By Edward Pentin
ROME, DEC. 23, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were well known for their tenacious and principled leadership that, according to many historians, combined to help defeat Soviet communism.
But what can we learn from them today, and who are their contemporary equivalents?
Last week, I put these and other questions to John O’Sullivan, a former Thatcher advisor and author of the bestseller, “The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister” -- a book that argues the case for their role in ending the Cold War.
In Rome to launch the Italian edition of his book, he said one of their most important characteristics was that they were “messengers of hope." More than just optimistic, he said Mrs. Thatcher was someone “who recognized that an element in hope is effort” and it was necessary to embark on projects in a hopeful way. “Of course you rely on the grace of God,” he said, “but you have to do something, and I think all three of them were in that frame of mind.”
The alliance between Lady Thatcher, then a pro-choice Methodist, and John Paul II was by no means a foregone conclusion. President Reagan, O’Sullivan said, was responsible for bringing them together. But he added that the former British Prime Minister’s views on abortion never caused her problems in her dealings with John Paul II because “she wasn’t claiming to hold these views in good conscience as a Catholic.” The Vatican, he said, was also “on her side” concerning other policies.
On abortion, he said she never fully accepted the pro-life argument, but rather had “conventional, middle class, Anglican views." She thought it “a bad thing but might be necessary in certain circumstances” and “didn’t really like it as an issue in politics,” he said.
A practicing Catholic, O’Sullivan remembered that he and others tried to maker her change her stance, telling her she could have survived easily by taking a stronger position. “But then of course she would have had to have thought seriously about this, which I don’t think she ever really did until later,” he said. He lamented that today “very few” European politicians will strongly defend the unborn. “It’s an extraordinary thing,” he said.
Fascinating observations O’Sullivan makes in his book are the role of providence and how much the three leaders held in common: No one imagined, for instance, they could reach the top yet they went on to collaborate to end the Cold War, each after surviving assassination attempts. It’s well known those close encounters gave impetus to John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, who believed they’d been saved for a great purpose.
But did Margaret Thatcher feel the same way? O’Sullivan once asked her that question, to which she replied “no.” “I asked her why and she said: 'Well, five people died that night, why would I be singled out? They were friends of mine,'” O’Sullivan recounted. “That was a nice human response”
“She went on to say it would be very inglorious of her to think that God was stepping in to do her a favor,” he added, and attributed that attitude to her Methodist background. “But that of course is the wrong way of thinking about it -- she might have been being saved for some great trial.”
A few years ago, when visiting John Paul II’s tomb, Lady Thatcher exuberantly told her accompanying party how instrumental the late Pope was in bringing down communism. I asked if that perhaps implied she didn’t see herself also as key to its downfall. “Although now an Anglican she's very Methodist in her attitudes,” O’Sullivan said. “Methodists are very much against getting above yourself, and so on. She does recognize she was a great prime minister, that people have come to regard her as a great prime minister and she's proud of that, but in an acceptable and legitimate way.”
Asked if he could think of anyone comparable to her and Reagan in politics today, O’Sullivan said it’s impossible to know until they take power, and that no one person can be a true equivalent. But he did single out three leaders still alive or actively engaged in politics who fit the mould: Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore to independence and served as its first prime minister, Tony Abbot, leader of Australia’s center-right liberal party, whom he describes as “a tremendous figure," and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s current prime minister.
But today’s leaders face a very different world, afflicted by Islamist terrorism and a global economic crisis. O’Sullivan believes that until the financial crash of 2008, political leaders were oblivious to the sources of the prosperity and creativity that preceded it. But he attributes those prosperous times down to the end of the Cold War, and in particular, Reagan, Thatcher and John Paul II who “laid the foundations."
As to the how those leaders would deal with the terrorist threat, O’Sullivan, now executive editor of Radio Free Europe, believes it has to be fought on all fronts, but current leaders have yet to find an effective way of doing this.
The reason, he believes, is that they have “been shaped by sets of ideas in which they don't really have confidence in Western society and its Christian roots.”
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A book of a different kind, though no less worthy, is “Benedict XVI and Blessed John Henry Newman” -- the official record of the Pope’s state visit to Britain in September.
Already about to undergo its third printing, the book is a thorough recollection and attractive souvenir of the Holy Father’s memorable visit, packed with 250 pictures on 208 pages. It’s edited by Peter Jennings, the veteran journalist and press secretary to Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham. Jennings also edited the commemorative book of John Paul II’s visit to Britain in 1982.
The book is much more than just pictures: As well as every papal discourse, it contains reflections from all the major figures involved, including Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster; Lord Patten, the government’s chief organizer of the trip; Francis Campbell, Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See; and Deacon Jack Sullivan whose miraculous healing was crucial to Blessed Cardinal Newman's beatification cause.
Jennings said he wanted to obtain their “immediate reaction," rather like the Gospel accounts. “You can ask someone for their recollection six months or a year later, but it's not as fresh or as sharp,” he said. “That's why we got these and I am absolutely thrilled that everyone, except for one person, responded.”
That exception was Dr. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, who possibly declined because of sensitivities over the Ordinariate. “My wife is Anglican and I have a great love for, and understanding of, the Anglican Communion, so I was disappointed he didn't respond,” Jennings said. But he hopes Dr. Williams will reconsider and contribute something to the third edition. (His predecessor, Dr. Robert Runcie, contributed to his 1982 book).
Jennings has many happy memories of Pope Benedict’s truly historic visit, though more than the great state occasions, what he most fondly remembers was an impromptu walkabout the Holy Father made in a poor council estate in London. “Instead of getting in his car, he went with Archbishop Peter Smith and began walking down the road. The security people were going crazy, but he was meeting all the council tenants down the road -- it was absolutely brilliant, I thought it was a fantastic moment,” he said, pointing to photographs of it in the book.
A keen cricket fan, Jennings summed up the successful visit with an apposite analogy. “The Pope played outstanding innings,” he said. “He came in, he timed the ball to perfection and swung it for six.”