The Renaissance artist and adventurer Benvenuto Cellini wrote in his autobiography, with an accustomed lack of modesty, about his role in a battle against the pope's enemies at the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome:
"I strove to achieve the impossible; let it suffice that it was I who saved the castle that morning. . . . If I were to relate in detail all the splendid things I did . . . I should make the world stand by and wonder."
Cellini was a more accomplished memoirist than Margaret Thatcher, but nonetheless finds his modern counterpart in the former British prime minister. On page 10 of her memoirs, "The Downing Street Years," Lady Thatcher recalls a remark made by one of her predecessors, William Pitt the Elder: "I know that I can save this country and that no one else can." To which she adds: "If I am honest, I must admit that my exhilaration came from a similar inner conviction."
She has used this memoir, overlong at 862 pages of text, to try both to justify her assessment of herself and to settle scores with her enemies. It is an extraordinarily spiteful book, one that will not serve to enhance the remarkable reputation that she acquired in office.
Throughout her account of the 11 1/2 years that she headed the British government, Mrs. Thatcher repeatedly makes clear her conviction that not only is she right on virtually every issue that came before her but also that anyone who disagreed was not merely wrong but somehow traitorous.
Some of her comments, both in the book and in British television interviews she has given to promote it, contain unconscious and hilarious ironies. For example, she says of one Cabinet minister: "I suspect he thought that he had become indispensable -- a dangerous illusion for a politician." And in a TV interview, she decries the "vanity" of her enemies.
Her principal enemies, as everyone knows by now, were not the ineffectual leaders of the opposition Labor Party -- Michael Foot and then Neil Kinnock. She actually has words of praise for Mr. Foot. The real enemies were within her own Conservative Party, especially within the Cabinet she chose herself. It never occurs to her to acknowledge that, if the men she appointed to head the departments of government were flawed, this reflected a failing of judgment on her part.
The vitriol and skewed personal viewpoint aside, however, Mrs. Thatcher has a point. When she came to office, Britain was a nation in decline, and the men around her had, to some extent, been accomplices in that decline.
She was a mold-breaker, and to achieve her goal of turning the nation around, she had to challenge the accepted wisdom of her own party as well as its opponents. Whether this task required someone of her bullying nature, it did necessarily involve her in clashes with many of her ministers and led in the end to her dismissing large numbers of them from office, or demoting them.
Given the fact that she has relentlessly sought to undermine her successor, John Major, she is far kinder to him in the book than many might have expected. At various points she assesses him as "drifting with the tide" intellectually, wobbly and "not at ease with large ideas and strategies." Yet in the end she favored him for the succession -- perhaps less for his own qualities than for the fact that he was the man most likely to defeat the hated Michael Heseltine.
Her most savage comments are reserved for Lord Howe, whose resignation speech in 1990 set the stage for her downfall a short time later. She refers to that speech as an "act of bile and treachery" and makes clear that in the months leading up to it the personal antipathy between them was total.
For all her accomplishments, the great tragedy of Margaret Thatcher is that, to this day, she has failed to recognize that her fall from office was to a large extent of her own making. Her style of leadership provoked enmity, and she reaped its reward. In the end, her party and her country were simply tired of her, and rightly or wrongly, most of her Cabinet judged that she could not win the next election.
She might have accepted that with grace. But she is deeply embittered and persists in portraying her downfall as the result of a conspiracy by men who masked their wicked designs by pretending to offer "frank advice and concern for my fate."
For American readers, some of the most interesting passages contain her observations on the presidents and other U.S. officials with whom she worked. Even though she sometimes disagreed with President Ronald Reagan on strategic arms issues, her praise for him is lavish. That may be due in part to the fact that, when they did disagree, she usually won him around to her point of view, as she makes clear.
Jimmy Carter and George Bush come off less well in her estimation. Mr. Carter had "no large vision of America's future," agonized over big decisions, was too concerned with detail and was just plain unlucky. But she liked him.
With Mr. Bush, she says, she had to learn "to defer to him in conversation and not to stint the praise." But after an initially rough period, she got onto a good footing with him. If flattering Mr. Bush and deferring to him were necessary to achieve that, she says, "I had no hesitation in eating a little humble pie." She calls him "one of the most decent, honest and patriotic Americans I have met," but implies he was lacking in basic political convictions.
She was not keen on Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, who offended her by regarding Germany as a more important nation than Britain. "We were not close as the admirable George Schultz [sic] and I had been," she writes. Despite her admiration for Mr. Shultz, she manages to misspell his name throughout the book.
Her account of the Falklands War provides one of her most
engrossing chapters, and while she is sparing in her criticism of Al Haig, the secretary of state at the time, she leaves little doubt that this was a man unsuited to the office he held.
Much of the book is ineffably boring. There are long, tedious passages dealing with meetings Mrs. Thatcher attended and trips she made abroad. Americans in particular may find themselves less than enthralled by her discussion of some of the more obscure aspects of British domestic policy. Much of this material, an anodyne reworking of official documents, apparently was written by members of her staff.
Those readers who plow through the dross to ferret out the nuggets of insight and observation contained in the book may wonder at the end whether the struggle has been worth it. The subject matter is the most important European political leader since Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, but far better portraits of the Thatcher years have come from pens other than her own.
Title: "The Downing Street Years"
Author: Margaret Thatcher
Length, price: 914 pages, $30