Margaret Thatcher charmed throng in 1997 visit to Pittsburgh


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It was the perfect match: When former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, tireless apostle of free markets and non-wobbly anti-communism, delivered a lecture in Pittsburgh to the Pennsylvania Institute of Certified Public Accountants on Sept. 24, 1997, the ecstasy was palpable.

"In our industry, we deal with capitalists and conservatives, so you could say she was extremely well-received," said James Foutz, a Uniontown accountant who chaired the organization's Distinguished Lecturer Banquet Committee that year.

She was seven years out of office, thriving on the lecture circuit, collecting honorary degrees and titles. (On this trip, she was Lady Thatcher; by the time she died Monday at 87, she was a baroness.)

At the Pittsburgh Hilton, Mrs. Thatcher enthralled the audience of 1,100 accountants from top firms and their clients, mostly bankers and lawyers, with a speech extolling the virtues of tax reduction, less government regulation and Christian values -- at one point she wondered why prayer wasn't allowed in the schools in the United States.

Tony O'Reilly, then chairman of Heinz Co., had sent his private plane to New York to pick up Mrs. Thatcher after she arrived on the Concorde, and Mr. Foutz and his wife, Joan, met her at the airport.

"We'd heard she liked to bond with the host couple, so we spent our time in the car talking about education -- my wife was a teacher, as was Mrs. Thatcher," Mr. Foutz recalled.

By evening's end, she was asking for -- and received -- the Hilton chef's recipe for mushroom soup.

"She said she and her husband, Denis, liked to eat simply in the evenings, a lot of soup," Mr. Foutz said, "but when she looked at the recipe she said, 'This is for 1,200 people!' "

The former prime minister wasn't above using her gender for humor, either, he said. "I told her that President Bill Clinton was coming to Pittsburgh the next day, and wouldn't she like to stay a bit longer so she could meet him? And she told me thank you very much, but she had a hair appointment."

Connie Eads, then president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the accountants group, recalled that she was nervous about introducing the former prime minister and spending the dinner next to her on the podium.

"I was trembling in my shoes, wondering what would I do to keep up a conversation with a world leader, but she was a joy," Ms. Eads said.

There was some political talk, of President Ronald Reagan, her great friend, and she addressed rumors that she didn't really like his successor George H.W. Bush all that much, said Ms. Eads, now CFO of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.

"She told me, 'I don't know where those stories started. I respected him so much, he was so intelligent.' "

Mrs. Thatcher had an additional observation, however.

"She said Bush 'really never got over being vice president.' I think she thought he was capable of being a greater president than he was."

After discussing politics a bit, the two women pivoted onto more personal subjects, sharing stories about their families and the difficulties of raising children, whether running a country or working as an accountant.

"She really didn't like her daughter's boyfriend, a ski instructor," Ms. Eads recalled. "And we talked of our mutual regret about giving up the piano."

The two even slipped off the podium together to go to the ladies room, much to the consternation of the Scotland Yard detectives accompanying Mrs. Thatcher.

"That caused a little tizzy. She just disappeared," Mr. Foutz said with a laugh.

Not everyone in the audience was a numbers cruncher.

Alberta Sbragia, a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on British politics and the European Union, was pleasantly surprised when, during a question-and-answer session after the speech, Mrs. Thatcher defended Britain's National Health Service and the importance of government's role in health care.

"I think the person who asked her about the National Health Service expected her to lambaste it, and she defended it instead," Ms. Sbragia said.

Mrs. Thatcher's leadership was divisive, if transformational, and Ms. Sbragia said she has tried to give her Pitt students a sense of the economic crisis Britain was facing when Mrs. Thatcher became the first female prime minister in 1979. She has shown students documentaries from a CNN series on the Cold War, when Mrs. Thatcher visited the shipyards of Gdansk, Poland, in a display of support for Solidarity, the first trade union in a Warsaw Pact country that wasn't controlled by the Communist Party.

On the other hand, Mrs. Thatcher broke the British unions, who were widely perceived to have a stranglehold on the economy.

"It's complicated," Ms. Sbragia said. "It's hard to recapture those times. I tell them that the '80s in Britain were like the '60s in the U.S."

Former Pennsylvania Gov. and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh wasn't at the Hilton the night Mrs. Thatcher gave her speech, but his office worked closely with her government on numerous issues, including the investigation and prosecution of Libyan terrorists who bombed Pan Am Flight 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland.

A Soviet journalist once dubbed her "the Iron Lady," a label that stuck, but Mr. Thornburgh penned a tribute that was published Monday in The Guardian that compared her to Winston Churchill and Sir Thomas More, calling her "a woman for all seasons" for her candor, courage and consistency.

Mr. Thornburgh had his own evening with Mrs. Thatcher, a small dinner at the British Embassy in 1990.

Former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp was there, too, Mr. Thornburgh recalled, "because he was interested to hear her views on economic development," as he was U.S. secretary of housing and urban development at the time. "After he was seated next to her, we joked that Jack was to the right of Mrs. Thatcher."

At that small dinner, Mr. Thornburgh said, there was no trace of ego, "no long monologue. She was interested in exchanges with us. She was charming, able and astute."


Correction, posted April 9, 2013: This version has been updated to reflect the late Jack Kemp's correct role in Congress -- he was in the House of Representatives -- and add his Cabinet role.

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Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. First Published April 9, 2013 4:00 AM


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