralleled the warm farewell Americans gave Ronald Reagan when he died in June 2004. The more contentious British reaction -- including the surprising campaign to propel “Ding, Dong the Witch is Dead” to the top of the charts -- reveals differences in Thatcher’s and Reagan’s leadership styles, as well as enduring contrasts between British and American political culture.
Most Americans forget, but Ronald Reagan’s popularity during his presidency from 1981 through 1989 often wavered as dramatically as Margaret Thatcher’s did during her premiership from 1979 through 1990. In 1982, with the economy stagnating, with liberals attacking Reagan as a budget-cutting Scrooge, and with Democrats having increased their Congressional majority by 27 seats, many pundits wondered whether Reagan would be a one-term president. In late 1983, presidential trial heats still predicted that the Democrat Walter Mondale would unseat Reagan. And the Iran-Contra scandal that broke in November 1986 triggered a record drop in presidential popularity.
Nevertheless, Reagan had a lighter personal touch and a more pragmatic political approach than his British colleague. Reagan’s aw shucks, nice guy persona made him a hard politician to hate. He mollified rivals such as the Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, while Margaret Thatcher seemed to enjoy collecting enemies.
Moreover, America’s checks and balances worked. The division of power, with a Republican president restrained by a Democratic Congress, as well as the Supreme Court, along with Reagan’s own populist instincts, led him to make compromises Britain’s combative “Iron Lady” never would have made. Thatcher’s England therefore lurched right, privatizing dramatically after decades of social-welfare statism; while Reagan’s America steered rightward more gently, like a majestic ocean liner making a slight mid-course correction.
Reagan’s retirement and death were also smoother and, in a characteristic stroke of Reaganite luck, better timed. Following the American tradition of set presidential terms, Ronald Reagan retired elegantly after eight years, with his vice president George H.W. Bush winning the presidency in 1988. Reagan celebrated the peace, patriotism and prosperity he delivered, then flew out west to retire.
Reagan’s subsequent announcement of his Alzheimer’s disease, followed by his carefully choreographed funeral in 2004 -- when the economy was still booming -- allowed him to be buried in non-partisan dignity, with a nation mostly united in mourning. Contradicting its own editorial line, the New York Times front page hailed Reagan for “projecting the optimism of [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, the faith in small-town America of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the vigor of John F. Kennedy. The Massachusetts Turnpike, a central artery carrying tens of thousands of Reagan opponents daily, flashed an electronic sign saying “GOD SPEED PRESIDENT REAGAN.”
Reagan’s monarchical funeral procession affirmed the unique American mix in the presidency whereby the head of state also serves as head of government. Although George Washington's will detailed his “express desire” to be interred “in a private manner, without parade, or funeral oration,” Americans gave the first president a grand finale too. They gathered in services nationwide, honoring their hero whose birthday was already was being celebrated nationally and would be called America’s “political Christmas.”
Since then, especially when a chief executive dies in office, presidential funerals have been elaborate, patriotic affairs. Even the disgraced Republican Richard Nixon had a dignified public funeral. Over 4,000 mourners massed into the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, including the incumbent president in 1994, Bill Clinton, a Democrat, with all the living ex-presidents at the time, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Reagan, making what turned out to be his last public appearance.
By contrast, Thatcher, like many predecessors, was dumped by her own party. Moreover, most British prime ministers have had modest final ceremonies, feeding the current controversy over Lady Thatcher’s military honors. While mourning Thatcher’s policies, critics are also questioning the expense and the democratic proprieties of treating any elected official so royally. Ironically, the democracy that maintained the monarchy sometimes sounds more republican than the republic that rebelled.
This Thatcher-Reagan contrast offers two leadership lessons for President Barack Obama – and other American officials. America’s presidential grandeur offers the president great props and essential support. The nationalist feelings that attach to the head of state can be transferred to him as head of government, albeit delicately. And the moderating gravitational forces within America’s divided political system, while frustrating in the short term, can produce tremendous long term benefits. This built-in bipartisan centrism keeps presidents as consensus leaders, who can subsequently be appreciated as national icons, rather than as the kind of partisan and polarizing “conviction politicians” parliamentary systems frequently produce -- and Margaret Thatcher loved to be.