15 May 2013

Margaret Thatcher And Image-Making

The departure of Lady Thatcher evokes in me impressions that had been crucial in the shaping of my understanding of politics – in a very irregular political education as a writer on the margins of the soft communist dictatorship of János Kádár. But also as an Americanist scholar with living personal contacts to the contemporary ferment of American and English poetry and art.

Part of that education was experiencing democracy in the flesh during fellowship years in the US in 1972–73 and 1984–85, and on shorter stays in Britain between 1966 and 1970. Another part was a ten year period of reading regularly The Guardian Weekly (with a selection from The Washington Post and Le Monde), which an American friend, a leading journalist subscribed for on my behalf in the late 1970s. Every week, The Guardian Weekly experience began for me with the paper: the lovely smooth touch, the unobtrusive odour and the thin whiteness of the airmail paper. I believe that experiencing a paper of character is as important to a writer’s life as handwriting. And it seems to me that the more these inspirations to the senses go out of fashion, the more new writing loses touch with real things, with imagination and the world. And brain researchers agree with this sad observation.

The Guardian Weekly experience revived my earlier shorter trysts with the British press, with quality dailies, weeklies and monthlies: the spaciousness and verve of open discussion, and the treats of good reporting. For someone living in East Central Europe, before the age of the internet, it was a delight and enlightenment to read reports and comments from these dailies on such decisive issues as the attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II, the downing of the Korean Airlines passenger plane by the Soviet air force over Pacific Siberia, or insider information about the impending succession battle in Moscow as the oppressive Brezhnev era was drawing to its relieving end.

However, after some time, in the late 1980s, when our political perceptions and ideas crystallised in opposition to the Communist system, I noticed that I had been also misled on some issues. The leanings of the three papers of which The Guardian Weekly selection was picked had almost succeeded to persuade me that Margaret Thatcher, literally, had the style and narrowness of an ordinary grocer’s daughter (whatever that phrase means). Or that Helmut Kohl was an uneducated and unskilled muscular thug from the working classes before he suddenly stumbled into politics and indeed the German Chancellor’s chair. Yes, I vividly remember the delightful cartoon in The Guardian Weekly at the time Kohl was sworn into office: a big man entering an apartment with a coal sack on his back, hunched and sweating: and the subtitle, “Coal (Kohl) has arrived”, or “Coal is here”.

At the time I did not quite notice the class contempt that operated as hidden insinuation in these images: the grocer’s daughter, the coal man. From future passionate partisans of political correctness these representations involved a rather curious touch of intellectual and social condescension, I reflect. But even worse, these images of Thatcher and Kohl were examples of the power of the press to build up slanted reputations. And such misrepresentations not only falsify the truth – they can prove harmful pieces of disinformation when serious political analysis and clear vision are required, in serious matters.

For the truth of the thing is that, as many remember, Margaret Thatcher was the Western politician who discovered the worth of Mikhail Gorbachev. With a keen intuition and the down-to-earth common sense that characterised her: she saw in Gorbachev’s eyes, as she was famously and again somewhat condescendingly quoted, that she “can do business with” him. That talent of “the natural”, her intuition and keen eyes, and her courage to initiate and to take risks, was what turned Western politics around, in the mid-1980s, putting it on the course of indirectly but powerfully helping the internal oppositions of the Soviet orbit on their way to the momentous and peaceful revolutions of 1989. The milestones of that course were the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the re-establishment of democratic political systems in East Central Europe.

As a writer who was to spend a short but formative period, 1987 to 1994, in politics, I was naturally sensitive to personality, to the force of character, to mental energy. I always sensed and observed the encounters and negotiations of top international leaders as drama, as prime theatrical experience, or at least as the psychological scene where interests and ideas meet in representative individuals and where personal interaction will decide on major issues in unexpected ways. And during personal encounters with Margaret Thatcher, some of them ad hoc confidential discussions between her and Prime Minister József Antall whom I served as Senior Adviser, I was again and again impressed by her unique presence that struck one through unobservable details from the first moment. Few leaders of the time had a comparable presence. I had the chance to make comparisons, but I would not quote any names now.

It is a truism to say that Margaret Thatcher was sure of herself – but that firmness did not come through in any repellent way during these meetings. It was a silent force beneath her speech, which had a winningly feminine quality – firm and intoned with precision but also rich in softer undertones of emotion and compassion. Contrary towhat one expected, she was able to listen with attention and concentration when someone she appreciated spoke. She had empathy, and an eye for human talent. She was won over by József Antall as a leader of prime quality, and she became a voluntary intermediary and partner for Antall on the world scene, sharing his strategic insights about the changes in East Central Europe, or the necessity to extend NATO to our region, as a guarantee of stability. We felt that East Central Europe and Hungary became priorities for her, which she wanted to demonstrate in gestures too, as was soon testified by the visit of Prince Charles and Princess Diana to Hungary in May 1990 and that of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in May 1993.

Of course, politics is almost as complex as life itself. Complex personalities attempt to manage a mesh of interplaying processes and interests – a superhuman task for human genius. Even the best and brightest have their shadows and weaknesses. Thus, when we celebrate the greatness of Lady Thatcher, and think of her with a personal gratitude, we also must be aware of the blind spots in her vision. An extreme free market philosophy that liberated immense economic creativity in Britain and the whole West in the 1980s, but with its deregulation it triggered processes that may have become partly responsible for the recent financial crisis. Or her lack of understanding, probably prompted by bitter British memories, for the historical necessity of German unification – a foundation stone for the new Europe.

And it is at this point, the re-unification of Germany, where we should say a word about the other controversial leader of historic importance – Helmut Kohl. He was the politician who completed Konrad Adenauer’s work, the creation of the overall framework for a modern Germany, returning to German origins of subsidiarity and federalism, and upholding faith in a powerful democracy. Bypassing now the many personal memories of Kohl’s friendship with Antall, let us just observe the characteristic historical irony – that the two most important initiators of a new united Europe, Thatcher and Kohl, did not see eye to eye in such a major question.

However, let us say that Europe would be better off now with them still as active presences on the international scene. The courage of Margaret Thatcher and the force and gravity of Helmut Kohl.

Returning to my old experience of The Guardian Weekly and the power of the press to shape reputations, it is important to note that it is Le Monde and The Guardian where recent important articles by Yves-Michel Riols and Tibor Fischer may have indicated a turn in part of the world press toward a judicious appreciation of present Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – away from fantasy nightmares and slander. We are publishing here – for the first time in English, we believe – Die Weltwoche interview with German constitutional lawyer and Former Minister of Defence Rupert Scholz about the actual text and quality of the much criticised new Hungarian Constitution.

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