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Reagan and Thatcher, Cameron and Obama

Ted Bromund’s post about the cringe-producing exchange of jokes between President Obama and British Prime Minister Cameron reminded me — in a contrasting way — of the exchange between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher 31 years ago, at a dinner at the British Embassy that capped Thatcher’s February 1980 Washington trip. She was the first foreign visitor during the Reagan administration; Reagan was in his first month and Thatcher in her first year.

The toasts were included in the batch of documents released last year by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, after the required 30-year delay. The exchange featured a good deal of historical humor, and a historical courage that can be more fully appreciated from our vantage point, three decades later. Here are excerpts from the toasts, followed by the concluding portion of Obama’s toast this week to Cameron:

[The Prime Minister]: Mr. President, an earlier visitor to the United States, Charles Dickens, described our American friends as by nature frank, brave, cordial, hospitable, and affectionate. That seems to me, Mr. President, to be a perfect description of the man who has been my host for the last 48 hours. (Applause.) …

Charles Dickens, like me, also visited Capitol Hill. He described the congressmen he met there as “striking to look at, hard to deceive, prompt to act, lions in energy, Americans in strong and general impulse.” Having been there and agreeing with Dickens as I do, I’m delighted to see so many Members of Congress here this evening. And if Dickens was right, relations between the legislative and executive branches should be smooth indeed over the next four years. After all, “prompt to act and lions in energy” should mean, Mr. President, you’ll get that expenditure cutting program through very easily indeed. (Laughter. Applause.) …

California, of course, has always meant a great deal to my countrymen from the time, almost exactly 400 years ago, when one of our greatest national heroes, Sir Francis Drake, proclaimed it New Albion in keeping with the bravado of the Elizabethan Age. This feeling of community and curiosity that we have about California exists in the present age when another of our household names made his career there, one of the greatest careers in show business. I refer to Mr. Bob Hope, who is here this evening, and whom we like to claim is partly ours because he was born in the United Kingdom, though he decided to leave when he was only four years old. (Laughter.) …

I hope you didn’t feel ill at ease as you came up the stairs and passed under the gaze of George III. (Laughter.) I can assure you that we British have long since come to see that George was wrong and that Thomas Jefferson was right when he wrote to James Madison that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” (Laughter.) …

It’s not the time, Mr. President, for me to talk at any length about the relations between our two countries except to say that they are profoundly and deeply right. And beyond that, we perhaps don’t have to define them in detail. …

There will, of course, be times, Mr. President, when yours perhaps is the loneliest job in the world, times when you need what one of my great friends in politics once called “two o’clock in the morning courage.” There will be times when you go through rough water. There will be times when the unexpected happens. There will be times when only you can make a certain decision. It is at that time when you need the two o’clock in the morning courage. … And what it requires is a knowledge on your part that whatever decision you make you have to stick with the consequences and see it through until it be well and truly finished. …

I want to say this to you, Mr. President, that when those moments come, we here in this room, on both sides of the Atlantic, have in you total faith that you will make the decision which is right for protecting the liberty of common humanity in the future. You will make that decision that we as partners in the English-speaking world know that, as Wordsworth wrote, “We must be free or die who speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake.”

[The President]: Bob Hope will know what I mean when I speak in the language of my previous occupation and say you are a hard act to follow. (Laughter. Applause.) … And may I say that I do know something about that “two o’clock courage,” but I also know that you have already shown that two o’clock courage on too many occasions to name. (Applause.) …

[Y]ou know, Prime Minister, that we have a habit of quoting Winston Churchill. Tell me, is it possible to get through a public address today in Britain without making reference to him? It is increasingly difficult to do so here, not just because we Americans share some pride in his ancestry, but because there’s so much to learn from him, his fearlessness, and I don’t just mean physical courage. I mean he was, for instance, unafraid to laugh. I can remember words attributed to Churchill about one somber, straight-laced colleague in Parliament. Churchill said, “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” (Laughter.) …

When he addressed Parliament in the darkest moments after Dunkirk, Churchill dared to promise the British their finest hour and even reminded them that they would someday enjoy, quote, “the bright, sunlit uplands,” unquote, from which the struggle against Hitler would be seen as only a bad memory. Well, Madam Prime Minister, you and I have heard our share of somber assessments and dire predictions in recent months. I do not refer here to the painful business of ending our economic difficulties. We know that with regard to the economies of both our countries we will be home safe and soon enough.

I do refer, however, to those adversaries who preach the supremacy of the state. We’ve all heard the slogans, the end of the class struggle, the vanguard of the proletariat, the wave of the future, the inevitable triumph of socialism. Indeed, if there’s anything the Marxist-Leninists might not be forgiven for it is their willingness to bog the world down in tiresome cliches, cliches that rapidly are being recognized for what they are, a gaggle of bogus prophecies and petty superstitions. … I wonder if you and I and other leaders of the West should not now be looking toward bright, sunlit uplands and begin planning for a world where our adversaries are remembered only for their role in a sad and rather bizarre chapter in human history.

The British people, who nourish the great civilized ideas, know the forces of good ultimately rally and triumph over evil. That, after all, is the legend of the Knights of the Round Table, the legend of the man who lived on Baker Street, the story of London in the Blitz, the meaning of the Union Jack snapping briskly in the wind. Madam Prime Minister, I’ll make one further prediction, that the British people are once again about to pay homage to their beloved Sir Winston by doing him the honor of proving him wrong and showing the world that their finest hour is yet to come, and how he would have loved the irony of that. How proud it would have made him.

At the beginning of his administration, Obama returned Churchill’s bust to Britain, insulted its prime minister on his trip to Washington (with no state dinner nor even a full-blown press conference), gave him a demeaning set of DVDs for a gift, and stayed silent as a State Department official explained “there’s nothing special about Britain. You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world. You shouldn’t expect special treatment.”

This week, in his toast at the state dinner for Cameron, Obama did not mention Reagan or Thatcher, or what they achieved together. He did, however, mention Churchill:

So, in closing, let me just say that I intended to make history tonight. I thought that I could be the first American President to make it through an entire visit of our British friends without quoting Winston Churchill. (Laughter.) But then I saw this great quote and I thought, “Come on, this is Churchill!” (Laughter.) So I couldn’t resist.

It was December 1941, and the attack on Pearl Harbor had finally thrust America into war, alongside our British friends. And these were the words Sir Winston spoke to his new American partners: “I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honor to be the faithful servants.”

And so I’d like to propose a toast:  To Her Majesty the Queen, on her Diamond Jubilee; to our dear friends, David and Samantha; and to the great purpose and design of our alliance. May we remain, now and always, its faithful servants. Cheers, everyone.

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