Margaret Thatcher: 1979 and all that
In any ancient nation, truly historic moments are rare. One such was in September 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI visited Westminster Hall to address Britain in the very place that Sir Thomas More was condemned to death for his fidelity to Rome.
All of British society was gathered for the occasion. The Archbishop of Canterbury was present. The diplomatic corps. The business elite. In a rare honour, all the living prime ministers of Britain were in attendance. In the moments before the papal arrival, one by one they entered the palace's great hall from the side staircase at the front, taking their places of honour—John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown. Margaret Thatcher was nowhere to seen. Perhaps her declining health prevented her from attending.
With only moments to spare, there was slight rustling farther back in the hall, and the assembled great and good, everyone already long in place, shuffled and turned. She had arrived. Frail, attended by two gentlemen, one on either arm, she made her way up the long central aisle—no discreet side entrance for her. The many steps to the special seating area were taken slowly, even painfully so. Every eye in the cavernous hall was fixed upon her. It was a triumphal entry, and Thatcher made her point without speaking a word. At this historic moment, in this historic place, for this historic occasion, some historical distinctions were in order. The former prime ministers constituted a group in which all were not equal. Each may have once been the primus inter pares, but there was only one prima. There was no doubt a certain fraternity among the former PMs; but among the brethren, the Iron Lady stood apart.
At her funeral in St. Paul's Cathedral, Thatcher's status was confirmed by the entrance of another grand prima: Her Majesty the Queen. Queen Elizabeth does not attend funerals as a rule, dispatching the Prince of Wales for that duty, both at home and abroad. So established is the custom that sometimes it is said that the Queen is prohibited from attending funerals, until it is remembered that she did attend the funeral of her first and greatest prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill. But that was Churchill, and Churchill was utterly singular; who else had saved Britain? The Queen's decision, after having skipped the funerals of all the intervening prime ministers, to attend that of Thatcher is indicative of a similar estimation. Churchill saved Britain in wartime. Thatcher did not face global war, but a Britain in steep decline, unable to manage its national finances, unable to grow its economy, unable to ensure the authority of the elected government, unable to dispose of the garbage, unable to bury the dead. The 1979 election slogan of the British Conservatives was "Labour's not working"—neither the incumbent party nor the British working class, who were either unemployed or on strike. Britain was not working either, and it was not at all evident that it would start working again. Mrs. Thatcher stepped in to right the course and stave off utter collapse for at least another three decades. She did save Britain and the Queen knew it, which is why Thatcher earned honours previously reserved for Sir Winston.
It was fitting. Margaret Thatcher entered history long before she died as one of the few leaders who had changed its course, rather than followed its lead. So great was her impact on reversing Britain's terminal decline that she was sometimes given credit or blame for the 1980s themselves. The Daily Telegraph eulogized, "Above all, in America and in Eastern Europe she was regarded, alongside her friend Ronald Reagan, as one of the two great architects of the West's victory in the Cold War."
Leave aside the Cold War for the moment; along with Reagan, Thatcher did change the course of conservatism. In the mid-1970s, conservative politics was not very conservative. Thatcher deposed Ted Heath from the Tory leadership in 1975. Reagan nearly dethroned then President Gerald Ford in 1976 in his bid for the Republican nomination. Heath and Ford were at best men whose conservatism largely extended to making peace with the advances of liberalism. In Canada, conservative politics was dominated by men of the centre-left: Peter Lougheed, Bill Davis, Robert Stanfield, Dalton Camp. That reached its nadir with the arrival of Joe Clark in 1976. Had Clark been slightly less hapless and slightly more conservative, he would have received the big majority Canadians were ready to give him. Louis St. Laurent won a massive majority in 1949, John Diefenbaker an even bigger majority in 1958, and then came Trudeaumania in 1968. Ten year later, another massive majority was on schedule. Had Clark been equal to the moment, his massive majority of 1979 would have prefigured the Thatcher victory in 1979 and the Reagan victory in 1980. In the event, Canada had to wait for its change of course until 1984. The revolution in conservatism in the mid-1970s from accommodating the everexpanding State to attempting to restrain its growth was in large part Thatcher's doing, which is why she was so greatly admired by conservatives far beyond the borders of Great Britain.
Regarding the Cold War, Thatcher did not win it alongside Reagan. That's a step too far. The Cold War was not won by the West from without, but by the heroic witness and cultural resistance of those enslaved populations who insisted upon their freedom. Margaret Thatcher was a partner to Pope John Paul II and Reagan, and given that most other Western leaders had long accepted Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe to be a permanent state of affairs, her role was not without courage or consequence. Yet it should not be overstated. There were pictures hung on the Gdansk shipyards at the birth of Solidarity, but they were of the Mother of God not the Iron Lady.
After the IRA bombed her hotel in an attempt to assassinate her, Thatcher appeared the next morning to state flatly: "All attempts to destroy democracy will fail." She meant that the terrorists would not win, but behind the Iron Curtain, those words also needed to be heard by those who, in the "democratic republics," may have feared that the West had in fact concluded that the democratic promise had failed permanently for them. While Pope John Paul II and the dissidents worked from behind the Iron Curtain, and President Reagan worked from across the Atlantic, Thatcher was critical in securing space for continuing and courageous anti-communism in Western Europe. Western Europe was never procommunist, but by the late 1970s and early 1980s, anti-anti-communism was regnant, and the danger to peace was—in the peace movement's judgment —more likely to come from American resistance to Soviet aggression than from Soviet aggression itself. While Reagan was rebuilding Western military strength, and Pope John Paul II was applying moral force, Thatcher ensured that Western Europe would not take a pass. In her last months in office, she famously told President Bush Sr., on the matter of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, that it "was no time to go wobbly." For most of the 1980s, much of NATO was inclined very much to go wobbly, and the Iron Lady stiffened its spine.
The argument that it was Reagan, John Paul and Thatcher who won the Cold War was made most explicitly in 2008 by a former Thatcher advisor, John O'Sullivan, in his book, The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister. It's a persuasive enough case, but a 2013 book by Christian Caryl, Strange Rebels, makes an even broader case about how the world changed in 1979. I have long argued that in 1979 religion returned with great force as a shaper of geopolitics, with the Ayatollah Khomeini returning to Iran in January and John Paul II visiting Poland for the first time in June. The rise of militant Islam and the defeat of communism followed, which gives us the world we live in today. Caryl supports that argument, and adds that the market reforms of Deng Xiaoping in China and of Thatcher in Britain were a similarly radical force, setting the stage for the globalized economy we have today.
The year 1979 brought religion back to geopolitics and brought markets back, too. In the malaise of the 1970s neither was thought to be the future. Caryl's four titans—Ayatollah Khomeini, John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping—actually displace Ronald Reagan from the pride of place he is usually awarded in such analyses. Perhaps it might be added that if the former pair brought religion back and the latter pair brought markets back, Reagan did a bit of both. But most significantly he brought military power back and thereby broke the back of the Russian bear. One of the critical questions of the 21st century is how the twin forces of religion and global markets will work together—if at all. There are many who see globalized markets as competitor, or undermining rival, to religion, and many more who look to religion for some sort of restraint on the untrammelled market.
Thatcher was serious about her Christian faith, but her occasional forays into public theology were not entirely successful. She had a special disdain for clergy who were too eager to put the faith in service of the prevailing political winds. She thought preachers of the Gospel ought to have at least as much conviction as she did about her political vision. She was proud to call herself a conviction politician, not a consensus one.
Reading history through a Providential lens is both necessary for the Christian believer and fraught, for it is difficult to discern exactly how the finger of God traces His purposes. There is something, though, about the triumvirate of John Paul, Reagan and Thatcher that suggests something more was at work. A Polish pope was even more unlikely than a female prime minister. Reagan had been around national politics for a long time by 1980, but many considered that his best days were behind him. Then came the forces of evil, as all three faced and survived assassination attempts. Only Thatcher's was clearly motivated by political enemies, but evil manifests itself often as madness. It is not delusional to discern that at great moments in history, evil seeks to intervene. If we try to recognize the miraculous in history, we ought to do the same for the malevolent.
In 2010 at Westminster Hall, I imagine that Thatcher would have welcomed Pope Benedict's articulation that there must be fixed principles animating public life, otherwise there is no restraint on the power of the State, and no ultimate protection for liberty. The Holy Father then went on to speak about overseas development, and she likely thought that part a bit wet. She thought that most people were a bit wet. She was likely right about that, but then a world with too many Iron Ladies in it would be less lovely. A world with too few would be lacking in liberty. The former scenario is not a problem. Margaret Thatcher was one of a kind.
J.R. and Johnny Cash
Who really won the Cold War? Not John Paul. Not Reagan. Not Thatcher. Not Solidarity. And certainly not Gorbachev. It was J.R. Ewing. Well, perhaps not J.R. all by himself, but with the rest of the feuding Ewing and Barnes families of Dallas, the prime-time soap opera that first went on the air in 1978. Yes, 1979 changed the world, but first Dallas changed television in 1978. And what first changes on TV will change a world that, above all, is united by watching TV.
You think it foolish to attribute victory in the Cold War to J.R. Ewing? Well, Barbara Kay, my esteemed colleague at the National Post, and Convivium's lecturer in Ottawa last fall, is not foolish, and she thinks so. Upon the death of Larry Hagman last November, the actor who played J.R. Ewing in every single episode of Dallas from 1978 to 1991 and who returned in 2012 for the revival of Dallas on the TNT network, Barbara Kay was full-throated in her assessment of the importance of Dallas:
"The Shah of Iran had just died. Russia was hosting the Olympics. Linda Ronstadt was starring in The Pirates of Penzance. Sony had just come out with a cute new little gadget called a Walkman. And what was the question on everyone's lips? Who shot J.R.? Nobody of my own or my children's generation needs any further explanation, but for any quizzical whippersnappers under the age of 40, the question refers, of course, to the central character of the insanely popular TV series Dallas (1978-1991): smarmily villainous oil baron J.R. Ewing, who was shot by an unseen (would-be) assassin in a cliffhanger ending to the show's 1980 season.â€¦ Larry Hagman, who played J.R., died 10 days ago, spurring innumerable fond reminiscences of Dallas and its amazing international popularity. And by international I don't just mean North America and Europe. In 1991, a Bedouin tribe delayed its annual trek across the Sahara so the tribe's elders wouldn't miss Dallas' concluding episode. My friend in Israel wrote me that, 'all social life in Israel came to a halt around Dallas,' recalling hurrying home to see it and hearing, through every open window, the familiar opening musical theme, "DAH da DAH da DAH da da DAH da DAH da DAH da da DAAAAAH.â€¦"
"In my defense," continues an only mildly defensive Kay, "I have to say that although J.R. was a two-timing, conniving sleazebag, the series maintained certain decency standards. No profanity ever crossed anyone's lips. And we might see J.R. ushering his latest adulterous partner into a hotel room with a Cheshire-cat grin, but the next shot would be the two of them lolling contentedly in bed, the sheets pulled up to their chins. Quaint by today's standards."
Serious people could watch Dallas because it was geopolitically important. So Kay argues: "In the 1980s, for example, Dallas was the last show from the West that Romania's communist tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu permitted to air. Apparently, he thought Romanians would be turned off by the association of capitalism with J.R.'s despicable character. Instead, Hagman became a revered symbol of individual enterprise to oppressed Romanians. From their avid devotion to the show, capitalism took on a 'cool' image. Hagman credited Dallas with helping to end the Ceausescu regime in 1989. Not so outlandish, considering that afterward the Romanians built a replica of Southfork—"Southforkscu"—in the show's honour, which Hagman declared on a visit to be identical to the Dallas set."
Actually, it is a more than a bit outlandish to attribute to Dallas that historical impact. But Barbara Kay is a most insightful cultural commentator, and such species often find insight in the most unlikely places. I am sympathetic, for I too was captured by Dallas, although I only knew it sporadically as my parents were sensible enough not to permit us to watch it, or much else for that matter. The appeal of Dallas was J.R. It's no secret that every drama needs a villain, but J.R. was a special kind. He was villainous to be sure, and his villainy was all the greater because we knew he chose it. He did not fall into bad company or onto hard times. He was a rich son of a good family, but he chose to be wicked. Choosing wickedness is what makes sin sinful, and Dallas never presented J.R. as anything other than the wicked man who prospers and has a devilishly good time doing so.
The writers of Dallas, perhaps unwittingly, realized that the ancient Biblical question fascinates man in every age: Why do the wicked prosper? It turns out in the TV age the question does not have to be answered; instead, a vast audience desires simply to luxuriate in the prosperity.
It was not J.R. who fascinated as much as it was Larry Hagman playing J.R. He was not a particularly attractive man by Hollywood standards, but his eyes danced and his smile was always at the ready. He played J.R. with a certain joy, and that sustained his character for more than 30 years on television. Joy is the sign of God's presence, a gift of the Holy Spirit. Saint Paul commands Christians to rejoice always in the Lord. There are a few souls who seem to find joy—perhaps continuing if not enduring—in things very far from the Lord. J.R. was one such, and he held our attention as something that should not be. Of course, in reality J.R. and his ilk very rarely are. Sin brings its own consequences, and evil brings its own destruction even if, for a time, the wicked prosper.
The J.R. who more captured my heart—even though I confess, alongside Barbara Kay, to watching Dallas in its recent reincarnation—was the real J.R., not the fake one. On February 26, 1932, Ray Cash and his wife, Carrie, had their third son. Ray wanted his boy named after himself. Carrie wanted to name him John. They couldn't agree, so they named him J.R. Cash. Only as an adult, when the military bureaucracy demanded of him a name, did J.R. Cash take the name Johnny.
Johnny Cash answered the Biblical question a different way. He knew that the prosperity of the wicked brought with it great pain, and he experienced both. He knew that life was messy and the path to holiness was difficult. He knew above all that being a follower of Jesus Christ was not the easy path but the worthy one, and that in the end it is not the wicked man who prospers but the apparently weak man on the Cross. His parents gave him the name J.R. He came to live his life not so much as a musician but as a disciple of J.C.—Jesus Christ.
All of this came to mind while recently reading a biography—the authorized one—of Johnny Cash by Steve Turner. Published in 2004 under the title The Man Called Cash, it somehow escaped my attention until now. I picked it up in preparation for the 10th anniversary of Johnny Cash's death this fall. He died on September 12, 2003. Although I didn't know it at the time, his death was an important moment in my own career. When Johnny Cash died, I wrote a column about him that stands up pretty well today:
"Most of pop music today is deliberately twodimensional, manufactured (it is the right word) as it is for television and the Internet. Cash was a full-bodied, three-dimensional songwriter who wrote about full-bodied, three-dimensional people whose lives required a soundtrack of rather more depth than could be provided by, say, Jennifer Lopez, to take a current Top 40 star. Johnny Cash was a real man (U2's Bono said of him that he had the 'most male voice in Christendom') who sang about the real lives of real people. Part of his relentless realism was no doubt due to his Christian faith, which he took seriously even when falling short of its demands. Cash said once that his most prized possession was his mother's Bible, and Biblical faith is realistic. The Biblical world—which is the real world—is full of angels and demons and the struggles of man to 'walk the line,' if one might adapt Cash's biggest hit. Sin and wickedness and death inhabit the Biblical world, and need to be conquered by God's grace. Johnny Cash did not emote about an inner child in need of Oprahfication. Inside the man in black raged the beast. 'The beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars,' he wrote in a recent eponymous song about his struggles to live virtuously. 'Restless by day, and by night rants and rages at the stars.' 'Every morning I wake up and the beast is howling,' he commented once in an interview. 'So I have to pray and dedicate that day to God, and then the beast lays low.' Cash had a robust sense of the evil that sometimes lurks in the heart of man, and the terrible consequences it wreaks in the world. He was acutely alert to the suffering of the left-behind, the overlooked, and the plain ol' down and out. But being a man of Christian faith and hope, he firmly believed that redemption was always possible. Because he wrote and sang of that drama—the great drama in which every human life is lived—his songs remained far more relevant than the constant fluff churned out by the hit factories about love without sacrifice and life without pain."
In the world of J.R. Cash, the wicked did not prosper. J.R. Ewing may have gone into the night with a tip of his Stetson, a twinkle in his eye and a new woman on his arm, but J.R. Cash went into the night raging against the beasts.
At the time of Cash's death, I had recently returned from Rome and was just getting to know our new archbishop in Kingston, Anthony Meagher. Archbishop Meagher, who had been diagnosed in 2002 with cancer and would die in 2007, was somewhat suspicious of my writing, which he did not really understand. He would refer to my columns as "letters to the editor," which, because he was kindly and affable, I chose to consider charming. Over the years he would occasionally object to this or that that I had written, and wondered why I bothered with it at all. But he loved that Johnny Cash column. Even when expressing his displeasure with one thing or the other I had done, he would always remark how much he loved the Johnny Cash column. It may have been the most important column I ever wrote, for it earned me the indulgence of my archbishop at a critical time in my development as a writer. That Johnny Cash would prove helpful to me would have pleased him, I would like to think, a favour rendered by one preacher to another, for that is what Cash was.
Ten years before he died, Cash recorded a song written by Bono, "The Preacher," which was eventually released as "The Wanderer." It was inspired by Ecclesiastes.
"Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books," Bono explained. "It's a book about a character who wants to find out why he's alive, why he was created. He tries knowledge. He tries wealth. He tries experience. He tries everything. You hurry to the end of the book to find out why, and it says, 'It's good to work.' 'Remember your Creator.' In a way, it's such a letdown. Yet it isn't. There's something of Johnny Cash in that."
Yes, there was something of the preacher in Johnny Cash. More than just a bit of the preacher. The line that most pleased Archbishop Meagher, suffering from cancer at the time, was that "Cash's songs were written for a world in which skin wrinkles." That is the answer to the Biblical question. For the wicked do prosper, but eventually even J.R. Ewing's twinkling eyes and ten-gallon hat can't hide the wrinkles, the decay, the impending loss of all those vanities that remain just that, vain.
"As with many legends in popular music, it's not easy to say exactly what made Cash great," wrote Turner. "He never became a great guitarist, his voice had a limited range, and his lyrics veered between poetry and doggerel. But the combination of that voice, those words, and that guitar far exceeded the greatness of any one element. He was a presence, a form of energy, a vehicle for truth." The truth Johnny Cash taught was that he was the real J.R. He knew poverty and pain and sin, and found wealth and peace and discipleship. He found love. That's even a better story than Dallas. Larry Hagman said of his signature role, "It's fun to play the villain." Indeed, it is, and it was for a very long time. It is even better to be the one who leaves pretend villainy behind for authentic holiness. J.R. Ewing was imaginary. J.R. Cash was real. That's the good news.
Jason Collins and Sex in the NBA
I don't follow the National Basketball Association that closely, so when Jason Collins appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in my mailbox, I did not know who he was. But I knew he was gay, as that was what the cover story was about—Collins as the first openly gay player in the four major professional sports leagues: the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB. It's odd not knowing anything about someone except his sexual orientation, as if that somehow made the measure of a man. It's also odd that one discloses such personal matters in an exclusive magazine cover story.