10 Nov 2014

When it came to Ronald Reagan, the Iron Lady was a pussycat

I was covering the US invasion of Grenada for ITN. As I made my way to the White House for President Reagan’s unexpected news conference, I already had ringing in my ears Mrs Thatcher’s condemnation of America’s failure to inform Britain of what they were doing on a British Commonwealth island.

I say “ringing in my ears” because the briefing from number 10 was that Prime Minister Thatcher was incandescent, and more than annoyed, with Mr Reagan’s failure to call her personally to inform her of what he was doing.

Briefly, there had been a coup in Grenada – a consequence of internecine rivalry between the left-wing prime minister, Maurice Bishop, and the equally left-wing Bernard Cord, who held another prominent cabinet post.

But lurking at one end of the tiny Caribbean island was not only an American medical school, but a large bunch of Cuban workers who were building a large runway to boost the island’s economy.

That’s not how the Americans saw it. Cold war paranoia led them to believe that this was a Soviet plot in which the Cubans were being facilitated to build a Caribbean runway to take Russian Bear bombers.

So that as I sat down to listen to President Reagan, I was fully aware that he had had a handbagging from Mrs T.

Imagine my excitement upon learning that there were tapes of this furious conversation between prime minister and president. Save that when you hear it, the redoubtable Mrs Thatcher hardly gets a word in – and when she does, she’s a positive pussycat. She ends the conversation, not with a “Damn you, Mr President! Don’t do it again!” but with “How’s Nancy? Give her my love.”

(Reagan Library/Margaret Thatcher Foundation)

You sense Ronnie is trying to remember Mrs Thatcher’s husband’s name. But suffice it to say Denis doesn’t get her love. And so far as one can tell, there was absolutely no row.

What a glorious thing a tape recording is. It completely turns the first take of history on its head. Let’s hope there are many more.

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