Sarah Palin as a New Ms.Thatcher? Come on!

055/365 | Mikhail Gorbachev Caricature | Proje...Mikhail Gorbachev caricatureImage by myoldpostcards via Flickr
The other day, I attended the launching in Italy of the Italian translation of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, a brave attempt at historical analysis by John O'Sullivan, a British conservative journalist and political commentator at large. The title is a good one and the book tries to identify the role played by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II in the fall of the Soviet Union (for those interested, I've reproduced below the marketing blurb for the book published by Regnery Publishing in 2006)

The event went smoothly until someone asked Mr. O'Sullivan what major current political personalities he saw that might play a similar role today in the "fight against Islamism and the growing secularization of our society". Aside from the fact that I would never have formulated the major issues of our time in those terms - a point Mr. O'Sullivan failed to note - the political figures he proposed were simply ludicrous.

One was Tony Abbot, an Australian politician, leader of the opposition party and climate change skeptic. As nobody follows Australian politics in Italy, that left the audience feeling cool and indifferent. But when he mentioned the other, Sarah Palin, there was a murmur of disbelief. When he underlined her moral role, a couple of people left (I was one of them).

Really, Sarah Palin as a new Ms. Thatcher? As a moral figure to fight Islam and resuscitate Christian faith?  I've never thought of Sarah Palin as a model mother - remember what happened to her 17 year-old daughter who got pregnant? -  or as someone who knew anything about societal issues and international politics. 

This incident made me reflect that perhaps Mr. O'Sullivan's approach to recent history is profoundly wrong. How can you attribute the fall of the Soviet Empire to the Pope, the British Prime Minister and the American President? Surely Russia's last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, with his new policy of perestroika and related radical reforms launched in 1986, had a lot more to do with it! True, Gorbachev established exceptionally good relations with Reagan and Thatcher and was full of admiration for the Pope whom he viewed as a moral force. But what happened in Russia had to do with what he and his entourage did.

More than that, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it was the result of a long series of events, started in the 1970s under Leonid Brejnev, including economic stagnation and the unsustainable cost of military expenditures imposed by the Cold War. The implosion of the Soviet Union was an event coming from inside - that is the very meaning of implosion - and it had little to do with Mr. O'Sullivan's beloved threesome. There is no doubt that the Pope, Thatcher and Reagan were part of outside events that created a climate favourable to the Soviet Union collapse, but bottom line, an implosion is just that: an implosion and nothing else. That it happened without bloodshed is only natural. Indeed, Gorbachev is little liked in Russia where a lot of people see him as the primary cause of the demise of the Soviet Empire. Actually, the real story of the fall of the Soviet Union has yet to be written.

All this made me realize how difficult it is to write recent history. Mr. O'Sullivan who worked for Ms Thatcher and wrote her speeches is much too close to her to see her clearly. It is a fact that she started to dismantle the welfare state - a job Mr. Cameron is busy finishing off now. She launched deregulation and started privatizing national public services, and her friend Reagan had a similar role in launching an unbridled and extreme form of capitalism. Unfortunately, as we now know, it led, inter alia, to financial hubris on Wall Street that was the direct cause of the ongoing Great Recession.So Mrs Tatcher's heritage is not quite as positive as Mr. O'Sullivan would like to believe.  Beyond that, it raises the fundamental question Tolstoy asked in a fascinating epilogue  to his War and Peace: who or what really makes History, "great men" (he was thinking of Napoleon) or "the people" with perhaps a "great force" behind them (he was thinking of God)?

That of course is a question that would require more than a blog to explore. But it certainly makes books like O'Sullivan's seem like futile efforts that merely reflect the author's political views and have little to do with understanding "the course of History". 

Marketing Blurb from the Publisher of 
The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister
by John O'Sullivan

Regnery Publishing, Inc.; ISBN: 1596980168
Hardcover - 448 pages (October 2006)

They Changed the Course of History

They were three “middle managers” no one imagined could reach the top.

Ronald Reagan was too old to be president—and too conservative anyway. Margaret Thatcher was not only too conservative—she was a woman, and not on anyone’s short list to lead Britain’s Conservative Party. And the idea of a Polish pope—that was truly absurd, especially when the cardinal in question was a strong anti-Communist and defender of orthodoxy when many in the Church and throughout the world believed the future belonged to d├ętente with the Soviets and social liberalism in the West.

Not only did Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Karol Wojtyla (the future John Paul II) rise to the top, but all three of them also survived assassination attempts, collaborated in the miraculous peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet Communism, and reinvigorated their respective countries and the West. They were beacons of optimism cutting through the malaise and despair that afflicted 1970s America, strike-ridden and economically moribund post-imperial Britain, and a Catholic Church rocked by social and sexual revolutions.

In The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, veteran journalist and former Thatcher speechwriter John O’Sullivan reveals:
  • How Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul developed as strong and individual leaders, perfectly suited to take power when liberalism failed How John Paul’s papal visit to Poland in June 1979 led to the birth of the Solidarity labor union
  • How the pope’s moral undermining of Communism worried the Soviet Politburo more than any military threat
  • Why Thatcher’s handling of the Falklands crisis was a turning point in the Cold War
  • How Reagan arranged for the pope to receive U.S. intelligence on developments in the Soviet bloc
  • Reagan’s reluctant support for the nuclear “balance of terror”—and how he gratefully adopted the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as an effective alternative
  • The Soviets’ attempts to lure the pope into an anti-SDI campaign—and his refusal
  • How Reagan’s refusal to compromise with Gorbachev in Reykjavik precipitated the unraveling of Soviet power
  • How Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II restored optimism and hope to their people
Today, as we face a new and perhaps even deadlier enemy than Soviet Communism, we need to revisit the powerful lessons taught by these three great leaders who revived the faith, prosperity, and freedom of the West.
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